Uighur Muslim Genocide: Is social media taking over mainstream news?

What is happening to Muslims in China?

Uighur Muslims in China have been detained in so-called ‘re-education camps’ or “vocational training camps” that promote Chinese culture, torturing and restricting freedom of religious practice to Muslims. According to a UN human rights report in 2018, approximately one million Uighurs have been detained without any legal process and the use of surveillance technologies such as face recognition cameras, policing and DNA sampling has been used to track citizens in Xinjiang invading their freedom. This also violates their fundamental rights; China’s constitution and international human rights law, Article 37 states that,

All arrests must be approved by either the procuratorate (the prosecution agency) or the courts”. There is proof that Muslims are being held against their own will and are even separated from their families. The children of these Muslims have been forced to live in “kindergartens” in which they have stripped away their Muslim identity and immersed into Chinese culture.

The constant surveillance of Uighur Muslims is part of their everyday lives, with cameras at every corner there is no way for a Uighur Muslim to live freely. This YouTube video by Vice News explains why some former detainees got taken into the camps.

Something as harmless as learning Arabic, studying the Quran, or opening a Uighur language school could get you taken in. They are also being forced to take unknown drugs that cause fainting, bleeding, and infertility forcing women who are pregnant to have abortions. This crisis is a genocide. According to the UN, in addition to murder,

“Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”

b. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

c. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

d. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

e. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

This could be the largest mass incarceration since the holocaust, yet it is still not being reported enough causing people to turn to social media taking matters into their own hands.

Is Humanitarian Journalism Declining?

According to a survey of 1500 people by Scott (2018),

“73 percent agreed that mainstream news media does not produce enough coverage of humanitarian issues”

It was criticised for being “selective, sporadic, simplistic and partial.”. Now there is many reasons for the underrepresentation of humanitarian crisis however one which stands out is the lack of funds that news organisations receive to report in areas of crisis. It is in fact extremely expensive to pay for journalists to travel and research to explain humanitarian crises’ that are occurring. Most international news that covers humanitarian crises mostly rely on support from states or private foundations which cause them to struggle financially. Humanosphere, a private humanitarian news organisation that closed down, proves how abruptly a news organisation can lose funding. From 2010 to 2017 they reported daily health, aid, and development issues and was one of the few organisations that did this consistently on humanitarian news. An article in 2017 states that Humanosphere’s halt in journalism is important because it represents,

“a further narrowing of the already limited range of sources of information about humanitarian issues- at a time when it’s needed most.”

Alternatively, donor funding is one of the only ways these organisations can stay alive as there is no other way to gain enough money in order for them to survive. Some mainstream organisations that have survived are often criticised for avoiding and under-reporting humanitarian crisis. Care International found that one-third of people in need of aid in 2017 got only 2.5% of media coverage. Although the Uighur Muslim crisis is presented on mainstream news, the amount of coverage is most definitely lacking urging the public to take matters into their own hands in the new digital age of social media.

Smartphone with social media apps. Photo from Pexels.com

Could the lack of mainstream coverage in Muslim countries be due to ties with the Chinese Government?

Many Muslim countries are being criticised for ignoring the humanitarian abuses happening to people of their own religion. Saudi Arabia the home of two holy Islamic places of worship has supported “China’s rights to take counter-terrorism and de-extremism” measures. But what is not clear is why they would support something so cruel to people of their own religion. Money of course.

There are many claims that the reason for many countries’ silence is due to economic ties with China. This information is presented in an Instagram post by @freeuyghurnow titled “Why do Muslim countries stay silent on the Uighur Genocide?” with over 6000 likes. It claims that China is an economic partner to many Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, and UAE. Some are in debt owing China huge amounts of money through an infrastructure program “Belt and Road Initiative” worth more than 1 trillion dollars of energy plants, railways, ports, etc. It is very clear that China is important economically to many Muslim countries and people have taken to social media to explain this encouraging the public to make links with their disregard to the concentration camps.

According to the UN, a statement was released showing that 37 countries stood with China on the Uighur genocide, with up to half on this list being Muslim countries. On the contrary, the UK condemned China’s actions to the UN. As the UK’s ties with China worsen after Brexit and banning the phone service Hawei, the BBC publishes evidence that Uighur Muslims are taking part in hard-manual labour picking cotton against their will. The BBC publishing this information suggests that economic privileges are what keep some countries supporting the Chinese government’s atrocious actions. Economic power is keeping countries under China’s wing.

People are using Social media to expose countries making them realise the only way that awareness can be raised is through the people of social media. Information that has not been prominent enough on mainstream news now has a new platform for people to share, like and comment. The fact that many countries rely on China’s wealth is not something that is screamed down news channels so having the benefit of social media will not only educate but also raise awareness on issues we did not know were there.

Is Citizen Journalism taking over?

Citizen journalism is defined as

“An activity in which ordinary citizens generate non-professional content on breaking news or other news.”

