On June 16, members of the Almaty-based human rights group Nagys Atajurt Eriktileri (Kazakh for “Volunteers of the Fatherland”) tried to log onto their YouTube channel only to find this message from Google: “Your access to this Google product has been suspended because of a perceived violation.”
The suspension of Atajurt’s channel is more than just a social media hiccup, but could mean the loss of an invaluable grassroots archive of more than 3,000 interviews that shed light on the human rights atrocities taking place in Xinjiang, China. Experts estimate that since 2017, more than 1 million Turkic minorities have been detained and subjected to physical and psychological torture in the name of political reeducation. Atajurt’s YouTube channel featured interviews with detainees and their family members, and the videos functioned both as a catalog of human rights violations and a paper trail of appeals made to authorities in Kazakhstan as well as representatives of international organizations and media outlets in the West.
Serikzhan Bilash, the founder of Nagys Atajurt Eriktileri, told The Diplomat in a WhatsApp message that Atajurt received no explanation for why the channel was taken down, but suspects that the decision was made with some pressure from the Chinese government. This would fit into a broader state-coordinated campaign to discredit survivors and whitewash the detention camps as an anti-terror initiative or an opportunity to give disadvantaged minorities a leg-up with technical skills training. Others guessed it might have to do with privacy concerns, given that testifiers show their ID cards and addresses.
Most of the videos are backed up, but the files are saved on multiple devices which themselves are scattered across Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. There are several reasons for this, including a split in the organization that happened in September 2019, frequent moves to new offices due to government pressure, and the seizure of equipment by local authorities. Bilash (whose passport lists his name, incorrectly, as Biyash) told The Diplomat that National Security officers had refused to relinquish tech seized from Atajurt’s office – including cell phones, several computers, lighting equipment, and printers – despite a local court order to return the equipment.
Given the challenges of maintaining an analog collection of records, Atajurt’s YouTube channel was essentially a cloud-based archive. YouTube has been the keystone of Atajurt’s work, perhaps surprisingly given that Instagram is the most popular tool for digital activism in Kazakhstan. YouTube’s technological architecture offers Atajurt several advantages over Instagram: Instagram limits videos to 60 seconds, far shorter than Atajurt’s shortest petition videos, and it is difficult to upload videos to Instagram from a desktop computer.
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Atajurt’s channel had been quite popular, with some videos having more than 500,000 views. The group’s insistence on documenting the detention and torture of ethnic Kazakhs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang rubbed against state narratives in China and Kazakhstan. Kazakhstani authorities attempted to undermine Atajurt’s activities by fining the group for working without formal NGO registration and by putting Atajurt’s leader, Bilash, under house arrest in March 2019.
Despite the pressure, Atajurt doubled down on its social media strategy and organized a global hashtag campaign to draw attention to Bilash’s arrest (and so also to the Xinjiang camps). Following this campaign, which amassed several thousand tags on Instagram and saw more than a thousand video submissions uploaded to YouTube, authorities eventually freed Bilash under the condition that he would not engage in political activism for a period of seven years.
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There was no coordinated hashtag campaign in defense of Atajurt’s YouTube channel, but a handful of viral tweets and numerous emails sent to Google and YouTube appear to have alerted the company to the problem. On June 18, some 48 hours after losing access to the archive, YouTube restored Atajurt’s channel – again, with no explanation to Atajurt about what happened.
This is good news, of course, but this episode of censorship reveals the Catch-22 that human rights advocates face in relying on tech giants for organizing social movements.
Indeed, this is not the first time YouTube has censored material the Chinese government deemed threatening. In 2020, users complained that YouTube was deleting comments that criticized the Chinese Communist Party. Other social media platforms have also restricted content on China; on June 4 of this year, Facebook suspended the livestream of a human rights group’s commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre on the grounds that the video “goes against our community standards on spam.” YouTube blamed the deleted comments on a bug; Facebook blamed its algorithm. Algorithms are anything but apolitical, and this pattern suggests that China’s internet censorship is no longer limited to its own territory.
While social media and the internet have played a role in social movements for several decades, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed activists and human rights defenders to do even more of their organizing online. Atajurt’s suspension from YouTube may have lasted only a few days, but it is an important reminder of the risks baked in to civil society’s dependence on the tech giants.