Islamophobic Disinformation in India

Muhammed Sabith, Research Associate, EIF

Islamophobia is rampant in India, thanks to a number of factors, particularly the rise of Muslim-hating Hindutva forces into power under the prime minister Narendra Modi in 2014, and their re-election in 2019.

As a result, the Indian Muslims face online abusesdiscriminationphysical harassments, and fatal mob attacks.

In an article published in Human Rights Watch, a leading global advocacy group on human rights, Jayshree Bajoria wrote that the recent vilification of Indian Muslim for the spread of COVID-19 has simply highlighted what Muslims have been facing in India since Modi’s BJP government was first elected in 2014.

In the past years, hate crimes targeting Muslims have increased significantly.

Renowned social activist Harsh Mander wrote that after his “22 journeys” with a group of other activists since September 2017, he found “a wave of these crimes had erupted in many corners of the country”. He wrote this after visiting families of the victims of lynching and other hate crimes, spread across 12 states.

However, unlike many other countries, in India, no official data is available for the public to understand the depth of the issue. Additionally, the police and other law-enforcement agencies fail to invoke important and relevant penal provisions in such cases.

There are widespread prejudices, misunderstandings and bias prevailing in the country about Muslims, their lifestyles, their religion and their organisations.

Disinformation and hate crimes targeting Muslims have been perpetrated in the name of cow protection, ‘love jihad’, spreading COVID-19 and even for not offering a seat in train. However, Indian mainstream media coverage on these disinformation and hate crimes has not been adequate enough to create a strong public opinion in favour of the victims.

Role of Disinformation

Even though there are several factors that facilitate these anti-Muslim violent incidents in India, what stands unique is the role of misinformation, more precisely disinformation, in most of those incidents.

Shakuntala Banaji and Ram Bhat, two researchers from London School of Economics (LSE), explains how ‘disinformation’ is different from ‘misinformation’: “… while misinformation can be information that is simply inaccurate, disinformation is usually linked to powerful, covert political actors operating either autonomously, or as part of the state and through proxies, to produce and share systematically distorted information in order to gain results that will favour their political goals,” they wrote.

Fact-check website Alt News recently analysed more than 20 anti-Muslim, fake news stories that went viral in recent past. The analysis, which was also republished by some other independent news organisations, pointed out that these ‘viral’ stories were a result of “systematic, synchronised and organised attempt” to target Muslim and Christian communities. According to the analysis, these fake reports were made to make Hindus both “fear and hate” Muslims.

In India, Islamophobic disinformation is also being promoted by the government – through either its actions or inaction. For example, an investigation by ‘Article 14’, revealed how the government actions, or lack of appropriate actions, fuelled hate and crime against Muslims during the pandemic.

A recent study, carried out by Equality Labs, a South Asian Dalit-progressive organisation, found that “hate speech and disinformation targeting Muslims runs rampant across Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms”.

Another study, done by Shakuntala Banaji and Ram Bhat of the LSE, gives us shocking details on the spread of deliberately-produced fake messages in India through social media platforms, and how such messages are connected with various anti-Muslim attacks.

They claimed that the spike in anti-Muslim disinformation has little to do with ignorance or digital illiteracy.

Their survey found that the spread of fake news in India, which resulted in mob lynching and other form of violence, was largely done out of reasons of “prejudice and ideology”, rather than “ignorance or digital illiteracy”.

“Our research into hate speech and misinformation on WhatsApp suggests that upper and middle caste Hindu social media groups with an investment in the ideology of Hindu supremacy knowingly produce and share disinformation targeted against Muslims,” they said. “The naïve notion that reporting or uncovering the ‘truth’ and the ‘facts’ will mitigate violence and undermine prejudice needs to be banished”.

The researchers further argued that the increase in disinformation and hate speech in India runs as “a well-oiled machine”.

“The BJP, RSS and Sangh Parivar campaign of producing hate and inciting violence against Muslims in India runs as a well-oiled machine that has internal complexity and leaves the ruling party with plenty of scope for plausible deniability,” they wrote.

The research further discussed the role of “notorious journalists and anchors” and Hindutva “IT-cells” in manufacturing and circulating “violent disinformation” against Indian Muslims. They found that both mainstream and social media play important roles in spreading anti-Muslim disinformation.

“Dispersed IT-cells and supporters of Hindutva groups and the ruling party on WhatsApp and other social media flood their various groups and online spaces with a parallel set of misinformation and disinformation-laden memes, questions, images, GIFs and speeches from politicians,” they wrote.

As the researchers point out, disinformation around Muslims is being propagated in “different, vicious Islamophobic imaginaries”, such as ‘a health and hygiene problem’, ‘a threat to national security’, or ‘a danger to other communities through affluence and population growth’.

In a recent article, senior journalist Shivam Vij compared the increasing disinformation campaign against Indian Muslims with the similar campaign against European Jews centuries ago. He said the similarities between the two “should make us look at the long arc of history”. “If we don’t stop these fake news factories today, we might be writing a terrible, terrible history of our time, he wrote.

Explaining how some ‘anti-Muslim fake news factories’ work, he wrote: “Fake news creators first Google some images or videos of Muslims beating up other Muslims in Pakistan or Bangladesh. Then, they are spread on WhatsApp groups and social media with text added to falsely claim that a Muslim had beaten up a Hindu. The flow of such fake news is consistent and persistent. It serves the purpose of slowly and steadily spreading hate against Muslims, making the Hindu majority see them as violent, scary, unreasonable, and driven by hate”.

Shivam Vij also observed that such consistent production of anti-Muslim fake news serves another important purpose, as it “helps in shifting attention away from the Narendra Modi government’s failures”.

The Way Forward

So, what can be done to counter, and ultimately defeat, the anti-Muslim disinformation ecosystem that is widespread and does often produce physical violence?

The past experiences and serious studies suggest that a multilevel approach is required to counter rising anti-Muslim attitude and violence in India.

Researchers Shakuntala Banaji and Ram Bhat argue that strategies for countering anti-Muslim discrimination, disinformation and violence need both short-term and long-term solutions, as it is an “extensively historical and political problem”.

According to them, the short-term solutions include “a far stronger commitment” from mainstream media organisations, governments and social media companies on ideas about civil and human rights.

Indian mainstream media and governments should first recognise the existence of “multiple forms of Islamophobic rhetoric”, they argue.

Long-term solutions, according to them, include “the building of a culture of anti-racism, historical awareness and critical media literacy from childhood upwards”.

The communication researchers also called for anti-racists, researchers and ethical journalists to look at the “political history of Indian disinformation”, and to examine “whose political interests are served by the sophisticated and systematic sharing of mediated and community-transmitted disinformation against Indian Muslims”.