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South Asia

Antisocial Messaging: Here Are Five Ways WhatsApp Is Misused in India

Bad actors in India leverage WhatsApp to promote alternative historical narratives, spread rumors, mobilize vigilante groups, and demonize religious minorities.

Logo of Facebook's WhatsApp chat application.

1) Fake News

Like many other communications and social media apps, WhatsApp is a vehicle for spreading completely made-up stories. The motives behind the stories vary. Sometimes it’s to stir fear among consumers in a country in which manufactured products are often adulterated. On other occasions, the motives are political (for example, to project Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a demi-god).

“…messages on the app can include the rumor of a popular mango drink being laced with H.I.V.-positive blood, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization’s rating of Narendra Modi as the best prime minister in the world or Julian Assange describing him as an incorruptible leader.”

Alia Allana, a writer with the Mumbai-based Fountain Ink magazine.

2) Historical Revisionism

WhatsApp in India constitutes an alternative, anti-intellectual space—often mocked as “WhatsApp University”—in which pseudo-intellectuals engage in Hindu nationalist historical revisionism as part of a revolt against a more inclusive and ecumenical view of India’s history. Digital doses of revisionist Indian history colored by Hindu nationalist and anti-Muslim sentiment provide a counternarrative to books written by professors at India’s leading liberal arts universities.

Indian journalist Alia Allana writes, “Nationalist rage, often with sectarian overtones, dominates the world of India’s WhatsApp messages.”

3) Radicalization

WhatsApp has proved to be an effective radicalization tool in India, especially among its majority Hindu population.

Last year, Shambu Lal, a radicalized Hindu, hacked to death and set on fire a Muslim migrant laborer and had the barbaric act recorded and posted onto Facebook. The video was then spread.

A BBC News report from December notes that a group of men “created a WhatsApp group where they praise” Lal and “share photos of him stamped with Hindu right-wing slogans.” Lal was radicalized by watching Hindu extremist videos on Facebook and WhatsApp.

Rather than condemning the murder of an innocent man, many of India’s major Hindu extremist groups connected to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) embraced Lal as a hero. The radical Hindu group Bajrang Dal took out a protest in his support. And, according to India’s News 18, many “people have replaced their own display pictures on social media with those of [Lal].”

WhatsApp groups provide virtual venues for radicalized and radicalizing Hindus to affirm their beliefs and proudly express their anti-Muslim bigotry.

4) Inciting Violence and Stoking Fear

Rumors can often lead to vigilante and mass violence in India, especially in rural areas. WhatsApp has made the process of spreading rumors more rapid and deadly.

In 2013, a video of a crime likely committed in Afghanistan or Pakistan was spread on WhatsApp and falsely portrayed as one committed in Muzaffarnagar, India. It is believed to have been used to fuel a local pogrom in which dozens of Muslims were killed and tens of thousands fled from their homes.

An Indian Muslim, Mohammed Akhlaq, was murdered by Hindu extremists in 2015 after images spread on WhatsApp of him and his family allegedly sacrificing a cow for consumption.

In January 2018, an Indian university professor with over two million Twitter followers falsely claimed that the attackers of a school bus filled with children were Muslim. She blamed the incorrect tweet on information (likely obtained via WhatsApp) transmitted by a senior Indian bureaucrat.

5) Vigilante Mobilization

Under the rule of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has seen an uptick in anti-minority violence, including attacks on Muslims accused of engaging in the slaughter of cows for consumption.

Hindus revere the cow as sacred and observant Hindus refrain from consuming beef. So-called “cow protection” vigilante networks have proliferated across India, especially in states where the BJP rules, targeting Muslim farmers, transporters, and villagers. These vigilante networks attack and sometimes kill those suspected of cow slaughter (often the accusations are false) or report these individuals to the police, with whom they work hand-in-glove.

Similar collaboration takes place between Hindu extremists and the police to target couples consisting of a Hindu woman and Muslim man. Hindu extremists decry these interfaith relationships and have conjured up the term “love jihad” to falsely depict consensual relations as coerced.

In one area of northern India, “waiters, college students and out of work youth” serve as “spies” for the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad to inform on interfaith couples. And WhatsApp is key to their surveillance network.

“We have WhatsApp groups in place which have all these people. I closely monitor all of them and if any case of love jihad comes to the fore, I inform the people concerned so that we reach the spot to check the matter and seek police intervention.”

– A Hindu extremist group member on how his group uses WhatsApp to target interfaith couples:

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News and host of The Pivot podcast. He's contributed to publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, and POLITICO Magazine, and has appeared on broadcast outlets such as Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio. Rafiq is also a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.

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