Blamed on a technical glitch, posts about missing and murdered indigenous people were deleted in early May
* May 5 was Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day
* More than 1,400 indigenous missing persons U.S. cases in 2020
* Indigenous leaders are calling on Instagram for a public apology
By Kristi Eaton
TULSA, Oklahoma, May 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Leading up to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day on May 5, Sutton King and her team at the Urban Indigenous Collective took to Instagram to spread the word about their missing persons project.
The New York-based group had created a series of Instagram posts to publicise a database they were launching to document indigenous people in the tri-state area who had disappeared or been killed, said King, the group's executive director.
But on May 6, she woke up to find some of the organization's Instagram Stories - which should stay up for 24 hours - and permanent posts had disappeared. Then, other indigenous people and groups started reporting their posts had also been deleted.
The next day, Instagram blamed a glitch in an automated system update for deleting some Stories and posts that had been reshared and were related to missing and murdered indigenous persons (MMIPs). The posts were later restored.
But indigenous activists say it was yet another instance of indigenous communities being silenced by the social media companies they rely on to raise awareness about their issues.
"It was devastating to get on social media the next day and see (the posts) had been taken down," King told the Thomson Reuters Foundation over the phone. "This is contributing to the erasure we are systematically trying to fight right now."
Posts on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites mentioning MMIPs were not affected.
King, a descendant of the Menominee and Oneida Nations of Wisconsin, said the deletion of the posts took away the chance for people to connect with resources they otherwise would not have known about.
"The trust with Instagram is definitely broken there," she said.
Instagram sent the Thomson Reuters Foundation a link to a statement it had posted on Twitter on May 8, apologizing to anyone who had been affected by the technical hiccup.
The glitch, Instagram said, first began appearing on May 5 around posts mentioning anti-government protests in Colombia.
The next day, the company started hearing about deleted Stories connected to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day.
"We started getting more reports that this was not impacting all posts, which led people to believe we were actioning content related to this topic," the statement said.
A few hours later, Instagram learned posts about the possible eviction of Palestinians from East Jerusalem were also disappearing.
Instagram said tens of millions of Stories were affected, mostly in the United States and Brazil, as well as Canada.
Data rights groups said they feared "discriminatory" algorithms were at work and called for greater transparency from social media companies.
"We are so sorry this happened," Instagram said in its statement.
"Especially to those in Colombia, East Jerusalem, and indigenous communities who felt this was an intentional suppression of their voices and stories - that was not our intent whatsoever."
Jordan Daniel, the executive director and founder of Rising Hearts, a California-based advocacy group which raises awareness around missing and murdered indigenous people, had spent about 20 hours a week since January organizing a virtual run and various panels to raise funds on MMIP Awareness Day.
"All of the work went into this one big day," she said.
On the morning of May 6, she discovered the majority of her Instagram Stories had been deleted, many of which she said had the hashtag #MMIW, for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, and #MMIR for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives.
"I immediately felt so heartbroken for the families and the advocates and all the hard work that went into this day, to have it completely erased," said Daniel, who is Lakota.
"All I kept thinking was not only are the families continuously feeling let down by the outside systems at play, but here they are again being let down by these tech companies who are silencing (them) for being a voice for their loved one."
Last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Crime Information Center reported there were more than 1,400 unresolved Native American and Alaska Native missing person cases in the United States.
Violence against indigenous people remains extremely high.
A 2016 National Institute of Justice report found that more than four in five Native American and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime - a rate 1.2 times higher than white women.
Authorities say community outreach, and media and public communications are key to addressing the issue.
IllumiNative, a racial and social justice organization based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, also saw some of its Instagram Stories and reshares of posts on MMIPs disappear on May 6, said founder and executive director Crystal Echo Hawk, who is Pawnee.
Social media - and Instagram in particular - is vital for indigenous communities to be able to organize and increase the visibility of indigenous issues, she said in emailed comments.
As an example, she pointed to the ultimately unsuccessful protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in 2016, when thousands of people used social media sites to show their support for the demonstrators.
"Native women, girls, and two-spirit relatives are being taken or murdered at an alarming rate," Echo Hawk added, using an umbrella term for indigenous people in North America who identify with both masculinity and femininity.
"But while the Native community knows this, the issue has long been invisible in mainstream media."
Echo Hawk said indigenous representatives have asked for a more specific apology from Instagram, which advocates hope will be posted on the platform and other platforms so that it can be seen by the communities who were affected.
"Companies need to think about how they can partner with indigenous groups to raise global visibility around issues," she said.
"Many companies spend millions of dollars on advertising and entertainment. They must also be partnering with social justice groups to help shape society in a positive way."
(Reporting by Kristi Eaton; Editing by Jumana Farouky and Rina Chandran. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.