Rumor had it that a Muslim girl had been kidnapped and a Hindu temple had sent masked thugs into battle. Add to that local furor over a cricket match between India and Pakistan, and Hindu and Muslim men were soon battling in the streets of central England.
It was a social media storm – mostly cooked up on a continent – that materialized in real life in Leicester, where police made nearly 50 arrests and a community was left in tatters.
“This is a powerful illustration of how the dynamics of hashtags on Twitter can use dubious inflammatory allegations to … escalate tensions on the ground,” said a spokesperson for fact-checking site Logically, which analyzed the veracity of the messages.
Experts say most of the inflammatory tweets, rumors and lies come from India, showing the unchecked power of social media to spread misinformation and cause unrest across the continent.
“I’ve seen quite a few things on social media that are very, very, very distorting now and some of it is completely lying about what happened between different communities,” said Peter Soulsby, Mayor of Leicester. , on BBC radio.
Rob Nixon, who heads Leicestershire Police, agreed, telling the BBC that misinformation on social media had played a “huge role” in last month’s unrest.
Misinformation leads to radicalization, wherever you are. We are already seeing the consequences on the ground.
Pratik Sinha, co-founder, AltNews
To counter some of these claims, the police took to social media themselves, saying they thoroughly investigated reports of three men approaching a teenage girl during an attempted kidnapping, and found no truth to the online story.
“We urge you to only share on social media information that you know is true,” they said.
Fact checkers have also found no truth to claims that gangs of masked thugs were bused into Leicester.
Many of the misleading messages alleging Hindus and Hindu sites were being attacked originated in India, an analysis has shown.
Some 80% of tweets containing geographic coordinates or location-based information were related to India, Logically said.
“The ratio of location-tagged tweets in the UK to those in India was remarkably high for what appeared to be a domestic incident,” a spokesperson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“The involvement of leading figures in India in shaping the discourse has been key.”
BBC Monitoring said more than half of the 200,000 tweets it investigated came from geotagged accounts in India, with hashtags including #Leicester, #HindusUnderAttack and #HindusUnderattackinUK.
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.
Fact checks confirmed what several Leicesterians had suspected for years: online misinformation and abuse targeting religious minorities was increasingly coming from users in India, and the platforms were doing little or nothing to check.
“The events in Leicester did not happen out of the blue,” said Keval Bharadia of South Asia Solidarity Group, a UK community non-profit.
“Friends and family have been sending fake news and misinformation for years. It’s a never-ending stream of propaganda from troll armies,” he said.
A spokesman for India’s Home Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
The Indian High Commission in London, in a statementsaid he “strongly” condemned the violence against the Indian community in Leicester and the vandalism of “premises and symbols of the Hindu religion”.
Some commentators and rights groups claim that the ruling Hindu nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata, is embroiled in the social media war that targets religious and ethnic minorities.
The BJP seized power in India in 2014 and won by an even bigger margin in 2019, with its victories attributed in part to its savvy tech cell and social media prowess, fueled by thousands of supporters. he calls numerical “yodhas” or warriors.
The BJP’s tech cell, as well as government-appointed cybervolunteers, often abuse religious minorities and spread misinformation about them on social media, rights groups say.
In a recent report, Dalit rights group Equality Labs said “nationalist, Islamophobic and casteist misinformation” was spreading among expatriate Indians via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and thousands of Whatsapp and Telegram chat groups.
“Hindu nationalism is one of the largest disinformation networks in the global South Asian diaspora, with sectarian and often terrifying attacks on castes and religious minorities,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan of Equality Labs.
“Just think of the horrible hashtags that are now normal,” Soundararajan said, citing “presstitute” – a pejorative term for journalists – and “lovejihad”, a popular Islamophobic conspiracy theory in India.
“The stories on WhatsApp have led to offline violence,” she added.
While expats have long absorbed content from India and commented on events, misinformation has multiplied with the rise of social media platforms, said Pratik Sinha, co-founder of Indian fact-checking site AltNews.
“We’re so polarized now, and that’s especially true for non-resident Indians who can’t check the reality on the ground,” he said.
“A lot of hate speech and misinformation, especially in regional languages, goes unchecked on social media platforms.”
Much of the noise comes from Meta, formerly Facebook, which in 2019 commissioned an independent assessment of its role in spreading hate speech and inciting violence on its platforms in India, following criticism from groups of civil society.
But Meta has since said it will not publish the full report, saying only that it has “significantly increased” its content moderation staff and language support for India.
Twitter – which has around 24 million users in India – has asked an Indian court to overturn certain government orders to remove posts Delhi said spread misinformation.
Last month, in a rare rebuke, India’s Supreme Court declared television to be the “primary medium of hate speech” and questioned why the government was “standing there as a mute witness”.
The government did not respond to the accusation.
Meanwhile, hate speech and misinformation on social media platforms are largely unchecked in one of their biggest markets, Sinha said.
“Misinformation leads to radicalization no matter where you are,” he said. “We are already seeing the consequences on the ground.”
This story is published with permission from the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit https://www.context.news/.