With the increasing amounts of people using social media, there is no doubt that the issue has been spread on platforms like Twitter and Instagram through the process of liking and sharing posts by ordinary citizens. A collective sense of ideology has been formed due to similar moral values leading to collective citizen journalism. According to Pew Research Center, 67% of Americans get news from social media which shows the extent to how much social media is a part of people’s lives in today’s society. Especially younger people. Since 2018 people between the ages of 18 and 24 are increasingly using Instagram as a source of news and is thought likely to overtake Twitter after usage doubled as found in a report by Oxford University. People nowadays are being educated through social networks giving the facts and figures that news organisations would or maybe even more. This can be seen through hashtags concerning the topic. For example the “#uighurmuslims” hashtag on Instagram with over 15,600 posts all promoting awareness of the atrocities happening to Muslims.

Also, Artwork on Instagram has been an effective way to raise awareness of which pieces of work have become artistic symbols of the crisis. For example, the viral painting of a Uighur woman in a headscarf and a hand covering her mouth signifying their silence has become a worldwide image of awareness.

Tweet of art of woman with hands covered.

People have urged their followers to re-share the post via social media to further spread the urgency of the situation. Furthermore, many other artists have stepped out to support the cause. Other than social media being another platform for artists to display their hard work and talents, it has also transformed their art into a form of news. @mesmeraki, a British artist who creates art to spread awareness on unheard topics has over 9000 followers. She created the painting shown below displaying a Muslim woman locked up behind barbed wire. This kind of image is bound to create outrage from the public and has shown. With over 330 likes it is clear the visual imagery has hit close to heart for some followers.

Artwork by mesmeraki of Muslim woman behind barbed wire.
Screenshot from account of @mesmeraki

In the book “Myth of Digital Democracy” there are claims that,

“Technology will amplify the political voice of ordinary citizens.”

And that there has been an “internet fuelled democratisation” in which the internet makes it possible for online activities and online speech to expand the political voice. The public is finally given a voice and are able to be heard by news media institutions as well as their peers.

This has led to more citizen journalists to take investigations into their own hands. For example, an article by The Atlantic shows how citizen journalists, Timothy Grose and Adrian Zenz have tried to gain as much evidence from the Chinese government before they are erased. Photographic images of the camps were found that clearly showed a gate of a building saying “re-education centre” as well as posts from the Chinese government on the construction bids of the camp buildings.

Tweet by Citizen journalist Timothy Grose.

It was found from the bids that, facilities should include “high walls, watchtowers, barbed wire, surveillance systems and facilities for armed police forces”. Knowing that this evidence has not come from conglomerate news institutions or a news institution at all makes us realise that citizens can do their own research and gain information that news organisations would get. As Hindman (2008) suggests, the internet can make monitoring more effective, and it,

“Allows citizens themselves to play a part of the role traditionally reserved for the press.”.

There are also social media accounts that are specifically made to notify people on the Uighur Muslim crisis. For example, an Instagram page @saveuighurusa posts regularly updating people on the news that concerns the treatment of Uighur Muslims as well as exposing brands that supposedly use Uighurs to make their supplies in forced hard labour. Although it is not a news organisation it definitely seems like a more effective way to inform audiences because of the lack of rules and regulations that mainstream news organisations would have to display this content.

Is the Chinese government restricting news content on social media?

Due to the Chinese government’s constant attempts to erase any information of these camps, social media users are finding more discreet ways to get the news out in the open. For example, TikTok user Feroza Aziz who posted a video that reached over 5 million views concerning a “Muslim genocide”. She began her video pretending to teach people how to get longer lashes and then diverts the attention to the Uighur Genocide 10 seconds into the video. She claims that this was done in order for her video not to be erased by the Chinese-owned company TikTok. Aziz was later suspended from posting further content on TikTok and the video was deleted by the company.

Goode (2009) states that this citizen journalism creates “new possibilities for citizen participation at various points along those chains of sense-making that shape news — not only new possibilities for citizens to ‘break’ news”. This supports why the popularity of this viral tweet that shook the news world made many organisations speak about the issue. It shaped collective opinions in articles asking the same thing; why was she suspended? The number of news organisations that reported this and the attention it was getting on social media led to TikTok apologising to her claiming it was a “human moderation error”.

Viral TikTok video of Feroza Aziz reposted on Twitter.

Overall, It has become increasingly hard for journalists to report directly from Xinjiang due to extreme security levels as shown in “China’s vanishing Muslims” by VICE where the journalist had to disguise herself as a tourist in order to get the footage that was needed. Even still, was under constant surveillance by the police being made to delete some footage.

It seems as though the Chinese government is doing the best it can to hide any evidence or claims which leaves it to citizen journalists to speak out on social media. Countries are silenced due to the economical constraints they will face if they take action which makes social media our only hope. It is undoubtedly the prime platform that has revolutionised the political voice allowing people all around the world to let this issue be seen and heard. The power of the people is now stronger than ever in this day and age. Now all that is needed is a drive to change which some countries are now taking. Take America for example, the first country to ban cotton from Xinjiang as well as the first and only country to label the crisis a genocide. It is likely these decisions have been led by the outcry from social media channels by citizen journalists.

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