Indian and Pakistani social media users battled for control of the master narrative in the wake of the Easter bombing in Sri Lanka
This is the first of a two-part series looking at the use of social media in India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the Easter 2019 terror attack in Sri Lanka.
The dust had yet to settle after a series of coordinated bombings swept through the island nation of Sri Lanka when social media users in nearby India and Pakistan took to the internet to disseminate contrasting and conspiratorial narratives blaming one another for carrying out the attack.
India and Pakistan have a polarized political atmosphere and a history of sectarian conflict. India has witnessed a 28 percent increase in communal violence incidents since 2017. According to analysis of Indian Ministry of Home Affairs data by local-media outlet India Spend, there have been 822 recorded incidents of sectarian violence in the country between 2014–2017 registering an overall decrease from a decade-long high of 943 incidents in 2008.
Similarly, Pakistan has an equally troubling history of communal violence with human rights organizations drawing attention to repeated attacks by local terror groups on the country’s religious minorities. The Pakistani governments annual human rights report for 2017 also highlights “no abatement in violence against religious minorities” in the country, particularly attacks targeting the populations Hazara, Ahmadi, Christian, Hindu, and Sikh minority communities.
The BBC reported of one such incident in April 2019 in which local terror groups targeted a vegetable market frequented by the country’s Hazara minority, killing 24 people and injuring dozens more in the Pakistani city of Quetta. Taken together, these characteristics make the Indian subcontinent particularly vulnerable to reprisal attacks on minorities in neighboring countries, especially if aggravated by inauthentic content that is spread online.
Going forward, the risk of attacks by terror groups designed to promote sectarian tension by targeting minority communities presents a great concern for policymakers and security agencies in the region. Moreover, by spreading material that arouses communal hostility, social media users in both countries are guilty of aiding the aims of terror groups carrying out such attacks by inadvertently amplifying a conception of the world as marred by the fault lines of “civilizational conflict.”
On Easter Sunday 2019, six bombers carried out a series of coordinated attacks on Christian worshippers attending mass in the Sri Lankan cities of Colombo, Negombo, and Batticoloa. The attacks left 290 civilians dead and hundreds more injured. Within hours, the Sri Lankan government instituted a social media blackout by blocking the access of the country’s citizens to social networking sites.
The government previously instituted a similar ban in March 2018 after violence broke out between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and Sri Lankan police following an attack on a Buddhist temple in Abathanna. Fearing a similar outbreak of reprisal attacks on the Muslim community after the Easter bombings, Sri Lankan authorities instituted a social media blackout to counter the threat of false information about the attack being circulated online.
Meanwhile in India and Pakistan, social media users disseminated sectarian content without similar restrictions. The dissemination of such content in service of a broader ethno-religious narrative of “civilizational conflict” represents a challenging threat to regional stability. Part 1 of this series examines Indian social media users’ “us” vs. “them” narrative in the wake of the Sri Lankan bombings. Part 2 examines Pakistani social media users’ parallel narrative that attributes the Easter bombings to India’s intelligence agencies while arguing that the attack was conducted to tarnish the reputation of the wider Muslim community in the region.
A Broader Threat
The Easter Sunday bombings followed another coordinated bombing on a house of worship elsewhere, during which attackers targeted Sunday mass at a church on Jolo Island in the Philippines in January 2019. The Easter Sunday bombers appear to have selected their targets — churches and hotels frequented by foreign travelers –with the knowledge that locations with a large concentration of foreigners would attract attention from the international community and instill fear.
In the aftermath of the bombings, the Sri Lankan government attributed the attack to two little-known local Islamist groups: National Tawheed Jamath and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim. On April 22, despite the government’s attribution, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the suicide attacks, releasing pictures and videos of the attackers pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. Having endured a three-decade-long civil conflict that saw the majority Sinhalese population of the country pitted against its minority Tamil population, many Sri Lankans, including the head of the Sri Lankan Catholic Church, have publicly expressed concern that the sectarian sentiment aroused by the attacks could further destabilize the country’s delicate ethno-religious balance.
Scott Stewart, Vice President for Tactical Analysis at Stratfor, warned that terror attacks on houses of worship are a longstanding tactic employed by terror groups to incite further violence among religious communities. In particular, Stewart argued that terrorists attack them “not just to kill, but to create division and ethnic or religious strife.”
The deliberate targeting of places of worship by terror groups serves two key purposes. First, it takes aim at soft targets with a high concentration of victims and relatively lax security measures, which in turn results in a greater number of deaths. Second, it stokes sectarian tensions within the target population by encouraging reprisal attacks on perceived enemies, fueling an intensifying cycle of violence.
This strategic targeting of minority communities in their places of worship could have devastating consequences on the communal harmony of diverse ethno-religious countries, such as India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Thailand, and other nations in the region.
