At a meeting of social media volunteers of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) held in Rajasthan in September 2018, the party president Amit Shah boasted, “Real or fake, we can make any message go viral.”
In the Information Age, misinformation is an important and powerful weapon in any “battle” for legitimacy in the court of global public opinion. Some of the most notorious regimes in the world go to great lengths to maintain a good image of themselves, harnessing social media in particular to “flood” the internet with self-serving messaging.
Much of this messaging is best described as “bulls***.” In his 1986 essay On Bulls***, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt argued that a person spewing bulls*** does not care about whether what they say is true or false; they only care about whether the recipient of the message is persuaded. Those who diligently seek to separate fact from fiction often find it hard to keep a pace with bulls***-producing propaganda machines, and are often quickly overwhelmed and “drowned out” by the endless barrage of misinformation.
While many are dismissive of the “fake news” phenomenon, it is important to understand that fake news has very real, and often very dangerous, consequences. When underlying factors such as poverty and lack of education are already at play, a piece of misinformation can easily become an explosive powder keg. The result, in a place such as India, can range from a local mob lynching by “cow vigilantes” to a former army officer claiming on live television that Kashmiri Muslim women deserve to be raped to avenge the sexual violence that was supposedly committed by Muslims against Kashmiri Hindu women in the 1990s.
But these are not isolated flares. In May of 2019, Indian journalist Soma Basu conducted a study of how the BJP creates a false sense of Hindu-Muslim tensions in India. India has more WhatsApp users — over 230 million — than the population of most countries. Basu suggests that one-sixth of them are in “political” WhatsApp groups. Those in the carefully-managed BJP network of group chats receive a message every day at 8 am, and nearly a quarter of 60,000 messages that Basu analyzed were strongly Islamophobic.
According to Basu’s report in The Diplomat, common themes of these messages include: Hindus are under threat; Hindus are becoming a minority in India; Muslims will kill Hindus and rape Hindu women if they become a majority in India; all Muslims support Pakistan; all Muslims are terrorists; non-BJP parties support Muslims and hence are anti-Hindu; and non-BJP parties support terrorism. The “supporting evidence” generally includes out-of-context passages of the Qur’an, fake news, and fudged data.
WhatsApp’s parent company, Facebook, has been criticized for facilitating the spread of fake news, but it isn’t the only culprit. Twitter, arguably, plays an even more important role in the spread of misinformation, as the general public is exposed to tweets. Those who are brave enough to try to discredit false narratives about Islam in India, such as Dr. Audrey Truschke of Rutgers University, are met by an onslaught of unbelievably depraved responses from the Hindu nationalists’ “troll army.” One activist, C.J. Werleman, recently shared articles he wrote about India’s gross abuse of human rights in Kashmir; within 72 hours, he received more than 100 rape threats against his mother, wife and daughter.
The propaganda machine also works beyond social media. In mid-November, DisinfoLab, a European NGO tracking disinformation campaigns, found 265 fake media outlets in 65 countries that were being used to promote India’s geopolitical interests and sugarcoat its many shortcomings and atrocities. Many of the outlets are based in North America, and have names that sound legitimate, such as Toronto Telegram and Times of Los Angeles.
How effective is this network? On October 30, a group of mostly far-right EU politicians visited the Kashmir Valley as part of India’s effort to whitewash its occupation. They were reportedly invited by the International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies (IINS), which happens to share an office with one of the fake news outlets, New Delhi Times. The IP address of the Srivastava Group, which has also been linked to the network of fake media outlets, was also traced to the same location. DisinfoLab is currently putting together a more detailed report about this arm of the propaganda machine.
And of course, there is Bollywood, a powerful industry in which many are only too willing to be lapdogs of the Hindu far-right movement. Bollywood movies have often (and deliberately) portrayed the Indian Muslim as a “terrorist, religious extremist, Pakistan loyalist, anti-Hindu and a traitor,” in the words of Sanjeev Kumar of the University of Delhi. More recently, there has been an increase in the number of movies that demonize Afghan Muslim “invaders” of the subcontinent. Padmaavat, Kesari and the upcoming Panipat are recent examples.
The impact of all this is very real. According to research by IndiaSpend, between 2009 and 2019 over 100 Indians were killed and nearly 700 injured in 281 reported hate crimes; 73% of the victims were Muslims or members of another marginalized community. In 2014, the year that the BJP came to power, hate crimes rose significantly. Those Hindu terrorists involved in lynching Muslims have been congratulated by senior BJP members, have been offered jobs in the government, and one such criminal even received a BJP ticket to run for office in the 2019 election. And that’s not even to mention more large-scale crimes such as the situation in Kashmir or the recent Supreme Court verdict on the Babri Masjid dispute in Ayodhya.
India is certainly not the first case in which misinformation is employed so effectively, and this leads to the question of where it may be finding inspiration for this. The Israeli model of hasbara, or “explanation,” is a strong candidate, complete with its own army of trolls (reportedly 15,000 strong) and fake news networks — one of which, run by the Israeli political marketing firm Archimedes Group, spread fake news for years to millions of followers (mostly in Africa) before finally being shut down by Facebook in May 2019. India and Israel have strong ties, and it is plausible that Israel’s global infrastructure to sway public opinion in favour of its interests has left a deep impression on the BJP.
One of the key takeaways from all this is that those Muslims who are relatively secure from the immediate effects of Islamophobic misinformation — though it is important to always keep in mind how close to home incidents such as the masjid shooting in Quebec City have been — cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the fake news industry. Being dismissive of misinformation campaigns may be convenient, but it amounts to abandoning Muslims across the world, from the Uyghurs and Rohingya to the Kashmiris and Palestinians, to the driving force underlying their oppression: false narratives about who they are.
As Muslims, we must reclaim our own narratives, not by responding to trolls on Twitter, but by working strategically and collaboratively on more creative, high-impact projects. More traditional measures, such as protests and boycotts, are effective to some degree but the real test in our world today is whether we can harness the possibilities of digital media to paint a more vivid and compelling image for our audiences than the depraved troll army trying to do the same.