“UP says that Yogi will come again… we have to come together to press the button on the lotus… after Ram Mandir, Banaras and Mathura will also be built,” is the English translation of a Hindi song that a young boy belts out in a video doing rounds in WhatsApp groups populated with members and supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “Will come again,” refers to incumbent Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, returning for a second term after the state polls next month. Banaras and Mathura refer to the demolition of existing Islamic structures to build temples, similar to how the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya in December 1992 to make way for the Ram Temple. The caption of the WhatsApp message reads, “For Yogi ji, this child has sung a beautiful song.”
“This is not an election. This is a dharam yudh (religious war). Those who are not with Ram will be destroyed,” is how a young woman, who says she is a BJP worker and an OBC (Other Backward Class), concludes a monologue denouncing the recent defection of OBC leaders from the BJP.
“Who is working? Hindus. Who is doing namaz? Muslims. Who is ruining the nation? Muslims,” says a young man in a saffron scarf, delivering a monologue about how Indian Muslims are having eight children to change India’s demography and install a Muslim Prime Minister by 2029.
All three messages say, “Forwarded many times,” a feature introduced in 2019 by Facebook (now Meta), the company that owns WhatsApp, a year after it first started labeling forwarded messages as a first step towards limiting the dissemination of fake news that was triggering lynchings in India.
As the BJP weathers the exodus of OBC leaders a month before India’s most populous and politically significant state goes to the polls, its right-wing ecosystem on WhatsApp is amplifying the Chief Minister’s election pitch of it being a contest between the “80%-20%,” widely interpreted as the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority, an estimated 20% of the more than 200 million people living in UP. Scores of WhatsApp messages that we read over the past week drive home this polarizing pitch with fake news, communally-charged content, and outright hate speech, demonstrating how the Election Commission of India (ECI) and tech giants can do little to stop the relentless flow of anti-Muslim propaganda that is hurting India’s constitutional commitment to free and fair elections.
Fake news and communal content during elections have become so normalised that it is no longer a talking point this time around, SY Quraishi, India’s Chief Election Commissioner from 2010 to 2012, told us. “Messages are flying thick and fast. The difficulty of stopping it cannot be an excuse for the ECI to keep quiet. It should appeal to all political parties to ask their supporters to not indulge in this kind of content,” he said. “Is polarising the only way to win elections?”
Is polarising the only way to win elections?SY Quraishi, Former Chief Election Commissioner.
With 530 million users (at the start of 2021), there are more WhatsApp users in India than in any other country. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are at 410 million, 210 million, and 17.5 million, respectively.
Experts say that fake news and hate speech rarely come from official platforms of the BJP, but the party’s right-wing ecosystem of political consultants and volunteers draw on the obscurity offered by social media networks to polarise the public by creating divisive content and amplifying similar material from hardline politicians, news channels and influencers. WhatsApp, where groups are private, conversations encrypted, information forwarded, and sourcing elusive, is the most closed off to scrutiny. Ahead of the Lok Sabha election in 2019, dubbed the first ‘WhatsApp election’ of India, a Voluntary Code of Ethics, which included the creation of a “high priority dedicated grievance redressal channel,” was agreed upon by all social media platforms for all elections. That year, WhatsApp blocked mobile numbers spreading fake news and objectionable election-related content flagged by the ECI.
While WhatsApp cannot get to the source of the message without breaking its own encryption, it has tried to curb dissemination by labeling forwarded messages and limiting users from forwarding them to more than five users and frequently forwarded messages to one person or group, which, according to Facebook, cut virality by 70%. It has also launched a tip line in collaboration with independent fact-checking services for people to send their queries.
