One in Three WhatsApp Posts in India Stokes Hate and Fear of Muslims, Finds Study

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The study also found that the fear speech, the message which stokes fear of Muslims, spreads faster and are circulated longer than non-fear speech

Team Clarion

NEW DELHI – One in three messages shared on WhatsApp groups in India from August 2018 to August 2019 was laden with Islamophobia which incite hate and fear of Muslims, found a study done by computer scientists.

The study by the scientists from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is to be presented in a Web conference this year. The researchers went over 2 Million messages in more than 5,000 Indian WhatsApp groups for the study.

“We manually curated a dataset of 27,000 posts, out of which about 8,000 posts were fear speech. It’s a similar tactic used by all these groups. To be overtly Hindu,” lead author Dr Kiran Garimella from the MIT Institute of Data, Systems and Society was quoted by Times of India as saying about their study.

The study found that these Islamobhobic messages, which are shared way more than the normal messages, have conspicuous hate, subtle fear and the way it is invoked is far more insidious.

“Mob lynching has started with Muslim neighbourhoods … This creates a feeling among Hindus that when they get a chance, they will also surround them, beat them and kill them,” said one warning message which portrays the Muslims as mob lynching culprits who are eager to kill others.

The study also found that the fear speech, the message which stokes fear of Muslims, spreads faster and are circulated longer than non-fear speech. Seven fear speech is shared in the groups in comparison to five non-fear speech. Each fear speech is shared eight times. Fear speech remains active for 25 days – 7 days more than non-fear speech.

The study also found 8 recurring subjects – the messages related to these subjects have been shared most often. These are “Muslim exploitation of Dalits”, “Instigation of Kerala riots by Muslims”, “Islamisation of Bengal”, “UPSC Jihad”, “Mistreatment of Muslim women” and “Muslim population”. Apart from these, there is a wide range of misinformation which incites hatred and fear of Muslims among Hindus. “Medical Jihad”: Muslims doctors are doing “Medical Jihad” to kill Hindus with fake treatment referring to a Gorakhpur doctor Kafeel Khan. In Wayanad, from where Congress leader Rahul Gandhi fought 2019 Lok Sabha elections, “decrees are given to kill non-Muslims on every Friday” claimed a message. Another message claimed love jihad is done to feed a black market trade.

“In 1378, a part of India was separated, became an Islamic nation. Name is Iran. In 1761, a part was separated from India, became an Islamic nation. Name is Afghanistan … and now Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Kerala are on the verge of becoming an Islamic state!” says one message with fake information.

“With made-up facts, fake numbers, they create a feeling of scientific rigour … Someone really took the time to think of this and set it in a narrative,” said Garimella. “But this is all well-known. They are doing it in the open. It is no longer surprising.”

He found that there is a concerted effort to spread such messages which are shared in ‘politically oriented groups”.

“One of the key points is that it seems to be a concerted effort. Now, it’s not even a secret or a great finding. If messages in these politically oriented groups talk about Muslims as a fear narrative, someone is deciding that you need to put them out,” said Garimella. “And these messages are not short, like on Twitter.”

Garimmella said that WhatsApp is far ahead of other social media in terms of users in India.

“Our research study started with thinking about moderation. One of the reasons WhatsApp is important is because there is no moderation,” Garimella added. “I am not really interested in studying Twitter or Telegram. They are really fringe. Telegram has about 25% penetration in India. But WhatsApp has 80% of internet users. That scale makes a difference.”

The people who post these fear speeches are mostly the supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party who support the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and blame Muslims for the spread of Covid-19.

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