[ANALYSIS] The Hindutva-Whatsapp ecosystem: Digital hate against Indian Muslims on Whatsapp

Shreya Bansal

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[ANALYSIS] The Hindutva-Whatsapp ecosystem: Digital hate against Indian Muslims on Whatsapp

Marian Hukom/Rappler

'Even though factual inaccuracies have been pointed out by various fact-checkers and journalists in India, hateful disinformation continues to spread'

“What did you understand from the film, The Kerala Story? You must see the message below to know!” reads a forwarded WhatsApp message. The message emphasizes that every Hindu person in India should watch the film, and shares details on what one can (allegedly) learn from it. The message, which in full is an inordinately long 500 words, states, “The Kerala Story correctly sheds light on the process through which the Hindu population in India, especially Hindu women, are easily deceived and converted to Islam.”

The message uses emotional language to evoke fear amongst the country’s Hindu population. The aim is to deceive the reader and turn them against Indian Muslims. This is one of the many messages flooding Indian WhatsApp chats and groups after the trailer for the film The Kerala Story, a disputed Bollywood film, came out in April this year.

The Kerala Story is the story of an “innocent Hindu” girl being forced to convert to Islam to eventually be recruited by the terrorist group Islamic State (IS). The film’s Islamophobia, presented sensationally through sound, dialogue, and imagery, was a catalyst for its virality. 

According to Pratik Sinha, cofounder of Indian fact-checking site Alt News: “Fake news in India needs to be understood in the wider political climate against Muslims in India. It is a way of spreading hate against Muslims without going into the space of opinion, and just using ‘facts.’”  

Bollywood is a multi-billion-rupee industry in terms of net worth. India has consistently been the world’s largest producer of films since 2007 and the leading film market in terms of the number of tickets sold. On opening weekend, The Kerala Story made over $50 million at the box office. 

The film’s success soon found space in the Hindutva-WhatsApp ecosystem — a digital space carefully designed to spread misinformation and hate against the Muslim population on a regular basis. 

A report titled Experiences of Muslims in India on Digital Platforms With Anti-Muslim Hate revealed WhatsApp was one of the main platforms for the spread of anti-Muslim hate in 2022. The report brought out by Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE) mentioned at least 60% of the participants surveyed had come across content on digital platforms that incites violence against Muslims. 

India has around 500 million WhatsApp users, making the country the biggest user of the platform in the world. In 2023, WhatsApp users can share files, photos, and videos up to 2GB, (previously limited to 100MB) and WhatsApp private groups can host up to 1,024 participants.

The impact of the Indian film industry combined with the growing use of WhatsApp as a means for sharing information combined to ensure The Kerala Story had impact. Even though factual inaccuracies have been pointed out by various fact-checkers and journalists in India, hateful disinformation continues to spread. 

“Fact-checking is only a part of what is needed to stop the spread of fake news,” Sinha said. “And even though fact-checkers and organizations are increasing, we don’t have any other support.” According to Sinha, “The issue of people consuming misinformation and disinformation is a structural issue where people are not trained to react to the information they receive.”

For instance, an older version of The Kerala Story trailer mentions 32,000 Hindu girls have been converted to Islam and sent to Syria and Yemen. This narrative went viral with the hashtag #TrueStory on WhatsApp. But soon after, Alt News discovered that the film director had put out the number of 32,000 women without any evidence. Data suggests that the number is far less than that. Following this fact check, the filmmakers dropped the number from 32,000 to just three, but only in the new teaser, not in the film. The change had little to no impact on the film’s credibility on WhatsApp.  

The government of India openly supports The Kerala Story. The Bharatiya Janata party’s (BJP) ministers urged Indians to watch the film and held special screenings of the film in some states. On Twitter, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said, “Hearty congratulations and best wishes to all the people associated with this film!” Adityanath, who has faced charges of attempted murder, defiling a mosque, and rioting against the Muslim population, also made the film tax-free in his state. 

The Hindutva party BJP uses WhatsApp as an important tool to spread its hate against Indian Muslims. Its affiliated organizations such as the right-wing Hindu nationalist group the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Bajrang Dal, and Vishva Hindu Parishad are responsible for initiating country-wide WhatsApp groups to spread anti-Muslim rhetoric. They describe themselves as Hindu nationalist militant organizations that are an extension of the RSS ideology, and have over 500,000 active members on WhatsApp channels.

The disinformation then trickles down to various smaller, local groups. Even when individuals are not part of any of these BJP-affiliated organizations, they may share the same ideology, and they are quick to consume and forward the same messages on WhatsApp. WhatsApp groups with neighbors, friends, and family consider it their responsibility  to share anti-Muslim hate and “warn” their peers. Messages asking WhatsApp readers to “Wake up before the Muslims get us,” are common in the Hindutva-WhatsApp ecosystem.

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“The disinformation in WhatsApp groups is spread amongst like-minded communities,” Indian journalist Alishan Jafri said. “So then the primary reason for the spread of hateful messages is more ideological and has less to do with individuals falling for disinformation. One can see WhatsApp chats as another version of a dining room conversation between upper middle class, middle-aged Hindu men.”

The virality of fake news that spreads on WhatsApp combined with the government’s effort in spreading and supporting this propaganda makes it difficult to control the offline damage done by fake news. Communal clashes have been triggered by WhatsApp conversations and social media posts related to The Kerala Story 

Prateek Goyal, a reporter at Newslaundry (an independent media company dedicated to providing media critique and analysis) bemoaned Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s involvement: “A fact checker could try to dismiss a WhatsApp account’s conspiracy theories by providing a counter-narrative or fact-checking the information. But these claims are harder to counter when the incorrect information and accounts sharing these theories are supported and followed by political leaders and influential persons.” 

As Amit Shah, the current minister of home affairs and the former president of BJP proudly claimed in a 2018 speech he was delivering ahead of the national elections, “We have 3.2 million people in our WhatsApp groups. That is how we make things go viral. We can spread any message we want, whether it is true or false.”

But fact-checkers aren’t giving up: Alt News is in the process of developing a curriculum for grades 5-8 to increase media literacy and awareness about reading news. “We need an education curriculum to teach children and communities how to take a step back and review the news you’re reading,” Sinha said. “Because the very job of any propaganda or fake news is to overwhelm with your emotion. Even then you cannot stop fake news. Only reduce its impact.” – Rappler.com

Shreya Bansal is a queer, disabled reporter based in Delhi, whose interests lie in writing social justice features and longform stories with a gender lens.

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