Co-founders of Alt News, an Ahmedabad-based fact-checking platform, Pratik Sinha and Mohammed Zubair, tell us that the trajectory of fake news they have observed is from platforms like Twitter and Facebook to WhatsApp (and more recently Telegram). Even with greater communication between fact-checkers and company officials, they say that Facebook and Twitter are slow to take down fake and objectionable content on these platforms as well. Noting how fake news has been normalized in society, and how hate speech is proliferating in the open, Sinha said, “Hate speech is even more debilitating for society. We are going further into the abyss, but you don’t see any focused plan to fight it.”
Hate speech is even more debilitating for society. We are going further into the abyss…Pratik Sinha, Founder AltNews.
Even as the Congress Party has invested more in upping its social media game, and countering the BJP’s propaganda game with its own fake news, the bulk of the communal fake news is from the right-wing ecosystem, Zubair said. Based on the fact-check queries they get, he said, “It is not even comparable.”
On Wednesday, Zubair posted a Twitter thread of the debate titles on the UP election on a Hindi-language news channel: “A grand alliance against Hindus?”, “Spreading fear of Hindutva, spreading Hinduphobia?” and “Yogi’s 80 will make BJP win.” It was audio and video recordings of shows like these that made their way to social media platforms, he said.
One BJP voter, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told us that the WhatsApp messages he reads and shares make him feel that if BJP loses UP, Hindus would be in danger in India. He said there is a steady stream of anti-Muslim messages even when there is no election, but the frequency ratchets up in the weeks leading up to polls in UP. He is a member of dozens of groups, where communal messages are shared every day.
As for the “80-20” remark made by the CM, this voter’s takeaway is, “It is a call for the majority Hindus to vote tactically for one party, just as the Muslims do. This is reverse polarisation. Hindus are naturally patriotic and nationalistic while Muslims are not. This will be the most polarising election ever.”
This will be the most polarising election ever.BJP voter.
Shortly after this, he shared the following WhatsApp message with us: “If you don’t vote for the BJP then Muslims will come into your home and read the namaz.”
The CM’s “80-20” remark was in response to a question about the BJP losing the Brahmin vote: “Yeh ladai usse bahut aage ja chuki hain. Yeh ladai assi banam bees ki ho chuki hain.” (This fight has gone much further than this. This fight has become 80 versus 20). The 20 percent, he said in an interview with India Today, were those opposed to the Ram Janmabhoomi, the Kashi Vishwanath dham, and the grand development of the Mathura Vrindavan, and those who sympathize with the mafia and terrorists.
It remains to be seen whether, as the CM is suggesting, the UP election is anchored in the religious identity of the Hindu voters, eclipsing caste. That he has favoured his own Thakur caste during his tenure is part of this election’s narrative. The CM made the “80-20” remark a few days before his Minister in charge of Labour and Employment, and an OBC leader, Swamy Prasad Maurya, quit and joined Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP), triggering the OBC exodus. Writing for India Ahead, political analyst Asim Ali noted that even though the BJP has appointed more OBC ministers than any other party, the CM’s autocratic style of governing had not agreed with them, and 15% of the roughly 35% non-Yadav OBC vote, would be enough to turn the election in SP’s favour.
While the “overtone and undertone” of the election was religion, Ashutosh Mishra, a political science professor at Lucknow University, said that caste remained a faultline. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s welfare schemes of toilets, houses, and gas cylinders, ensuring delivery without leakages, had transformed the BJP from an urban to a rural party, Mishra added. “If there was no delivery of the populist schemes, then Hindutva would not work,” he said. “There are several factors at play.”
If there was no delivery of the populist schemes, Hindutva would not work.Ashutosh Mishra, Political Science Professor, Lucknow University.
The WhatsApp messages, however, suggest a preoccupation with anti-Muslim propaganda and cultivating a sense of Hindu victimhood, and more recently ridiculing Maurya for leaving the BJP ahead of the UP election.
Even issues like the state of law and order, which the CM claims has improved despite the National Human Rights Commission and the United Nations expressing concern about the encounter killings in UP, is projected with a Hindu-Muslim lens.
