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Geographically Contextualising Right-Wing Extremism for Tech Platforms: A Perspective From India

Geographically Contextualising Right-Wing Extremism for Tech Platforms: A Perspective From India
25th September 2020 Kabir Taneja
In Insights

A rise in right-wing extremism in the United States has forced the FBI to call out a domestic terrorism threat. Chris Wray, the director of America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation said racially motivated violent extremism, mostly from white supremacists made up the bulk of the agency’s current domestic terrorism investigations. While this brings out a renewed threat of domestic terrorism in the US, it also highlights that ideological extremism on the right is a growing concern not just in America but other places around the world as well. This is where it is important to remember that ‘right-wing’ extremism is not a uniform concept. Like all ideologies, it differs from state to state and political system to political system. While the advent of movements such as ‘QAnon’ and ‘Boogaloo Bois’ in America have festered in the vacuums caused by a cocktail of COVID-19 pandemic panic and race politics, ‘right-wing’ movements elsewhere have been as prevalent, and perhaps older as well, rooted in regionalism, geography and cultural history.

As America’s top counterterrorism and national security experts attempt to understand the rise of the extreme right in what is being called a “post organisational threat landscape,” the primary challenge to tackling right-wing violence as a serious terror threat lies in the fact that it comes from a motley, often unconnected mix of white supremacists, racists, anti-establishment ideologues, misogynists, anti-vaccine groups and the like – without the identifiable leadership, hierarchies and command centres of more traditional, transnational ‘terror groups’.

For those of us watching the United States confront its own chaos from halfway across the world, the American narrative while alarming, is not entirely unfamiliar. If the undercurrent of white supremacist, right-wing extremism in America, or indeed the “West” including Europe, in general is imposing the supremacy of the racial/ ethnic/ religious majority on the rest of the population, India’s right-wing fringe Hindutva followers claim to be soldiers in the battle for the creation of a Hindu Nation. Hindutva is not a religious movement, but a movement that politicises religion and creates an ethnonationalist identity. Populist leaders across the world thrive on provoking fear and victimhood amongst their support base, and have no hesitation in tactical use of technology to amplify disinformation campaigns, rumour mongering and hate speech that catalyse violence, and increasingly often mutate words into action. And, like the mysterious leadership of QAnon or the Boogaloo movement, fringe Hindutva groups have also thrived on using technology and social media to spread ideological exclusivity which in many cases has also led to violent outcomes, via disinformation, misinformation and organised information.

Unfortunately, and somewhat ironically, global security conversations around the growth of a right-wing violent extremist threat ignore the similarities between the tactical use of technology by fringe right-wing groups in the West and the fringe Hindutva majoritarian narrative alike. For example, Indian YouTubers were recently arrested for threatening to violently rape a female comedian who had poked fun at those who want to spend 400 million dollars on a statue for a 17th Century Maratha warrior king. Technology platforms in India, for example, have an uphill task to simply understand the societal and cultural complexities that today weave themselves around digital ecosystems as platforms’ intersection with society is well beyond being just a ‘business’ or ‘service’, as is visible across the world today. To illustrate this argument further, the recent ban implemented by India on more than 118 Chinese apps, including popular platforms such as TikTok, in light of the ongoing tensions at the unresolved border issue between the two states in Ladakh led to a flurry of domestic alternatives launching within weeks. Most of these new platforms would have inherited millions of new users within days, with blueprints of long term security implications, with unhinged growth due to market and geopolitical tremors only minimally factored in. TikTok, before being banned in India, reportedly removed 37 million videos according to its own transparency report. However, it is not known what kind of content this was, and whether it included extremist content. On TikTok, extremist content from a variety of sources, ranging from self-styled right-wing Hindutva ideologues to secessionist militant groups in the country’s North East have posted content via the app in the past. However, the ban itself had nothing to do with these issues.

Over the past few years apps such as Ritam have also been launched in India. Ritam, a news aggregator for the ‘right’, for information that the right deems true and fit, was launched in February 2019. The launch event was attended by right-wing Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat. The app however was described in a much more neutral manner in The Organiser, an RSS affiliated publication, as output which “contains contents which are scrutinised to ensure authenticity and can be used to get articles and news related to subjects of user’s interest.” A brochure for the app service reportedly highlights that mainstream and social media result in “controlled distribution of information,” and that Ritam is a “consolidation of efforts, aggregation of thoughts, accumulation of ideas and assertion of narratives that build a nation.” The advent of such products shows a market for ideologically inclined information, especially in India where strong political and ideological divisions are being played out in one of the world’s most digitally connected markets, with some of the world’s cheapest data costs, and a population of more than 1.3 billion of which more than 650 million has internet access, giving information equity ranging from a CEO to a rickshaw puller on the street.

Unlike white supremacism and other similar right-wing narratives, Hindutva is not transnational, and is very much India centric. Perhaps that is why countering violent extremism studies completely leave out any attempt to include or understand India’s fringe right-wing ecosystems. Its tactical methods of radicalisation are similar to Europe and America’s right-wing disinformation and propaganda through memes, and their amplification through social media, chat applications and so on. Their organisational structures (or lack of) are the same- diffused, often leaderless and opaque. All this makes the challenge for countering extremism practitioners and researchers even more formidable. As they work to address and close this glaring gap in research, the need is to first acknowledge that different strands of a right-wing extremist framework in different parts of the globe bear universal, even if not uniform traits.

Despite the FBI’s important revelation that racially motivated extremism constitutes a large chunk of its domestic terrorism threat assessments, right-wing extremism and its associated online content propagating hatred and violence- unlike transnational Islamist extremism of groups like Islamic State or al-Qaeda- is not an ideologically universal phenomenon. While the threat of violence is linear across the world, and should be treated with a singular policy objective, understanding extremism via regional nuances is crucial for technology platforms, especially when  global debates on regulation, policy, law and freedom of speech are challenging the intentions and principles of the Internet and its capacity and commitment towards the free, borderless exchange of information.