Across South Asia, online hate speech is causing increasing harm in the real world

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Yati Narsinghanand, the head priest of a powerful temple in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, first made national headlines in 2019 when a local TV station reported. dedicated a feature to the weapons training he provided on temple grounds for Hindu youths and boys.

His meteoric rise as a poster boy for “Hindutva”, the dominant anti-Muslim political ideology in India, was fueled by the inflammatory videos he later began sharing on social media platforms, where they have garnered millions of views. In December 2021, Narsinghanand was the main organizer of a religious assembly known as Dharam Sansad in Haridwar, a city in Uttar Pradesh, where, along with other high priests, he openly called for genocide of Muslims.

Narsinghanand may be one of the most visible hatemongers, but there are dozens of religious preachers in India stirring up hatred against minorities online. Muslims, who make up 14.2% of India’s population according to a 2011 census, making them India’s largest minority, have been particularly targeted.

Just across the border in Pakistan, online hate speech has also flourished. Here, Hindus, who make up just 1.9% of the country’s population, and Muslim sects like Shias and Ahmadis, have borne the brunt of extremist and inflammatory social media content.

Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, a far-right political party in Pakistan, has notably used social media to mobilize public opinion on religious issues.

According to a report by Islamabad-based policy research institute G5 Internet Observatory, the party has the “greatest firepower” on Pakistani Twitter, meaning their social media posts are the most likely to go viral and cause damage in the real world.

Hateful videos quickly and often go viral across South Asia, garnering thousands of views before being identified and removed by social media giants like Google and Meta. Videos of the 2021 anti-Muslim religious assembly in Haridwar were circulated on social media for days before being deleted. Even then, excerpts from the videos continued to be shown to large audiences on television news channels across the country.

The recent proliferation of hate speech online has had consequences offline. In late 2021, hundreds of people in Sialkot, a town in Pakistan’s Punjab province, killed Priyantha Kumara, a Christian factory manager from Sri Lanka. He was targeted for allegedly removing posters from the far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan party that featured Quranic verses on the factory’s machinery. After news of his removal from the posters spread, an enraged mob descended on the factory, dragged Kumara out, beat him to death, and set his body on fire. India, meanwhile, has seen a spate of violent, sometimes deadly, anti-Muslim attacks by Hindu mobs in recent years.

“A Tsunami of Hatred”

Under the far-right government led by Narendra Modi, hate speech in India has become increasingly communal in nature – directed against Pakistan, Indian Muslims and their counterparts in Kashmir. In Pakistan, meanwhile, it was largely a sectarian phenomenon that targeted Muslim sects like the Shia and Ahmadis.

The rise of rampant hate speech against Muslims in India is generally attributed to the rise to power of India’s ruling political party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014. In Pakistan, by contrast, a 2014 study attributes the country’s first major case of online hate speech to the 2011 assassination of then-Punjab governor Salman Taseer by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadiri over the former’s opposition to Pakistani laws on blasphemy.

The South Asia Collective, a group of human rights activists and organizations that seek to document the condition of minorities in the region, recently produced a report on hate trends in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

The report warns of a “tsunami of hate” especially in India. India’s ruling political party, the BJP, “continues to sow division as it seeks to consolidate its electoral majority in order to achieve its Hindu nationalist goal of transforming a multi-religious and multi-ethnic India into a Hindu India”. rashtra (nation),” the report said. “To this end, he has established overbearing control over print, broadcast and social media, where a large number of allied BJP actors now work in coordination to spread anti-minority hate messages,” the report continues. report.

As for Pakistan, the South Asia Collective study points out that the country’s religious minorities are facing a wave of violence, discrimination and hate speech “that deteriorates their quality of life and perpetuates a culture of fear”. The collective declined to comment on the report when contacted by Equal times.

US-based Pakistani political analyst and journalist Raza Rumi says the current proliferation of online hate speech in India and Pakistan is unprecedented. “Over the decades Pakistan’s hate speech has ceased to be anti-Indian and anti-Hindu and has become increasingly intra-Muslim. The greatest concern of successive governments has been the rise of intolerant sectarian hate speech which was encouraged by the jihad project in Afghanistan and later the rise of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Rumi said.

“There is also hate speech in the Pakistani political arena, with the various political parties using very strong and anti-Semitic language against their rivals – politicians are frequently accused of being ‘Jewish agents’ – but references to ‘India and Hindus have declined over the years,’ Rumi explains. “In fact, India doesn’t even feature in political campaigns. The only reference made with regard to India is the treatment meted out to Kashmiris by the Indian state.

Tech giants struggle to tackle hate speech online

Social media has accelerated the proliferation of hate speech across South Asia, with hundreds of videos seeking to promote hatred against minorities uploaded to WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter in different languages ​​every day. The algorithms of these social media platforms, which many experts and critics believe amplify divisive content, further ensure that these posts reach a wide audience.

The South Asia Hate Trends Report notes that all of India’s major political parties now have dedicated social media wings, but the “IT Cell” – a network of online influencers and hatemongers – of the ruling BJP party and other right-wing groups within its ecosystem, appear to be much more sophisticated, well-funded and organized.

In recent years, online hate has become “a way of life” with events such as the election only making the situation worse, said a third-party reviewer for Google who was not authorized to speak to media. Equal times.

In a country like India, where many languages ​​and dialects are spoken, identifying and combating hate speech poses an inherent difficulty for social media giants like Meta and Google. As in many other parts of the world, Meta and Google have outsourced the identification of harmful posts in South Asia to third parties. Content moderators employed by these third-party companies have complained of inadequate training and job trauma from reviewing disturbing post after post.

The tech giants’ algorithms have also struggled to identify hate messages, as individual users and hate groups have learned to alter terms to evade the algorithm. For example, ‘Muslim’ becomes ‘Muzlim’, ‘Islam’ becomes ‘Izlam’ and ‘Jihadi’ becomes ‘[email protected]’. Similarly, Katua, a pejorative term for Muslims, becomes “K2A”.

Meta has deployed few resources to combat hate speech outside of the United States. Facebook spends 87% of its global budget on identifying and classifying misinformation in the United States, which accounts for just 10% of the social network’s daily active users, according to internal documents leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen in 2021.

These numbers did not include the company’s third-party fact-checking partners, most of which are outside of the United States. Facebook works with these fact-checking organizations to identify, assess and investigate viral misinformation on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp and to reduce the spread of problematic content in these apps.

Facebook has hired ten fact-checking partners in 11 major languages ​​in India, a Facebook India employee told Equal Times. He did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “India has one of the largest fact-checking networks for Meta across the globe,” the person said. “We also use machine learning to do a kind of content moderation,” he says, adding that relying on machine learning alone would not be enough. “It is also a human intervention that is necessary.”

Besides machine learning and third-party fact-checkers, tech giants like Meta also rely on individual users to identify and report hate messages. “Every report we see, we take it very seriously and act on it,” the Facebook India employee says.

In India, Google has been involved in initiatives to teach people to critically evaluate information shared on social media. One such initiative is Factshala, a news and information literacy program launched by Internews, an international non-profit media development organization, in collaboration with India’s DataLEADS digital media initiative. and information and with the support of Google.org, the charitable arm of Google, and Google News. Initiative.

The proliferation of online hate speech in South Asia nonetheless remains a big challenge for Google, Meta and Twitter, with new hateful videos being posted on social media platforms every day. Almost seven months after the 2021 religious gathering in Uttar Pradesh, video clips of Narsinghanand calling for genocide of Muslims are still available online.

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