In recent years, India’s minority communities have repeatedly become targets of disinformation disseminated through digital platforms. The data shows that 2020 has been a particularly bad year. Indian tech company Tattle collates fact-tested disinformation in India. A New statesman The analysis shows that the number of unique cases of misinformation targeted at minorities exposed was 20 percent higher in 2020 than in 2019. In addition, evidence suggests that recent Taliban capture Afghanistan led to another spike in minority misinformation when some of the false stories and images spread about Afghanistan are used to discredit the beliefs of Indian Muslims.
Fake news – which ranges from mostly harmless lies about Bollywood celebrity romances to dangerous myths about vaccines – especially widespread in India. A Survey 2019 found that six out of ten Indian respondents had encountered fake news online, placing the country in sixth place out of 22 respondents. The widespread use of encrypted messaging platforms, in particular WhatsApp, makes detection difficult. WhatsApp is used by at least 460 million people in India, making it an integral part of everyday communication.
While the evidence suggests that the number of fake news stories is on the rise, why is minority misinformation such a persistent problem around the world? India?
The main reason lies in the role such false stories play in serving the Indian government’s agenda. “[Misinformation targeting minorities] highlights the growing discrimination and attacks against Muslims and other minorities after the government of the Bharatiya Janata Hindu Nationalist Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was first elected in 2014, ”said Meenakshi Ganguly, director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) for South Asia. HRW reported that under Modi, BJP leaders have spoken out against Muslims in public on several occasions., sometimes encouraging and even inciting violence from party supporters.
Modi intertwined a more secular agenda, including economic modernization, with Hindutva – a century-old Hindu nationalist ideology. Fake news claims that Muslim men who marry Hindus are driven by a “love jihad” or that Christians are forcibly converting Hindus. These stories reinforce fears that Hindus, who make up 80 percent of the population, are outbred minorities or that Hindus are second-class citizens. “There is a constant sense of sacrifice that feeds the majority of the population,” said Jensi Jacob of Indian fact-checking organization Boom Live. “Term ‘Hindu khatre mein hai‘ [Hindus are in danger] commonly used. “
Elections and legislative changes – ideal moments to accelerate the government’s divisive nationalist agenda – tend to spark spikes of misinformation against minorities.
In December 2019, protests followed the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which grants Indian citizenship to persecuted religious migrants from neighboring countries as long as they are not Muslims. According to Shakuntala Banaji, a media professor at the London School of Economics, the scale and level of misinformation against Muslims has increased in response.
The first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic also sparked a new wave of misinformation against minorities. Authorities linked the virus outbreak to a March 2020 gathering of the Muslim missionary organization Tablighi Jamaat, giving rise to claims that Muslims were super-distributors and deliberately tried to infect Hindus.
While Muslims – the main “threats to others” in Hindu nationalist discourse – bear the brunt of misinformation, Christians, Sikhs and Dalits are also persecuted. Boom Live’s analysis of fake news stories surrounding Indian farmers’ protests against government-proposed agricultural reforms found that 8 percent of the fake stories between November 2020 and February 2021 targeted Sikhs, who make up the bulk of the protesting farmers.
While the flow of fake news often overwhelms fact-checking efforts everywhere, misinformation targeting minorities is particularly difficult to root out as bias and bias are powerful driving forces. “Disinformation in society is so hard to fight,” Jacob said. “He thrives on demonizing a person or a community. The more vicious it is, the easier it is for people to share, click on it, create buzz around it, and build a story around it. ”
The sophisticated strategies of deliberate misinformation of the BJP and associated Hindutwa groups such as the paramilitary volunteer organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) make anti-minority myths even more prevalent. In 2018, Amit Shah, the current Minister of the Interior of India who was then President of the BJP, reportedly said at a rally: “We are able to get the public out of any message we want, be it sweet or sour, true or fake. “.
While the level of misinformation targeting minorities declined during the Second wave of Covidthis may reflect nothing more than the scale of the humanitarian crisis. Scientific fraud and medical misinformation made up a large part of the prevailing fake news.
But can attitudes change?
Both Jacob and Lakshmi Murthy, an Indian journalist who researched hate speech and misinformation, were cautious, but said the disruption of the second wave led to a greater willingness to question the news. “I feel like they’ve gotten a little more dubious in the past few months,” Murti said, drawing on her own experience with WhatsApp groups. “Facts and fact-checking attracts this sweet spot. Only the presence of a golden mean gives hope. “
For Banaji, however, changes in this area are likely to be difficult. “You are trying to confront the large and influential political circles who are spreading this disinformation and then spreading it to the population who [ideologically] ready to accept it, ”she said. “The problem is that some governments are reluctant to suppress disinformation and misinformation, especially if they are promoting it themselves.”