Instagram apologises as it lifts block on Sikh hashtag

By Tim Wyatt

British Sikh groups have reacted with anger after it emerged the #Sikh hashtag had been blocked on Instagram and Facebook for months.

The situation came to light earlier this week when several users of the social networks noted they were unable to post anything which included the #Sikh hashtag.

When some people searched for the #Sikh hashtag they instead were shown an error message that said “Posts for this hashtag are temporarily hidden because of unusual activity that may not meet Instagram’s Community Guidelines”.

This followed the revelation the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag had been mistakenly blocked by misfiring anti-spam software which incorrectly thought the huge surge in posts bearing the hashtag after the death of George Floyd was the result of bots.

In a statement on Thursday, Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, said someone had reported the #Sikh hashtag to them on 7 March and the moderation team had mistakenly added the term to its banned list.

Despite this mistake, Instagram said nobody noticed that the name of the world’s fifth-largest organised religion was being barred for almost three months.

“We became aware that these hashtags were blocked today following feedback we received from the community, and quickly moved to unblock them,” the company’s official Twitter account added.

“Our processes fell down here, and we are sorry. This is an incredibly important, painful time for the Sikh community.  We designed hashtags to allow people to come together and share with one another. It is never our intention to silence the voices of this community. We are taking the necessary steps so this does not happen again.”

Sikh groups, including some in the UK, have condemned the blocking of the #Sikh hashtag as censorship and especially concerning given it emerged during the anniversary of an Indian military raid on Sikhism’s holiest site in Amritsar in June 1984, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds.

Bhai Amrik Singh, who chairs the Sikh Federation (UK), said: “For 36 years attempts have been made to silence the voice of the Sikh community though bloodshed, violence and censorship.

“The age of the internet has allowed hope for the truth to be aired, so for social media giants like Instagram and Facebook, who claim to be and should be the bastions of freedom of speech, to block #Sikh and other Black Lives Matter hashtags is unacceptable and blatant censorship of the truth and feeling of oppressed minorities.”

Instagram and Facebook must hold a “full and transparent investigation” into how the #Sikh hashtag came to be barred for the social media network’s users trust to be restored, he added.

The Sikh Press Association has also accused the social media giants of censorship. “In the same week that #Neverforget1984 trends on Twitter, Instagram seemingly conspires to suppress the truth about the atrocities of the 1984 Sikh genocide by censoring the faith of 27 million people,” the organisation tweeted.

In a later statement the Sikh PA said it would be demanding meetings with the social media executives “to outline the bigger issue of Sikh censorship, and not just allow these companies to apologise with a generic statement”.

Censorship has been a flashpoint around the Amritsar Golden Temple incident in 1984. In the build-up to the attack on militants who had taken refuge in the shrine, the Indian authorities imposed a media blackout on the entire Punjab region, forcibly removing journalists from the town before launching their assault.

The sole correspondent who managed to stay and report first-hand on the massacre for the Associated Press was later charged with sedition and inciting sectarian hatred.

Sikhs in India, the birthplace of the faith, have been among those religious minorities to feel the brunt of growing Hindu nationalist sentiment in recent years, which has at times been encouraged by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.