How WhatsApp Forwards Are Using Israel’s War to Push Anti-Muslim Narratives in India

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Lucknow/Ranchi: Remember the ‘airstrike in Pakistan’s Balakot’ by the Indian armed forces in response to the ‘Pulwama attack’ in 2019 and the WhatsApp narratives that permeated nearly every Indian household through group chats? A similar phenomenon is occurring in the country again.

However, two significant shifts are evident this time around. Firstly, the conflict doesn’t directly involve India, and second, the narratives are not exclusively shaped by the active members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to bolster its support base.

During the ‘Balakot strike’, Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, including Indian Home Minister Amit Shah, had said that only Prime Minister Narendra Modi could safeguard the country’s borders. Meanwhile, tailored WhatsApp forwards also conveyed that only Modi could safeguard the country from ‘our rogue and maniacal next-door neighbours’.

This time, the WhatsApp forwards revolve around the Israel-Hamas conflict, which is unfolding thousands of kilometres away from our homeland.

The war is being exploited by hardliners to cast the Muslim community in a negative light and sow communal discord. Surprisingly, many of these WhatsApp forwards, which have gone viral in the small towns and villages, have been formulated by individuals who have no direct association with the ruling party at the Union government.

This reporter analysed more than 60 viral narratives spreading misinformation about the intentions of minorities, particularly aiming to stoke fear of Muslims among the Hindu community. This is glaringly evident in these messages, which have mostly gone viral in the Hindi belt, where the saffron party has a vocal support base.

Fake news

False narratives using old speeches, images, and videos are being propagated to say that such acts would occur if the Muslim population in India were to increase. This is happening on platforms such as X and WhatsApp. The latter is purportedly encrypted, and therefore, it is nearly impossible to trace the content in terms of its origin. The viral content on WhatsApp also emphasises perceived similarities between the Hindu and Jewish communities, advocating for Indian support for Israel.

Research indicates that such WhatsApp messages have been forwarded multiple times within groups of hundreds of members.

For instance, a video is circulating with a Hindi caption, translated into English, saying, “This is called barbarity, what the terrorists of Hamas are doing. Cruel terrorists of Hamas are killing Israeli soldiers by tying them in chains and burning them alive. It is very important to eliminate Hamas terrorists. Let us all come together and support Israel.”

While scrolling through the video online, it becomes apparent that the video was shared on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram with a similar claim. In reality, this video depicts the alleged burning to death of Turkey’s two soldiers, Sefter Taş and Fethi Şahin, by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) terrorists after they were taken hostage in northern Syria in December 2016.

This “forwarded many times” indicator represents the encrypted messaging platform’s proactive measure to curb the dissemination of misinformation. The label is strategically applied to messages or updates that have traversed through a series of five or more chat instances. This distinctive label could be seen across various WhatsApp groups in both Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand, serving as a visible signal to users regarding the forwarded nature of the content.

These groups are filled with messages targeting Hindus, questioning the events of October 7 in Israel and suggesting that a similar fate awaits in India. As one scrolls down the group, a viral image featuring Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, directly addressing Hindus, claims that if Hindus are divided by caste, they will be erased. The image suggests that Israel, with its 70 lakh Yahudis (Jews), is more powerful than 55 Muslim countries, while in India, with 100 crore Hindu individuals, Hindus are portrayed as vulnerable and hunted in their own country.

These messages appear to be more extreme than the narratives circulating on Facebook and Twitter, because WhatsApp allows the sharing of videos depicting graphic violence without any significant repercussions. In contrast, social media accounts could be banned on Facebook and X, in such cases.

The web of misinformation

A video depicting a decapitated body is circulating with a caption in Hindi, saying:

“It is Hamas which is being supported by the Congress and regional parties. So, think about what you have to do. Consider the fate of your country, your children, your tomorrow. You yourself are wise. Look at the actions of Hamas scoundrels with open eyes and consider those who support them. Keep in mind that those backing these individuals today are the same individuals working to convert India into an Islamic country. If you want to avoid seeing an Islamic State or Ghazwatul Hind in India, I urge all of you to recognise that the viral video alone won’t bring about change. Every Hindu must strive to prevent the Congress or any other opposition party from forming the government in India under any circumstances. Failure to do so could lead to a painful future for all of us and our families. Every Hindu should make every effort to support Modiji. Jai Hind, Jai Bharat, Vande Mataram.”

Israel’s attack is being exploited on a large scale to instil fear among Indians, particularly Hindus, by suggesting that something even more ominous than the events in Israel will soon transpire in India. These messages, which have gone viral on WhatsApp, Facebook groups, and Twitter, spread misinformation in the form of videos, images, and text.

