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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Wednesday was national awareness day for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

“One woman, JB, explained it perfectly, that yesterday was like a Memorial for so many families in our communities,” said Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel, a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe on Thursday. She is the director of Rising Heart, a grassroots organization promoting the elevation of Indigenous voices.

Families, friends, supporters and advocates posted illustrations and messages of consolation and hope for change, and the photos and stories of the loved ones who had gone missing or were murdered. Social media was swarmed with people wearing red with a hand painted over their mouth, the symbol of the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls movement.

But Thursday morning, that changed.

Much of it was erased.

Hundreds of people began sharing messages that all or much of that was gone from Instagram’s stories feature. Huge portions of their posts related to the movement had disappeared, not just current or recent posts but also archived materials. They lost more on Instagram and some on Facebook.

It’s unclear what happened on Instagram. The popular tech company told an inquiring Native journalist the disappearances had nothing to do with any one country or a specific topic, but instead were due to a “widespread global technical issue.” 

Many replied to the tweet saying the problem still had not been resolved; their accounts were still closed or had not been fully restored.

Instagram announced the problem had been solved, and apologized by Thursday evening. "We're sorry to all impacted, especially those raising awareness for important causes globally." 

Earlier, on Thursday morning Daniel said she was alerted to the problem by messages.

“I have over 412 comments on that. And the post that I made saying ‘just check, my stories on all of this stuff is removed’, I have nearly 6,000 likes,” Daniel said.

“But this is so common,” she said. “And then our relatives down in Colombia who are experiencing this violence and protests that are happening right now have all experienced the same thing.”

Pictured: Navajo leaders join FBI officials to recognize “Navajo Nation Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples
Awareness Day” at Navajo Veterans Memorial Park in Window Rock, Arizona on May 5, 2021.

“This is erasure and the further genocide of our people, and the continuance of lack of visibility of Indigenous peoples, especially for such an important day to give visibility for those who have no voice and for the many voices of the families and the advocates being able to help raise awareness about this epidemic and issue,” Daniel said. “So it was really heartbreaking, disheartening, disheartening to see this.”

The disappearances were likely not due to a technical error, said Pascua Yaqui citizen Marisa Elena Duarte, PhD, who is an assistant professor of justice and sociotechnical change at Arizona State University. Her work focuses on digital technologies in Indigenous communities.

She explained via email that artificial intelligence may have helped carry it out, but the decision to erase the materials was made by people.

“Usually when users complain, that is when the human content moderators step in, and make their decision,” Duarte wrote.

She said the human content moderators “are underpaid and receive inadequate mental and emotional health counseling for the nature of violent and repugnant content that they must view per day. They are not necessarily required to have an education in intellectual freedom, free speech, hate speech, structural racism, history of censorship, role of journalism, civil liberties ,or other topics that relate to decisions about what constitutes hate speech, obscenity, free speech, or even harmful disinformation.

“The individuals who work these companies suffer high rates of depression and anxiety as a result of the job, and some demonstrate poor life decision-making due to their overexposure to traumatizing content.”

Duarte said Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok are not media companies, and not governmental agencies. They’re tech companies, and their power has reach beyond any government.

This week, Facebook upheld Donald Trump's ban, but its board left open the possibility the former president can return in the future.

“...right now, Facebook is somewhat avoiding social responsibility for taking a stand against hate speech, racism, violent content, user privacy rights, informed user consent around accuracy in political campaign messaging, and other matters relating to this country’s most pressing contemporary debates," Duarte said.

She was sad but not surprised to hear of the removal of MMIWG information.

“The topics associated with MMIWG relate to many of these fundamental debates, especially misogyny against Native and Indigenous women, toxic masculinity, anti-Indian sentiment, efforts to erode sovereignty, and corporate rights and environmental destruction,” she said.

As for remedies, Duarte said “users who have received content moderation notices should appeal their cases with the social media platforms in question.” Plus keep documentation of the appeals.

“It is entirely possible in the future that the tech platforms will change their approach to content moderation,” she said.

“In the meantime, it will be up to those individuals and groups who rely on social media campaigns for MMIWG awareness to persist in their advocacy work across multiple media,” Duarte said. “It is very important for advocates and allies not to give in to the sensations of paranoia and surveillance, as we must persist beyond the ‘chilling effect’ that occurs after an incidence of having one’s account blocked or suspended.”

This Friday, Aug. 23, 2019, file photo shows the Instagram app icon on the screen of a mobile device in New York. Facebook says it’s going to test out, again, an option for users to hide those “like” counts to see if it can reduce the pressure of being on social media. Instagram, which Facebook owns, will soon allow a small group of random users to decide whether or not they want to see the number of likes their posts and those of others receive. While at first this option will only be on Instagram, the social media giant says it's also exploring the feature for Facebook. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)

Sarah Rose Harper, Cherokee descendent, is the media director at the Greater Cincinnati Native American coalition.

She said, “All of these platforms are designed to keep people using, very much like drugs and people do actually get dopamine hits using these platforms, which is why they're addictive. So it is [the company's] job to make people feel either scarcity that they need to keep coming back for more or happy, and they're designed to keep users using so that they can continue to take advertiser's dollars. And that's how they're funded,” Harper said.

The tech companies “have an imperative to be generally okay for the most people," she said.

They’re serving a worldwide market and MMIWG fits a niche market, Harper said. “We're just falling outside of that bell curve.”

Changing the racist attitudes that make it an uncomfortable topic will take a major overhaul of society. “Ultimately it's going to be every company, every nonprofit, every for-profit, every governmental entity is going to have to confront the realities of embedded racism inside of their structures going forward,” she said.

“So if you have people who are promoting their worldview as a de facto, like as a base standard, but that worldview is happening within the context of colonization, you are going to replicate racism. You're going to replicate patriarchy. You're going to replicate dysfunctional elements. Because whatever happens in our life is just amplified through algorithms on social platforms. It's a beast of our own making, and there needs to be an element in place to humanize, or at least de-colonize and Indigenize specifically these social platforms,” Harper said.

“Indigenizing” social media could happen, she said, through meaningful cooperation, co-creation and collaboration. Not just consultation. From her work, Harper sees that Instagram suppresses certain elements that tend to be Black, Brown and Indigenous elements.

“Social media isn’t real,” Harper said. “Like none of it really is real, like it's super useful when there's an action happening in breaking news and like being able to communicate, but it isn't a substitution for real life movement, work, action, work and relationships.”

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UPDATE: This story was updated to include new information from Instagram.