Three pages capitalized on cases of sexual violence to deepen Hindu-Muslim divide
Three right-wing Facebook pages with a combined follower count over 2 million amplified misleading content about cases of sexual violence in India, as well as posting about other divisive issues in what appeared to be an attempt to stir inter-religious conflict, particular against the country’s Muslim minority.
On several occasions, the pages posted identical content within minutes of one another. This behavior suggested a degree of coordination. The pages’ amplification primarily targeting India’s Muslim minority risks exacerbating ongoing tensions, which are running high amidst enduring nationwide protests against the government’s introduction of a controversial law that ties citizenship to religious faith.
Adding fuel to the fire, sectarian violence broke out in Delhi between February 24 and 27, with 53 dead and hundreds injured. India has a high incidence of sexual violence overall, and rape and assault cases periodically trigger sectarian violence, particularly in rural areas, but in large cities as well. At the same time, interest groups use popular social media platforms to weave a communal narrative around incidents of sexual violence run the risk of sparking a series of reprisal attacks and an escalating cycle of violence.
The views streamlined by the pages were consistent with Hindutva, an extremist political ideology associated with the right-wing movement in India, including with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Hindutva seeks to overturn the secular character of the Indian state and constitution in favor of a Hindu religious-nationalist state.
Two of the pages posting identical content, Hindu Adhiveshan (“Hindu Conference”) and Hindu Janajagruti Samithi-Hindi (“Hindu Consciousness Committee”), presented themselves as the social media arms of a nongovernmental organization called Hindu Jagruti. The organization’s website stated that its mission was to work toward the establishment of a Hindu nation.
A third page, Forum for Hindu Awakening, was related to a U.S.-registered organization of the same name with a stated mission of providing education on the “unique spiritual science behind Hinduism.”
According to the Page Transparency sections of all three pages, they were created between 2009 and 2012 and, at the time of analysis, had cumulatively accrued over 2.3 million followers.
On several occasions, all three of the pages posted identical content within minutes of each other. While this behavior may have been expected from the two pages belonging to Hindu Jagruti, it was unusual that it also included the ostensibly unrelated Forum for Hindu Awakening page.
The pages also shared the same geographical distribution of page managers, with individuals based in the United States, Canada, and India.
Amplifying inflammatory content
The pages selectively highlighted incidents of sexual violence in which one of the perpetrators happened to be Muslim and strategically misconstrued them to inflame religious tensions further.
In one case, they emphasized that one of the four suspects in a Hyderabad gang rape case was Muslim, claiming the attack was carried out by “Mohammed Pasha and his gang of hooligans.” The posts gained traction from Indian users on the platform, cumulatively receiving 8,746 likes and 11,836 shares at the time of analysis.
According to a query using social media listening tool CrowdTangle, from November 2019 to January 2020, the pages received roughly 539,300 total interactions combined: an average of 12,800 interactions a week. While the engagement with the inflammatory posts was not significant in sheer scale, it represented a significant increase in what was an otherwise active online community.
The pages’ posts regarding the Hyderabad incident also amplified a link to an article published in Hindi on HinduJagrati.org, the website associated with the Hindu Adhiveshan and Hindu Janajagruti Samithi-Hindi pages, that also mentioned the Muslim suspect and claimed he was the mastermind behind the attack. The local District Commissioner of Police, however, clarified that the crime was “not related to any religion.” AltNews, a local fact-checking outlet, subsequently debunked the claim that Pasha was the sole “mastermind” behind the attack.
Just one day after posting on the Hyderabad incident, the pages amplified another post related to another incident of sexual violence carried out by a member of the Indian Muslim community in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh. The network also amplified communal narratives related to an attack that took place in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh in early November, alleging that it represented a case of “Rape Jihad” that would not be reported on by members of the “secular media” as the perpetrator was allegedly Muslim.
The insinuation that members of India’s Muslim community are responsible for a majority of sexual violence cases in the country is unsubstantiated. According to a fact check published by India Today, a national media outlet, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) does not categorize criminal cases according to religion; it is thus impossible to determine what proportion of sexual violence crimes are committed by a particular religious community.
The content amplified by the pages may have violated Facebook’s community standards regarding objectionable content, which prohibits the targeting of people based on certain “protected characteristics,” including religious affiliation.
This is not the first instance of malicious actors leveraging Facebook’s large audience in the country to demonize India’s minorities. U.S.-based outlet Vice previously published an article highlighting how Islamophobic content constituted the biggest source of hate speech on the platform, representing 37 percent of all problematic content reported to the platform by Equality Labs, an Indian Facebook monitoring organization.
In addition to sexual crime narratives, the three pages regularly posted identical content on other divisive issues, including the recent sectarian clashes in Delhi alongside the ongoing nationwide protests against the controversial citizenship law. Posts on both topics attempt to cast protestors as part of a “Jihadi mob.”
One of the recent posts amplified during the sectarian violence in Delhi attempted to discredit anti-CAA protesters by highlighting the murder of a member of the Intelligence Bureau in the locality of Chand Bagh. The message accompanying the post amplified a link to an article published on the HinduJagruti.org website alongside a written message asking, “Have those rioters protesting against the CAA now become terrorists?” Delhi police are currently investigating the case and have taken a local councilor of the Delhi-based Aam Aadmi political party into custody, after he was named by the victim’s family in a First Information Report filed with the police.
In promoting anti-Muslim narratives, the content posted on these three Facebook pages seemed to foreshadow the recent sectarian unrest. With the BJP-led government ambivalent to the plight of the country’s Muslim minority at the best of times, it seems unlikely that these types of narratives — and the associated real-life consequences — will abate any time soon.
Ayushman Kaul is a Research Assistant, South Asia, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in India.
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