A number of far-right extremists have recently taken to social media platforms to spread conspiratorial content about COVID-19. Such conspiracy theories range from the virus being a biological weapon created by the Chinese government, to the predictable anti-Semitic tropes of ‘globalism’ claiming it was developed by the tech philanthropist Bill Gates in collaboration with the Jewish investor George Soros (a favourite target of the far-right).
The proliferation of such disinformation, circulated with the assistance of bot accounts, has been coupled with offline manifestations of authoritarian actions by government leaders. Take, for instance, Hungary under Viktor Orbán, who has recently capitalised on the opportunity to consolidate power and rule by decree with effectively no opposition according to the newly passed ‘Act on the containment of coronavirus’. As my colleague Cathrine Thorleifsson notes, this ‘makes yet another contribution to the erosion of democracy in Hungary’, a country which has been witnessing the effects of a radical right government in power, including the systematic censoring of the media and dismantling of education institutions.
What has largely gone unnoticed is the response of the far-right to the coronavirus in the world’s largest democracy—India. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in India remains rather low compared to its population size (likely due the number of testing kits and lack of resources). However, this has not stopped the Indian far-right from scapegoating Muslims as the cause of transmission.
In February, I wrote a blog post for GNET about a far-right terrorist shooting at a Muslim university in Delhi, with the perpetrator having been radicalised online. Indeed, online spaces play an especially pivotal role in understanding how far-right ideas and narratives are spread throughout India; with a growing middle-class that has increasing accessibility to technology, but high levels of media illiteracy and dated mobile hardware that doesn’t support software updates to prevent the spread of misinformation, this creates a toxic combination.
This came to light when a video recently went viral falsely showing a group of Muslim men spitting on a police officer. These men were attributed to be attendees of a missionary group that held a conference in Delhi in early March. A number of these conference attendees have tested positive for coronavirus, and since then, Muslims as a community have once-again become targets for India’s far-right Hindu nationalists exploiting fear surrounding the pandemic in pushing for an ideological agenda. (This comes only more than a month after Delhi witnessed one of the worse Hindu-Muslim riots in decades, incited by Hindu nationalist politicians and ideologues.)
It was reported on 3 April that since 28 March, 300,000 tweets using the hashtag #CoronaJihad (a play on the concept of ‘love jihad’, or when a Muslim man seduces a Hindu woman to convert her to Islam) have reached 165 million people on Twitter. These tweets, for instance, show a Muslim man who allegedly attended the conference as ‘intentionally’ coughing on somebody in order to spread the virus, despite the video being filmed in Thailand and no confirmation that the man in question was an attendee. Another video, shared by an Indian actress with a verified account, but originating from a TikTok user with far-right views, shows a Muslim male fruit seller licking his fingers, apparently with the intent to spread the virus to customers. These videos are only a couple examples of hundreds of thousands of tweets that depict similar visual and textual material targeting Muslims for supposedly spreading the virus in order to ‘wipe out’ Hindus.
While Twitter has removed some tweets with inflammatory content, citing violation of hateful conduct, the same accounts continue to share misinformation in additional posts. The tech company thus needs to take more active measures to ensure that such content does not continue to go viral. Twitter should not be the solely responsible tech company, however. As indicated above, other platforms like TikTok and Facebook-owned WhatsApp (which remains an overwhelmingly popular channel in India as the app’s biggest market and within the diaspora at large) have a due regard to monitor content that spreads hate. With the latter, the government has launched a chatbot to help curb the spread of fake news. Even the notoriously difficult to censor 4chan is not immune, as a number of users based in India have shared Islamophobic posts warning of Muslims spreading coronavirus not just in India, but in a worldwide attempt of ‘Islamisation’.
The real danger of tech companies not taking active measures to control the spread of viral disinformation is that not doing so has the potential to escalate to violence—as we saw earlier this year with the terrorist shooting in Delhi. Far-right extremists have exploited the fear and uncertainty of this global pandemic, and it’s high time that we also respond with necessary preventative action.