In weaker and more fragile democracies like India, disinformation strategies have come to the fore in the age of social media. In recent years, social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp have come under fire for aggravating communal tensions, spreading false information and failing to monitor content for hate speech. India, a country with 294 million users of Facebook and its related products such as WhatsApp, stands accused of weaponising these platforms to spread hate speech and disinformation about religious and caste minorities, women and LGBTQ+ people.
Vigilantism has always been prevalent in India’s political culture, but over the last few years with the Hindu nationalist – Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in power, mob violence and vigilantism have been on the rise. The rapid spread of deceptive information via WhatsApp and Facebook have enabled this rise of violence.
Social media platforms are being abused by politically motivated groups, and other anti-secularism groups, to circulate systematic disinformation in order to win votes during elections and propagate the idea of a “Hindu Rashtra” (A state for Hindus, governed by Hindus) to disrupt the secular make-up of the country.
Dissemination of hate speech and disinformation has had deadly consequences for people from vulnerable minority groups – Muslims, Dalits (also known as the Untouchables) and Indigenous people or Adivasis. In early 2020, the government introduced the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act to provide citizenship to religious minorities – except Muslims – being persecuted in India’s neighbouring countries.
Around the same time, plans for maintaining a National Population Registry were unveiled in order to identify illegal immigrants based on a review of identity documents. These measures were met with massive protests around the country as the government could potentially use them to declare millions of vulnerable Muslims living in the country as “foreigners or illegal infiltrators”. In light of these protests, to change the perception of the public and gain their support, the government resorted to circulating Islamophobic videos on WhatsApp. Some of the videos that made rounds contained mysterious gangs or an individual person going around the community to kidnap children. The videos often depicted the kidnappers as Rohingya Muslim refugees, thereby creating fear of refugees and Muslims in the minds of the public. Circulation of these videos also resulted in attacks on and death of 36 Muslims in North India on the mere suspicion that they were child kidnappers.
One of the core beliefs of Hinduism is that the cow is sacred, an avatar of god and therefore must not be killed and protected at all costs. Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch claims that, “Calls for cow protection may have started out as a way to attract Hindu votes but have transformed into a free pass for mobs to violently attack and kill minority group members.” False claims of Muslims and Dalits engaging in cow slaughter are circulated via social media, leading to an unprecedented increase in lynching and killing of people from these communities.
Technology alone is not responsible for giving rise to this tendency of spreading misinformation and disinformation. A report on the usage of WhatsApp in India has rightly pointed out that,
“the circulation of a high volume of dangerous and damaging misinformation and disinformation results from a combination of existing socio-political circumstances, popular attitudes and values, political power relations, and the availability of a technological tool that makes the circulation of content so easy and risk-free for the producers and forwarders of misinformation.”
It is often presumed that lack of media literacy is the main cause of spreading disinformation on these platforms. The presumption is that if users of these platforms were trained to spot fakes and taught how to separate actual facts from false narratives, the spread of disinformation could be curbed. It is a popular belief that users of these platforms are tricked into sharing disinformation because of their ignorance and lack of digital literacy.
However, research undertaken by Shakuntala Banaji and Ram Bhat (Academics at the London School of Economics) into the causal link between media illiteracy and sharing of disinformation and misinformation, suggests otherwise. Their research highlights that users of social media that widely circulate hate speech, disinformation and misinformation are highly skilled in using technology and specifically employed by certain entities with specific motivations, such as anti-feminist groups, pro Hindutva (an ideology seeking to establish the hegemony of Hindus and the Hindu way of life) groups or by the ruling party itself to spread their nationalist propaganda.
