Features | Politics | South Asia

Manufacturing Islamophobia on WhatsApp in India

What can a study of pro-BJP WhatsApp groups tell us about the party’s culpability in rising Islamophobia?

By Soma Basu for
Manufacturing Islamophobia on WhatsApp in India

In this May 9, 2019, photo, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters wear masks of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and wait for his arrival during an election campaign rally in Prayagraj, India.

Credit: AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh

“Real or fake, we can make any message go viral,” Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah claimed in September 2018 while addressing social media volunteers in Kota, Rajasthan.

“It is through social media that we have to form governments at the state and national levels. Keep making messages go viral. We have already made a WhatsApp group with 32 lakh [editor’s note: that’s 3.2 million] people in Uttar Pradesh; every morning they are sent a message at 8 a.m.,” Shah was quoted by the Dainik Bhaskar, a Hindi newspaper.

The video is still up on BJP’s YouTube channel where Shah is heard saying how disinformation could spread to create “perception” and the importance of WhatsApp in that endeavor. And the BJP is more equipped to create such perceptions than any other party in India, with its large volunteer base and extensive resources.

Welcome to the Indian Ministry of Truth, where the ruling BJP, with the effective use of social media, is creating a “perception” and implanting false memories in Hindus, 70 percent of the Indian population, that they are under threat from a rising Muslim population.

This isn’t something new. What the BJP is doing in India using social media has also been done in various other parts of the world. Governments in Brazil, Spain, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and the Philippines are aggressively using social media for political propaganda, using disinformation and fake news.

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Propaganda as a tool of power is nothing new, though the mediums have evolved.

“The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over. Here, as so often in this world, persistence is the first and most important requirement for success,” wrote Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf.

In 2012, Danielle C. Polage of Central Washington University held an interesting experiment. She tested whether familiarity with false stories would result in the creation of a false memory of having heard the story outside of the experiment. Participants were shown false news stories, each portrayed by the researchers as genuine. “After a five week delay, participants who had read the false experimental stories rated them as more truthful and more plausible than participants who had not been exposed to the stories,” a summary of the experiment notes.

“Participants who had previously read about the stories were more likely to believe that they had heard the false stories from a source outside the experiment.  These results suggest that repeating false claims will not only increase their believability but may also result in source monitoring errors.”

A few elected BJP members of the parliament and legislative assemblies have been caught endorsing the “perception” that the Muslim population in India is a threat to Hindus.

More upfront versions of what they mean circulates on social media — specifically WhatsApp, an encrypted messaging platform used by more than 230 million people in India and according to Lokniti-CSDS Mood of the Nation (MOTN) survey, every sixth user is a member of a political WhatsApp group. This makes WhatsApp the most important tool of propaganda used by political parties in India.

Views that invite public censure or criticism if expressed on more open social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, are expressed freely on WhatsApp and why not? Unlike Facebook or Twitter, WhatsApp, with its encryption, gives a greater sense of privacy while nevertheless maintaining the veneer of some personal connection to friends and acquaintances. It also adds credibility of the sender to the messages, even if it comes tagged as a forwarded message. After all, why would your friend forward you a message if he knew it was false?

Recently, BJP spokesperson Nalin Kohli, in an interview with Mehdi Hassan of Al Jazeera, called Bangladeshi immigrants “termites.” On being cross-questioned, he defended himself by saying the “analogy was apt.” Kohli made sure he made a special mention of Indian Muslims as Indian citizens, as if they weren’t already.

This is interesting because on WhatsApp groups run by the BJP’s social media volunteers, who get addressed by the BJP’s president or followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, all Indian Muslims are considered immigrants who have either come from Bangladesh or Pakistan and terrorists.

Kohli’s choice of words is menacing. This is not so different from Myanmar, where political leaders stirred up hatred against a Muslim minority by propagating a similar narrative that ultimately claimed the lives of at least 10,000 Rohingyas and displaced more than 650,000 people.

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And this is also not different from the hate propaganda before the Rwandan genocide when the President Grégoire Kayibanda declared: “Our party is concerned with the interest of the Hutu who have been dominated and scorned by the Tutsi who invaded the country. We have to be the light of the mass, we have to capture back the country and return it to the true owners. The country belongs to the Hutu.”

To understand how the BJP was manufacturing hate and to measure the extent of Islamophobia and hate speech on WhatsApp and the sources of such messages, I took a deep dive into more than 140 pro-BJP groups on the platform for a period of four months. Approximately a quarter of 60,000 messages that I analyzed quantitatively were Islamophobic and anti-Muslim.

From November 14 to February 13, 23.84 percent of messages shared in the groups were anti-Muslim, Islamophobic, and deeply inflammatory with an intent to create disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred, or ill-will between Hindus and Muslims. Such messages have the potential to incite violence.

These messages portray all Muslim citizen of India as either terrorists or a community that is plotting genocide against the Hindus. Some of the major narratives pushed through social media include the following: Hindus are under threat (#HinduKhatreMeinHain); 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 (#TerrorismHasReligion); non-BJP parties support Muslims and hence are anti-Hindu; and non-BJP parties support terrorism. Most of these narratives on WhatsApp are supported by fake and concocted news stories, fudged data and incorrect, out of context translations of the Quran.

A large number of these messages are conspiratorial in nature and provoke the Hindu majority in India to not just deny or deprive Muslims of their rights as citizens of India, but also cause loss of their life and property. Some of the messages called for outright war, witch-hunting of Muslims and “teaching them lessons” by violent means. Old videos of beheadings from Syria and Iraq were shared to support the narratives.

