In an era where international travel for purposes of journalism, research and documentation of history is often not feasible for reasons of health, security and finance, we often find ourselves dependent on social media applications such as Facebook, Telegram and WhatsApp for these work purposes. For instance, I myself have found WhatsApp useful for conducting interviews since I started using the application in the 2015-2016 period, especially as an alternative to conventional phone calls where the phone signals may be weak and it may be difficult to hear the other speaker. The other advantage is that the application comes with no hefty phone bills for international calls. In the context of fieldwork, the application can be a useful means of first acquaintance before arranging an in-person meeting or interview.
The application is further helpful in the form of 'WhatsApp groups' for tracking content that might be difficult to locate elsewhere and finding other potentially useful contacts in those groups. Of various applications I use in relation to my work in research/historical documentation, I would say that the three most important (in no particular order) are WhatsApp, Facebook and Telegram.
It was therefore with great dismay that I discovered in September this year that my WhatsApp account had been banned. The most likely reason for this was that I had been monitoring some groups on WhatsApp that put out jihadist content as part of my wider historical and current research, and so the application decided to ban collectively all the accounts in a certain group.
On this occasion, I find the reason to be understandable. Others working on jihadist groups and similarly monitored such output on WhatsApp also had their accounts banned at some point. We have seen similar bans occur on Telegram. Social media applications based on registering phone numbers cannot be expected to know from the outset who is behind each phone number. I also agree with the approach of banning accounts of people who use these platforms to create fake undercover personas, in particular those who use such personas to promote content violating the terms of services and gather information under these personas. I should make clear I do not use applications in these ways and do not support doing so.
The first time I was banned from WhatsApp, I raised the matter with some people who work in the counter-terrorism realm for Facebook (which owns WhatsApp). Some nine days later, my account was restored. I then continued to use WhatsApp as I had before. Then, on 2 December, I discovered that I had been banned again. I filed two appeals via WhatsApp support contact, and raised the issue with some people working in counter-terrorism on Facebook. As of the time of writing, I have had no clear response as to why my account was banned, nor has it been made clear whether my account will be restored. If my account is not restored, this means the loss of more than three years of data. Though I had been constantly backing up these data, they cannot be accessed if my account is banned, and they will be deleted if my account is deleted.
The second ban raises some important questions. Why can WhatsApp accounts used for legitimate work purposes and by legitimate means not be 'marked' by the review teams after the first time ban to ensure that the same mistake is not repeated? Are the data on such accounts not archived and shared for such purposes? Are algorithms solely being used to flag accounts? What human input is there in review of these accounts? The experience seems to be different from Telegram, which has shown itself to be understanding of those using the application for similar research and documentation purposes and has restored those accounts and prevented them from being banned again.
Unfortunately, these recent experiences I have had with WhatsApp remind me of the problems I have faced from the counter-terrorism police in the UK. A year ago, I ended up being detained at an airport for six hours by UK counter-terrorism police. At that time, I was going to take a flight crossing U.S. airspace and it is likely that the police's American counterparts, who may have been responsible for revoking my ESTA five years ago, referred a report about me suggesting I might be involved in terrorism, not based on anything substantive but simply a broad flagging based on a signal or algorithm (had it been something specific, a focused line of questioning would have taken place during the detention). Following that detention my phone, computer and some doctoral research materials were confiscated for ten days for further examination. My fingerprints and DNA were also taken during the detention.
One might think that the information about me from that detention would be shared with counter-terrorism police in other parts of the UK. It would seem that this is not the case. In August of this year, the counter-terrorism police in the local part of the UK where I have been studying and working questioned me on the basis of a concern that I may have 'accessed and disseminated extremist media.' The obvious response to this is that I have indeed accessed and disseminated such materials for at least the past seven years by virtue of publishing translations and analyses of them on my website and elsewhere, as would become instantly evident to anyone who bothered to look at my site and the Internet. But it would seem that the counter-terrorism police here did no proper background check before questioning me beyond a Google search in which they found my e-mail address on my website, nor (apparently) were they aware of my previous detention.
So, in case it is not obvious, I will state: I research and write on a variety of topics, including jihadism, Syria, Iraq and different languages and historical periods (e.g. here on the reign of the Roman emperor Augustus and here on 1930s Austria). That includes the documentation of discourse and material of jihadists and the discourse of those who take differing and opposite standpoints, such as medieval Iberian Christian writers who considered Islam to be evil and the Prophet Muhammad to be the Antichrist precursor. Any overview of my writings will provide ample confirmation of this. As far as my purpose is concerned, I consider it to be documenting and analysing history for its own sake. I do not believe that what I write has the slightest impact on 'policy' or world events, for I am not so conceited as to think that I matter in the grand scheme of things. The sole kleos I have is in the form of writings to be left to be examined and discussed by future generations. We all end up as footnotes.
If, however, I could offer advice to both social media companies and governments in general: perhaps it is time to reconsider the reliance on broad electronic nets, signals and algorithms as a means to catch supposed terrorists and to invest more in human evaluation by content specialists with the appropriate research backgrounds? It has also become a cliché to say that there needs to be more cooperation across governments and institutions in sharing information and keeping records of it. It would seem that there is much shortcoming in realising this ideal.
Update (18 December 2020): My WhatsApp account has now been restored.