Tensions are on the rise in India due to the spread of religious and ethnically motivated disinformation and conspiracy theories that can lead to serious inter-communal violence. At ActiveFence, we work to identify harmful trends as they unfold. In this blog, we’ve identified these dangerous narratives trending across online platforms.
Demographic & Political Context
India has a highly connected population of over 1.39 billion people. As of January 2021, the country had 624 million active internet users, with that number set to exceed 900 million by 2025. While the majority of India’s citizens are Hindu (79.80%), the country also contains significant Muslim (14.23%), Christian (2.3%), Sikh (1.72%), and Buddhist (0.7%) minorities. The country is constituted not only of various religious groups but also large and diverse ethnic communities, which actively speak over 211 languages.
The central tension that runs through the Republic of India lies between its Hindu majority and its significant Muslim minority. This insecurity can be traced to the events of Partition and the creation of a Hindu-majority India, bordered by the Muslim-majority countries of Pakistan and what is now Bangladesh. The following wars and the rise of Hindutva (right-wing Hindu nationalist) organizations, together with the ongoing tension in the disputed region of Kashmir, have added fuel to the fire.
As this tension can be exploited by bad actors seeking to drive wedges within and polarize society, the Indian government passed the IT Rules 2021. These specifically compel social media companies to act within thirty-six hours of notification to remove content that is “libelous, racially or ethnically objectionable … is patently false and untrue … with the intent to mislead or harass a person … or to cause any injury to any person.”
Whispers Become Shouts
Across social media, news stories are retold with an inserted religious angle, and religiously and ethnically motivated disinformation is shared rapidly. The disinformation appears to be coordinated on private messaging groups, with allegations directed at Muslims being made publicly by Hindutva activists. These anti-Muslim allegations are described as different forms of Jihad; to date, ActiveFence has identified Love Jihad, Population Jihad, Land Jihad, Water Jihad, COVID Jihad, and Bollywood Jihad, to name a few of many. These conspiracy theories, directed against India’s Muslim population, can lead to the breakdown of inter-communal trust, physical violence, and the rise of extremism on all sides amongst vulnerable members of India’s communities.
The challenge for international platforms is great. Not only are there many languages that are in frequent use, but users are referencing stories produced by news outlets that often peddle falsehoods. Politically motivated users are also acting in concert, working together in off-platform private messaging groups, to promote misleading news stories widely across social media. Without local insights and intelligence capabilities, it is very difficult to ascertain which news story shared is true and which is false and which has been modified to insert communal tensions into the news cycle.
Nationalist Fears: Love, Population and Land Jihad
During Partition, it was not only the land that was divided but the people as well. It is estimated that between 10 and 20 million were displaced based on their religious denominations. Some of the most affected regions were in Punjab, where between 2.3 and 3.2 million Hindus were forced to leave, with many others dying. Many settled in Western Uttar Pradesh where the scars from the events of Partition are still visible. As a result, many within the state are susceptible to conspiracy theories about Muslim demographic and geographical manipulations and carrying out ‘Ghazwa-e-Hind,’ the Islamic conquest of India.
Love Jihad is a conspiracy theory popularized by Hindutva activists and organizations such as the RSS, which allege that Muslim men are actively seeking out Hindu women to convert, marry, and later abuse. Population Jihad and Land Jihad are thematically similar conspiracy theories that are spread in the same way. These allege that Muslims are seeking to take over India and convert the country into an Islamic state. This activity is either by having more children than Hindus or by changing the facts on the ground by building illegal shrines to Islamize Indian land.
Each of these conspiracy theories, which are largely unfounded, are promoted by various ‘news’ outlets and some local politicians, and the supporting content is spread across social media. This material is not only false but can lead to inter-communal violence in the real world. ActiveFence has identified many videos of Hindu and Sikh extremist activists incited to destroy apparent Muslim graveyards and shrines. This trend is not only violent but serves to encourage future acts of aggression, which could lead to an escalation in tensions.
The challenge for international platforms is to navigate multiple national environments, with many languages active simultaneously, all while understanding the regional dynamics behind the behavior. What can appear to be a news story can, in reality, be a religious or ethnically motivated conspiracy theory—context matters, and online activity has real-world consequences.
ActiveFence monitors over fifty languages across a range of platforms, from the dark and clear web to provide our partners with the necessary context to act as new threats emerge. To find out more about the jihad conspiracy theories download the full and detailed report below.