'Arbitrary' Facebook crackdown on Mumbai, Delhi theatre groups leaves leading practitioners banned on social media platform

Over the weekend, several members of the extended theatre community in Mumbai (and beyond) found themselves at the receiving end of an unexpected online reckoning.

Vikram Phukan June 30, 2020 16:49:16 IST
'Arbitrary' Facebook crackdown on Mumbai, Delhi theatre groups leaves leading practitioners banned on social media platform

Over the weekend, several members of the extended theatre community in Mumbai (and beyond) found themselves at the receiving end of an unexpected online reckoning.

The Mumbai Theatre Circuit, a Facebook group started by contemporary dastango Danish Husain and boasting over 20,500 members, saw the personal accounts of several of its ‘admins’ — many of them prominent theatre practitioners — banned over Saturday, 27 June, with no prior intimation from the social media platform. By Monday, 29 June, some of these accounts had been reinstated by Facebook, after Firstpost reached out to its Indian representatives.

Similarly, the Delhi Theatre Circuit Facebook group was also brought down. Actor Vivek Mansukhani, an admin of that group, wrote on Facebook, "I received a notification stating that due to 'fake and misleading posts' on the page, the account was going to be deactivated. Before I knew it my Facebook account also was inaccessible. I retrieved it in a couple of hours, but till then I had my heart in my mouth. It looks like the group has been deleted."

The Mumbai Theatre Circuit is a group in which members mostly shared listings of new shows, audition calls, press reviews and thought blurbs associated with the world of live performance. The content was not actively curated or censored, because it was purely functional information that the group aspired to be a ‘one stop’ platform for. So, being an admin mostly entailed approving these posts and admitting new members, and these benign duties were collectively shared by a pool of resources, many of whom were not particularly active in the group.

Apart from the founder Husain, some of the prominent names in this erstwhile roster included directors Sunil Shanbag, Quasar Thakore-Padamsee and Atul Kumar, actor Denzil Smith, playwright Purva Naresh and Jehan Manekshaw, who heads the Drama School Mumbai. These are all distinguished names, with Shanbag being a 2018 honouree of the coveted Sangeet Natak Akademi award for theatre direction, and Padamsee, Manekshaw and Naresh all being past recipients of the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar. Credentials aside, some of them said they were not aware of being ‘admins’ in the group (in existence for several years) till Facebook decided to terminate their private accounts en masse over the weekend.

On Saturday evening, some of the banned members reported receiving a fleeting notification on their ‘bell icon’ that a post in the Mumbai Theatre Circuit group had been flagged for review for violating Facebook’s community standard guidelines.

Before that message had even registered, they found themselves locked out of their accounts. Padamsee was in the middle of watching a live football match, while Naresh had just drafted a long post on Jayaraj and Fenix, the father-son duo whose custodial deaths in Thoothukudi have rocked the nation this past week. Some went ahead with instructions to upload identification documents so that their accounts could be verified.

On Sunday, Manekshaw posted a screenshot on his Instagram account of a message he had received. It read, “Reviewing your information may take longer than usual. We have fewer people available to review information due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. It may take longer than usual to review your account. We’re always looking out for the security of people on Facebook, so until then, you can’t use your account. Thank you for understanding (sic).” Naresh commented on the post, “I would have quit myself but I don't like this highhandedness of theirs.”

All of this highlighted the lack of transparency and draconian underpinnings in the manner in which Facebook acted — no description of the ‘offending post’, no attempt to let the so-called ‘violators’ defend themselves or even download their not inconsiderable personal information, and bot-like responses at every step. Facebook swooped in swiftly and absolutely, for "the killing of a theatre collective", as Manekshaw described it, displaying a rare decisiveness that it does not demonstrate when tackling its more high-profile hate-mongers.

A veteran in the trade for 45 years, Shanbag says, “In the times we are currently in, social media tends to be one of the most accurate day-to-day archives of our works and lives. While I understand the regulating of content, what is worrying is a system that doesn’t take into account the variables around an ‘incident’.” It’s likely that most (if not all) of the banned admins had nothing to do with the Facebook post and the reporting that highlighted it to the virtual powers-that-be.

“Leaving Facebook, as young people seem to be doing in droves, should be a matter of personal choice. When that choice is taken away, it makes us lose faith in the dream that Facebook was selling us,” says Padamsee, whose timeline, filled with his observations on theatre, has been a ‘Ready Reckoner’ of sorts for many. For Naresh, the incident has stirred a moment of deep introspection, “Suddenly something almost snapped inside of me. Not only because of the 13-years-worth of data that will get lost but because, during COVID-19, I have witnessed too much of this random authoritarian behaviour from almost everyone who has authority. By not notifying me or sending me an email before ousting me, Facebook has displayed the same randomness. It's ironic that my last post was going to be about just that: random draconian behaviour by authoritarian organisations in the times of COVID-19 and people being silenced.”

Towards Monday evening, the Facebook group page for Mumbai Theatre Circuit was back up, although its admins and moderators reflected only 21 names where previously there had been over 50. The Facebook accounts of Danish Husain, Imran Rasheed and others continued to remain suspended.

The experience of the admins of the Mumbai Theatre Circuit group is not a new one for Facebook users, who have had to contend with a phenomenon known as ‘Zuccening’, a reference to co-founder Mark Zuckerberg who is regarded as the fall guy for all the foibles of the social media platform. During the ‘The Great Zuccening of 2019’ (also dubbed the Groupocalypse), saboteurs infiltrated popular Facebook groups, and mass-reported purportedly contentious material in order to get the groups and their admins banned by Facebook’s automated content moderation systems, so inadequate otherwise in keeping actual provocateurs at bay. The ensuing public outrage extracted some public avowals from the social media company, but also triggered mass panic, with thousands of Facebook groups changing their settings to private, in an attempt to escape the tentacles of Facebook’s built-in algorithmic culture police.

“We want Facebook to be a place where people can express themselves and have a voice," a spokesperson for the social media platform told Firstpost. "We’re committed to safeguarding the integrity of our platform and we take action against content that violates our Community Standards. In this case, the group was blocked for posting content that violated our policies against Dangerous Individuals and Organisations. After further review, we removed the violating content and reinstated the user accounts.”

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