One specific message, widely circulated and forwarded numerous times on WhatsApp, has gained traction on Twitter, especially in Hindi. This message contains an image asserting that the removal of Prime Minister Modi from power will lead to genocide of Hindus. The claim is being linked to “a respected American journalist, Janet Levy”. Upon looking for the mentioned article and person, Levy, I discovered that this Hindi piece refers to an old article published in 2015 on a propaganda portal called American Thinker. The piece is titled ‘The Muslim Takeover of West Bengal.’ The article was tweeted by former governor of West Bengal Tathagata Roy in 2015.

This particular tweet mentioned above has been shared by a verified Twitter handle. It was retweeted over 300 times and liked over 400 times.

“This situation is truly unfortunate. The propagation of anti-Muslim propaganda and disinformation by ordinary Indians poses not only a threat to India’s social cohesion, but also jeopardises the country’s foreign policy interests. India has endeavoured to portray itself as a neutral entity in the Gaza war, advocating for humanitarian aid to Gaza. Just days ago, India voted at the UN General Assembly in support of recognising the right of Palestinians to self-determination. Maintaining amicable relations with the Arab world is crucial for India, both for strategic and economic reasons,” said foreign policy expert Mohammad Zeeshan.

“However, the spread of misinformation against Muslims constitutes a direct threat to these foreign policy interests and positions. Regrettably, global media has already taken notice of this issue. Since the October 7 Hamas attacks, numerous reports in the international media have highlighted how misinformation against Muslims and Palestinians can be traced back to Indian accounts. This poses a direct challenge to India’s goodwill and interests in the Arab world and on the global stage,” he added.

Who is spreading fake narratives?

“In the Israel-Palestine conflict, what stood out to me was the surprising prevalence of viral content on WhatsApp originating from ordinary people, rather than politically active users. These individuals aren’t explicitly aligned with any political party; they are regular villagers,” said Kiran Garimella, an assistant professor at Rutgers School of Information and Communication.

Garimella further said, “Additionally, there’s an apparent effort to fuel anti-Muslim sentiments. The narrative implies that actions attributed to Hamas could also be carried out by Muslim neighbours, aligning with the BJP’s political agenda. What’s particularly surprising is the consistent influx of content almost daily. These narratives, often originating from the Israeli side, are extensively propagated on WhatsApp. The nature of some content, such as claims about Hamas using child actors, raises questions about why Indian villagers would be invested in issues happening in distant regions where they have no apparent stake.”

“From a broader perspective, this phenomenon highlights the potential for an invested actor, equipped with the right infrastructure, to significantly amplify the spread of diverse content. This supercharging of infrastructure enables the widespread dissemination of specific narratives, showcasing the unexpected ways in which misinformation can be strategically utilised.”

“We have observed over 50 narratives related to Israel and Palestine spreading in the groups we are monitoring, which is truly surprising. This possibly indicates a top-down content push by an invested actor. In this case, it is likely the BJP, attempting to demonstrate strong support for Israel. The Modi government has openly shown support for Israel, so part of it may be expressing solidarity with the Israeli side and, secondly, using this as a tool to fuel anti-Muslim sentiments.”

A global menace

Social media giants like Meta and X have already removed thousands of misleading posts following the Hamas attack on Israel and its brutal attack on Gaza. However, experts say the volume of disinformation on the platforms regarding the war, especially in languages other than English, is dire. Even developed countries like the US, the UK, and several European nations are also recording a surge in anti-Muslim rhetoric following the Israel-Hamas conflict.

India, with more than 200 million users, stands as WhatsApp’s largest market. Despite the country’s impressive one billion phone subscribers with access to affordable data, it grapples with the rampant spread of fake news. Unlike X and Facebook, which have faced legislation addressing fake news and implemented corrective measures in various cases, WhatsApp has been somewhat lackadaisical in cracking down on unverified messages. The messaging platform has refrained from a proactive approach to address privacy concerns for its users.

WhatsApp revealed that 90% of fake news spreads through messages between two people. In response to this finding, WhatsApp is intensifying its education efforts to raise awareness about safety features and methods to identify fake news. The company issued a statement in the first half of 2023 outlining its commitment to this initiative. However, the platform clarified that it has no plans to alter its encrypted model.

(Courtesy: The Wire)

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Disclaimer: How WhatsApp Forwards Are Using Israel’s War to Push Anti-Muslim Narratives in India - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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