Hate speech is making global headlines with unfailing regularity. With 59 percent of the global population digitally connected, the internet, apart from enabling instantaneous networks of people and associations, is equally encouraging fake news peddlers and conspiracy theorists, while also abetting authoritarianism. Digital media’s ability to reach a large audience base at a phenomenal speed has expanded political influence through polarization of opinions and communities, particularly visible during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Several countries, including India, are combating online hate speech, which has had serious foreign policy ramifications while adversely impacting their global images.
India’s rising illiberal tendencies have been flagged by prominent influential policymakers in the West, denting its global image. Hate content proliferating on India’s online space serves to amplify them. Hate speech connected to India is not limited to specific minorities alone, but targets women and weaker sections as well. India’s strong patriarchal framework excessively glorifies “a vegetarian diet, extreme reverence of Hindu deities and the cow as the emblematic holy animal” apart from stereotyping “notions of gender and sexuality, moral policing of sexuality and its expression, and xenophobia.”
Online and offline hate speech, particularly against Muslims, has been on the rise in India, acquiring grave proportions. The digital hatred and majoritarian radicalization were particularly visible during the early months of the onset of the pandemic. The resultant impact has been damaging for foreign relations, particularly with respect to India’s strategic partners in the Gulf. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) expressed its concern over the rise of Islamaphobia on social media, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also tweeting a response to placate the country’s Gulf partners. India’s ambassador to Oman and his counterpart in the United Arab Emirates reached out to the Indian diaspora as well, asking them to steer away from fake news after several tweets surfaced quoting Hindus blaming Muslims for spreading the coronavirus in India.
Online hate speech has also been alienating a long-time friendly neighbor like Bangladesh with many liberals condemning India’s “discriminatory” National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) – regarded as state instruments to spread chaos and deliberately demonizing the “other” in order to reap domestic dividends. These measures have also provided Pakistan – India’s historical adversary – an opportunity to weaponize these state actions and draw global attention toward New Delhi’s ongoing anti-Muslim campaign.
With social media publicizing acts of violence across continents, analysts fear mounting hate crimes echo changes in the political climate, and magnify social and political discord fueled by social media-driven rumors and invectives contributing to violence . India’s evolving hate culture, and Facebook’s visible role in its spread, was reported at length by the Wall Street Journal. The Indian Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information and Technology summoned the social media behemoth’s representatives for not acting against anti-Muslim posts on its platform, reflecting the extent to which Facebook’s role has impacted concerns in the legislature and among various state and non-state actors.
India is not the first country where Facebook and propagation of hate speech have been identified together. The American tech company, already blamed for not doing enough to fight disinformation and racial posts on its platform worldwide, particularly in the United States, decided to act, keeping in mind its reputation and credibility in India which has the largest global daily Facebook users. Accused of favoring elites and establishments, over grassroot activists and minorities, Facebook banned a particular political leader from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party for violating its policies against hate speech. While welcome in spirit, the move is hardly enough for reining in dangerous trends that have already been set in motion.
Digital platforms have ushered in a new age of virtual, networked communication, which is revealing the dark contours of modernity and technology. Platforms like Facebook have fundamentally altered the communication landscape, and pushed the global political environment more toward inequality, populism, and nationalism in their new avatars. For countries like India, apart from critical domestic challenges, these create major foreign policy issues.
There are several instances of digital platforms enabling the decline of democratic constraint on foreign policy with the current political environments lacking “significant moderation,” since the platforms muffle neutral or opposing perspectives while perpetuating social, political, and religious divisions. While modern nation-states are trying to make digital diplomacy more effective by urging digital platforms to filter out lies and junks, there is also an urgent need to educate the public, who now figure prominently in the communication network, and can spread disinformation, threatening national foreign policies and undermining global reputations. India’s brush with online hate speech proliferating through social media platforms like Facebook, and the impact domestic disinformation efforts has had on its external relations management, is a key pointer in this regard.
Parama Sinha Palit, author of “Analysing China’s Soft Power Strategy and Comparative Indian Initiatives” (Sage, 2017), is an Adjunct Senior Fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and an Affiliated Researcher with the Swedish South Asian Studies Network, Lund University, Sweden.