India’s “Us” vs. “Them” Narrative
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, multiple Indian social media users on Twitter amplified disinformation linking the Easter bombings to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. The tweets sought to attribute guilt before the Sri Lankan government and security services had completed their investigations into the attack or made formal attribution.
The narrative employed in the tweets exploited the confirmation bias of some Indian citizens by employing anti-Muslim rhetoric and appealing to their majoritarian beliefs as Hindus. On multiple occasions, users evoked the idea of a civilizational conflict between Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam.
@ByRakeshSimha, a social media account claiming to belong to a journalist with by-lines in several publications, including the New Delhi-based Centre for Land Warfare Studies, Business Today, and the right-wing Swarajya Magazine, posted a tweet on the day of the attack comparing ethnic Tamil Muslims to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the rebel group that was one of the key instigators of the Sri Lankan civil war.
According to the Twitter user, “Tamils only wanted autonomy in their enclaves, Muslims want the whole nation for Allah.” This tweet received 409 retweets and 714 likes, primarily from Indian users on the platform. The user attempted to link the terror attack with the wider Muslim community in Sri Lanka.
The day after the attack, the same user posted a link to his article in Business Today, asserting “‘Pakistani fingerprints’ were ‘all over the crime scene in Sri Lanka.’” The article suggested a possible connection between one of the suicide bombers, who was believed to have visited Pakistan in 2018, and prior military cooperation between the Sri Lankan and Pakistani military during the Sri Lankan Civil War, insinuating that the attack arose out of military cooperation between the two countries.
The rhetoric of the tweet went even further than the article, claiming that the Pakistani government had conspired with Sri Lankan authorities to carry out the attack. At the time of publication, no evidence of such a connection existed.
On the same day, @amritabhinder, an Indian social media user with a verified account and 75, 759 followers, posted a tweet claiming that a “Pakistani diplomat in Sri Lanka” was on a “terror radar.” The tweet linked to an article published in 2014 by the Indian newspaper Times of India. The article reported that a former Pakistani diplomat had been implicated in organizing terror attacks in India targeting U.S and Israeli embassies located in the country at the behest of the ISI. The individual was subsequently put on a “Wanted” list by the Indian National Investigation Agency and is currently at large. Despite these facts, there is no indication that this terror suspect was associated with the May 2019 bombings.
Another Indian Twitter account, @IndianInterest, posted a thread on the day of the attack to its more than 60,000 followers making sarcastic comments about the religious background of the attackers in response to posts by other users reporting on the attack and offering their sympathy. In the account description, the user described himself as an “Indian Civilizationist.”
In response to tweets posted separately by an American terrorism analyst and a political leader from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the account proclaimed that “[t]error has no religion, only peace does.” This quote was a sarcastic reference to a majoritarian narrative of Islam as an inherently violent religion. The remainder of the tweet dismissed the mainstream view of terror recruits as “misguided youth” who are susceptible to radicalization because of socioeconomic factors.
Interestingly, two days after the attack, @IndianInterest also retweeted a tweet by the account referenced earlier, @ByRakeshSimha. The tweet in question admonished a post by describing its author as a “Kerala Christian trying desperately to find a Hindu or Buddhist connection to the Sri Lanka bombings.” The tweet concluded that, while “these people” (in reference to minority Christians belonging to the South Indian state of Kerala) “hate Hindus,” they do not realize that it is the “Hindu majority that prevents the Muslims of Kerala from slaughtering the Christians.”
@ByRakeshSimha’s tweet provided no evidence for this assertion. Moreover, it furthered a narrative of a civilizational clash between Hindu, Muslim, and Christian communities while also alluding to violence perpetuated by Muslims against other ethnic and religious communities on the basis of religious belief.
The day after the Easter attack, a user with more than 10,000 followers who claimed to be a journalist from the far-right Swarajya Magazine posted a tweet questioning whether the Christian and Muslim minority communities in India knew that the Hindu majority “protects their loved ones from Jihadist bombs” and “U.S. drones killing their children in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
The tweet asserted that Hindutva, a majoritarian political ideology that seeks to eradicate the secular nature of the Indian state in favor of a government that gives deference to India’s Hindu population, protects the country’s religious minorities.
When communally charged false rhetoric circulates in the immediate aftermath of a terror attack, it risks provoking further sectarian conflict. Countries with diverse ethno-religious communities and preexisting histories of such conflict — including India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan — are particularly vulnerable to erupting into violent conflict along ethno-religious fault lines.
Part 2 of this analysis will examine the opposing narrative employed by Pakistani social media users to characterize the Easter bombing as a false flag operation orchestrated by Indian intelligence services in an effort to tarnish the reputation of Muslims worldwide.
Ayushman Kaul is a Research Assistant, South Asia, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in India.
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