In recent years India’s minority communities have been repeatedly targeted by misinformation spread through digital platforms. Data suggests that 2020 was a particularly bad year. The Indian technology firm Tattle collates fact-checked misinformation in India. A New Statesman analysis shows that the number of unique instances of misinformation targeting minorities that were debunked was 20 per cent higher in 2020 than in 2019. Furthermore, the data suggests that the recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has led to another uptick in minority misinformation, with some of the false stories and images circulating about Afghanistan being used to discredit the beliefs of Indian Muslims.
Fake news – which ranges from largely innocuous falsehoods about Bollywood celebrity romances to dangerous anti-vaccine myths – is particularly widespread in India. A 2019 survey found that six in ten Indian respondents had come across fake news online, placing the country sixth out of 22 surveyed. Widespread use of encrypted messaging platforms, notably WhatsApp, makes detection difficult. WhatsApp is used by at least 460 million people in India, making it an intrinsic part of day-to-day communication.
While data suggests that the number of fake news stories ebbs and flows, why is minority misinformation such a perennial issue in India?
A key reason is the role that such false stories play in servicing the Indian government’s agenda. “[Misinformation targeting minorities] highlights the growing discrimination and attacks against Muslims and other minorities since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was first elected in 2014,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW). HRW has reported that under Modi, BJP leaders have repeatedly made anti-Muslim remarks in public, at times encouraging and even inciting violence by party supporters.
Modi has interwoven a more secular agenda, including economic modernisation, with Hindutva – a 100-year-old Hindu nationalist ideology. Fake news stories allege that Muslim men who marry Hindu women are motivated by “love jihad”, or Christians are forcibly converting Hindus. These stories play into fears that Hindus, who make up 80 per cent of the population, are being outbred by minorities or that Hindus are second-class citizens. “There is this perpetual sense of victimhood that the majority community is being fed,” said Jency Jacob, from the Indian fact-checking organisation Boom Live. “The term ‘Hindu khatre mein hai’ [Hindus are in danger] is commonly used.”
Elections and legislative shifts – ideal moments to accelerate the government’s divisive nationalist agenda – tend to trigger surges in anti-minority misinformation.
In December 2019, protests followed the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which grants Indian nationality to persecuted religious migrants from neighbouring countries, as long as they are not Muslim. According to Shakuntala Banaji, a professor of media at the London School of Economics, the range and rate of disinformation against Muslims increased in response.
The first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic similarly triggered another wave of anti-minority misinformation. The government linked the outbreak of the virus to a gathering in March 2020 of Muslim missionary organisation Tablighi Jamaat, giving rise to claims that Muslims were superspreaders and were deliberately trying to infect Hindus.
Although Muslims – the main “threatening other” in the discourse of Hindu nationalists – have borne the brunt of misinformation, Christians, Sikhs and Dalits have also been targeted. Boom Live’s analysis of fake news concerning protests by Indian farmers against the government’s proposed agricultural reforms, found that 8 per cent of fake stories between November 2020 and February 2021 targeted Sikhs, who make up the bulk of the protesting farmers.
While the tide of fake news often overwhelms fact-checking efforts everywhere, misinformation that targets minorities is particularly hard to stamp out as prejudice and bias are powerful drivers. “Communal misinformation is so hard to fight,” said Jacob. “It thrives on demonising an individual or a community. The more vicious it is, the easier it is for people to share, click on, create a noise around and build a narrative around it.”
The sophisticated deliberate disinformation strategies of the BJP and affiliated Hindutva groups, such as the paramilitary volunteer organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), make anti-minority myths yet more pervasive. In 2018, Amit Shah, India's current minister for home affairs who was then BJP president, reportedly told a rally: "We are capable of delivering any message we want to the public, whether sweet or sour, true or fake."
While the level of misinformation targeting minorities declined during Covid’s second wave, it might reflect little more than the scale of the humanitarian crisis. Scientific scams and medical misinformation made up much of the fake news circulated.
But could attitudes be changing?
Although cautious, both Jacob and Laxmi Murthy, an Indian journalist who has researched hate speech and misinformation, said that the devastation of the second wave has led to more willingness to question news. “I feel in the last few months there has been a slightly more questioning attitude,” said Murthy, drawing on her own experience of WhatsApp groups. “Facts and fact-checking are appealing to that middle ground. Just the existence of the middle ground provides hope.”
For Banaji, however, change in this area is likely to be difficult. “You're trying to take on large, powerful political interests who are pushing this misinformation and then circulating it through a population who have been [ideologically] primed to receive that,” she said. “The problem lies in the fact that some governments are not committed to stopping misinformation and disinformation especially if they themselves are promoting it.”