Messages say the choice is between the “austere and corruption-free” Yogi Adityanath, and the “entitled and flamboyant” Akhilesh Yadav, who, if he comes to power, will elevate criminals like Atique Ahmed and Mukhtar Ansari, and politicians like Azam Khan.
To project Rahul Gandhi as a buffoon and unfit to lead is an old trope in the right-wing ecosystem. The jokes and jibes targeting him and his family, going back to India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, persist. In addition to the Congress Party, now all Opposition parties are cast as anti-Hindu and anti-India.
“How can we leave the party that reminded other parties that Hindus also live in this country?” says a WhatsApp message posted in multiple groups.
Another message says that five education ministers under Congress governments from 1947 to 1977, Maulana Azad, Humayun Kabir, Mohammed Carim Chagla, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, and Saiyid Nurul Hasan, were Muslim, and that is why “invaders” like Akbar, Babar, Aurangzeb, and Khilji, have been projected as great.
Another “warning” is that if the BJP and Yogi Adityanath do not return to power in February, Hindus will not get to celebrate Holi in March. “If you want to celebrate Holi, wake up Hindus,” the message says. “Wake up.”
However, concerns like the rise in the price of fuel and food, which have left many people angry and suffering, do not register as a UP poll matter, but a national issue that is irrelevant to a Hindutva agenda.
A message lionizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi reads, “People who think we’ve got Modi for lehsun (garlic), pyaz (onion), petrol, keep away. The things we have got him for, those are happening.”
Another one says, “Things that are coming: Uniform Civil Code, POK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) and the Population Control Bill.”
Referring to Modi’s home state, where he served as Chief Minister for three consecutive terms, a message says, “Gujarat is the only place in the world where Muslims live and there is peace.”
Using Crowd Tangle, Facebook’s transparency tool, Ritumbra Manuvie, a lecturer at the University of Groningen, who is tracking hate speech in India, specifically 27 Facebook pages in the right-wing ecosystem with collective video views of 1 billion from 1 January 2019 to 30 September 2021, found that viewership in December 2021 had peaked around three kinds of videos: Yati Narsinghanand and Swami Anand Swaroop agitating over the arrest of Kalicharan Maharaj (all three monks have called for violence against Muslims), Yogi Aditynath being hailed as the saviour of Hindus in context of the UP election, and a Muslim in an argument with traffic police to suggest that if Muslim-supporting parties come into power then Hindus would be in danger. “These narratives completely disregard the rule of law in favour of majoritarianism,” said Manuvie.
These narratives completely disregard the rule of law in favour of majoritarianism.Ritumbra Manuvie, Lecturer, University of Groningen.
Frances Haugen and other whistleblowers have called on Facebook to release a long-awaited report on its impact on human rights in India, with Zafarul-Islam Khan, a former chairman of Delhi Minorities Commission, alleging that “As a result of the consistent and continuous barrage of hate on social media, particularly on Facebook, Indian Muslims have been practically dehumanized and rendered helpless and voiceless.”
Of the 801 fake news stories that Mumbai-based Boom Live debunked in 2021, 421 claims (53%) were of a political nature and 166 (21%) were communal. Boom, one of the independent fact-checking services debunking fake news including on WhatsApp, reported that Muslims were a consistent target of false and misleading claims, suggesting that Islamophobia was on the rise, and Modi was the most fact-checked public speaker. Last week, they debunked the claim that Akhilesh Yadav, BJP’s chief rival in the UP election, would spend crores on resurrecting the Babri Masjid, and have 30% reservation for Muslims if his party came to power in UP.
Noting that they get 30 to 40 queries from WhatsApp users every day, Jency Jacob, Managing Editor at Boom, said that as fact-checkers they could only debunk misinformation of a communal nature, not hate speech expressed as an opinion or commentary. On whether fact-checking is making a dent, Jacob said it was hard to say, but for anyone who was checking whether a piece of information was fake or not, it provided a counter that ranked high on Google. “It is a fight worth fighting,” he said.