A little over 36 percent of the messages were political propaganda from the BJP and the party’s allies. While some of the messages contained fake news, incorrect data and figures, others were standard propaganda against the political opposition.

After the Pulwama attack on February 14, 2019, that claimed the lives of 44 paramilitary personnel, 41.19 percent of the messages were inflammatory and instigated people against a community, religion, profession or others. In this category, 23.64 percent of messages targeted Kashmiris, 32.72 percent of the messages were anti-Muslim and 43.63 percent of the messages were targeted against journalists, civil society members and celebrities.

The animosity against Muslims, cultivated over social media over a period of time, led to widespread attacks on Kashmiri traders in different parts of the country, trolling and abuse of Muslims and anybody who spoke against the culture of hate or stood against war, including the wife of one of the paramilitary troops killed at Pulwama.

Videos of Kashmiris being beaten up or harassed were shared routinely in the WhatsApp with messages inciting others to participate in the harassment and violence to prove their nationalism.

Phone numbers of activists, journalists, celebrities who were known to speak against human rights abuses in Kashmir, or India-Pakistan art and cultural exchange initiatives were shared widely and people were encouraged to call and harass them. Hit lists were circulated and also listed questions that could be asked of those called.

The ministry of information and broadcasting issued a circular to news outlets against disseminating “anti-national” content just after the Pulwama attack.

After nine days of widespread attacks on Kashmiris and Muslims across India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an active Twitter user, finally said that “our fight is for Kashmir, not against Kashmiris.”

To know if there was hate speech against any other religion, I joined two groups each that were run by supporters of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samajwadi Party, Trinamool Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal. I also looked at a dataset of 80 pro-Congress Party WhatsApp groups. While propaganda and fake news are shared in all the political WhatsApp groups, hate speech and Islamophobia were unique to the pro-BJP groups. None of the groups observed shared anti-Hindu messages.

I joined the WhatsApp groups by messaging the phone numbers advertised by the district or state level political leaders. So, the nature of these groups, created specifically for the dissemination of party propaganda, is different from public WhatsApp groups, with searchable links.

The groups I joined were higher in the chain of WhatsApp groups and several members of these groups are BJP office bearers and allies. The information about their identity was gathered from not just their display picture, account information and WhatsApp biography, but also the pictures they posted after organizing formal events — on Netaji Jayanti (January 23), Republic Day (January 26), Day of the Babri Masjid demolition (December 6), the day of Pulwama attack (February 14) and also on Hindu festivals. Several members of these groups described themselves as members of the BJP’s IT (information technology) cell or as BJP members of the legislative assembly.

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Coding the phone numbers of the “significant” members and creating a map, I selected 50 WhatsApp groups in which one or more office bearers were present. This was my primary group for analysis, while I kept gaining insights from other groups that I was a member of.

I collected chats from November 14, 2018, to February 13, 2019, using WhatsApp’s export chat feature. There were more than 60,000 chats (11,62,405 words) from these 50 groups. After cleaning my dataset by deleting good morning, good evening, pornographic, product marketing messages and personal messages, I was left with 20,641 messages. Of this, there were 7,351 text messages, while the rest were audio, video, images or website links.   

There was a surge in messages after the terrorist attack in Pulwama. Due to the increase in hate speech post-Pulwama, I decided to analyze seven-day data, from February 14-21, 2019, from these groups separately. While the text messages were analyzed both quantitatively and qualitatively, the videos were analyzed only qualitatively.

This analysis, of more than 140 WhatsApp groups, is the the first known quantitative research that shows the extent to which hate messages, despite the illegality and the potential physical threat it poses to citizens of India, are being circulated in the groups by volunteers and members of the ruling party.

In 2014, the BJP came to power in India and there was a sharp jump in the number of hate crimes against minorities in the country. IndiaSpend, a non-profit data journalism initiative, has shown that between 2009-2019, more than 100 people were killed and 691 injured in a total 281 hate crime incidents and 73 percent of victims of these hate crimes were Muslims and other minority communities. The data reveals a sharp increase in the number of incidents after 2014 — the year the present BJP government came to power. Fifty percent of the attacks were on the pretext of cow protection, inter-faith marriages and alleged inter-faith conversions.  

In 2017, Union Minister Jayant Sinha, a BJP member of parliament, congratulated men convicted for lynching a Muslim meat trader. In 2015, people accused of lynching Akhlaq, a Muslim farm worker, were commended by BJP members of the legislative assembly and offered highly-coveted contractual jobs in a public-sector company. One of the lynchers is even contesting the 2019 elections on a BJP ticket.

During my investigation, I found several members who were formally associated with the BJP and who hold party positions, in the WhatsApp groups I was observing. The role of BJP affiliates in the lynchings noted above has been reported widely by the mainstream media. But even as the BJP has weighed in publicly on blaming the platform, WhatsApp, for the lynchings, the culprits include its own party members. The government’s effort to hold meetings with WhatsApp representatives, to show its good intentions, is nothing but nonsense.

In March 2018, the United Nations held Facebook responsible for playing a “determining role” in fomenting racial hatred in Myanmar. “It has substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict, if you will, within the public,” said Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the UN Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar.

Social media is emerging as a powerful new weapon with great destructive potential, but will merely blaming the medium (in this case, the social media platforms) for the message solve the problem?

No, it’s not enough. With governments endorsing hate speech and the idea of “teaching Muslims a lesson,” who can step up to stop the hate?

Soma Basu is an investigative journalist based in India. She researched Islamophobic hate speech on WhatsApp during her fellowship at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Oxford University.