It seems that centuries old prejudices against Muslims and feelings of disgust and hatred held by Hindus towards minorities, are being legitimised by the state. The widespread use of social media to harass, intimidate and humiliate anyone that disagrees with the ruling party’s nationalist agenda often goes unpunished. The police themselves sympathise with the prejudices expressed in social media posts and have thus failed to stop the spread of disinformation and misinformation and the violence that stems out of it. There is an institutional failure of law enforcement agencies to curb the violence resulting from sharing of false information. Recently, to tackle this problem, the Central Government proposed the removal of end-to-end encryption from WhatsApp so that those who spread false information can be traced easily. But given the fact that most of the misinformation is spread with impunity by far-right Hindutva groups that are closely connected to the ruling party, it is hard to see how removal of encryption will help in solving the problem. Concerns have been raised by civil society groups that this move would be used by the government to further suppress and surveil political opponents, minorities and journalists critical of the government. It is hard to believe that the government’s argument that end-to-end encryption prevents them from taking action against those spreading disinformation and misinformation is made in good faith, given the serious failure of the government to tackle hate speech on social media platforms. The complaints of several journalists, students, human rights organisations and Minority rights activists have gone unheard and no serious action has been taken against the perpetrators of hate speech. Therefore, it seems highly unlikely that ending encryption will result in action being taken against the agents of false and misleading information.
In order to bring about a real change, halt the abuse of social media and the subsequent vigilante violence, it is important to address the root cause of the problem – that is, existing prejudice and hatred towards minorities and anti-secularism ideologies. Tech companies also have a huge role to play in curbing the dissemination of misinformation. Social media platforms must carry out of human rights impact assessments of their policies and programmes to see how the platform is being used by public figures and political entities to fuel communal tensions and violence. They must have a dedicated team that monitors the content posted on their platform and must immediately flag up posts that have the potential to cause communal tensions and violence. They must engage in open dialogue with civil society organisations to understand the political and societal contexts of the country in which they operate to better deal with hate speech. Lastly, these platforms must be more proactive in supporting human rights, promoting secularism and constitutional values of equality and non-discrimination.
Not only is the government of India putting out pro – government narratives on social media that often contain a multitude of falsehoods, but it is also simultaneously disparaging, intimidating and harassing its critics -whether it is independent journalists, activists, Civil Society Groups or Opposition figures using these platforms.
BJP supporters and the Hindutva ideology have created an “environment of intimidation” for journalists who are critical of the government by labelling them as “anti-national” or “anti-state”. India has been listed under countries considered “bad” for journalism and is among the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, according to Reporters without Borders which published its 2021 World Press Freedom Index. The findings of the report suggest that the crusade against journalists, in particular women journalists, has intensified since the BJP came to power.
Gauri Lankesh, who was outrightly condemned Far-Right Nationalism, became the first victim of BJP’s intolerant politics. She was murdered in 2017 and while the investigation into her murder is ongoing, speculations of BJP’s complicity in the crime have been raised. Rana Ayyub, popular for her investigations into BJP’s role in inciting the Godhra Riots in 2003 and also her coverage of the Internet Shutdown in Kashmir last year, has complained of receiving threats of sexual assault and even death threats from far-right activists. The most brutal crackdown of press freedom comes in the form of the arrest of journalist Siddique Kappan. He was charged with sedition and sentenced to life imprisonment in October 2020, simply for reporting the gang-rape of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in a village in North India. While in prison, he tested positive for Covid-19 and was taken to a hospital. In the hospital, he was denied food, was chained to bed and was even refused access to a toilet. His inhuman treatment ended only after a petition was raised by his wife in the Indian Supreme Court. However, he still remains detained in prison, awaiting a verdict on the sedition case against him.
The treatment of journalists in India is deplorable and the government has shamelessly exploited the Covid-19 pandemic to muzzle press freedom. As the deadly second wave rages on, the Prime Minister has sought to suppress any criticism of the government’s handling of the situation by ordering Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to delete any posts about the crisis, and the platforms have complied with these demands. This suppression has exposed the double standards of these platforms that claim to be neutral arbiters of speech. Crackdown of press freedom is a dangerous trend, threatening democracy in India. The international community must step up and ensure that press freedom concerns are prioritised. It must call on the Indian Government to abide by its obligations under international human rights law and release wrongfully detained journalists.