Marwa Fatafta’s Twitter mentions were flooded.
As violence escalated in Israel–Palestine earlier this month, Fatafta, who is Palestinian and works as a policy analyst for an online think tank focusing on Palestinian human rights in Berlin, had been posting pictures and stories about families killed in the Gaza Strip to her 14,000 followers. In response, she was being trolled. Some of the hate speech, which called Palestinians like her “terrorists,” came from far-right Israeli accounts. But many seemed to be from India — Fatafta said that they had Indian names and the Indian flag in their usernames.
“It seemed like all these ethno-nationalists from India and Israel coming together,” Fatafta told BuzzFeed News. “It was a fascinating phenomenon. I haven’t been trolled by people from India before.”
But the conflict has also stoked an online wave of hate speech and misinformation against Muslims around the world. A full-page ad in the New York Times accused pop star Dua Lipa and models Gigi and Bella Hadid of antisemitism. Last week, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group, ran Facebook ads that superimposed Rep. Ilhan Omar’s face onto Hamas rockets, with the factually inaccurate caption: “When Israel targets Hamas, Rep. Omar calls it an act of terrorism.” Israel’s official Arabic-language Twitter account angered Muslims by tweeting verses from the Qur’an along with an image of an Israeli airstrike on Gaza (that tweet has since been deleted).
That conflict in the Middle East could set off waves of hate and lies against Muslims is not new. But what is novel is the source: India. In the world’s largest democracy, anti-Muslim hate has steadily become mainstream, both online and offline. Just a year ago, politicians from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party as well as dozens of news channels accused a gathering of the Tablighi Jamaat, an international Islamic missionary group, of deliberately spreading the coronavirus in India after more than 4,000 cases were linked to it. At the time, #CoronaJihad was one of the top trending topics on Twitter in the region.
On Saturday, First Draft News, a UK-based nonprofit that researches misinformation, published an analysis of more than 300,000 tweets relating to the Israeli–Palestinian crisis. They found a campaign containing thousands of tweets and hashtags that appeared to have been created in India, one of Twitter’s key markets.
“While analyzing the tweets, we noticed that the top hashtags always had some Indian references,” Carlotta Dotto, senior data journalist at First Draft, told BuzzFeed News. “It was striking.”
Dotto focused on #UnitedAgainstJehad, an intentionally misspelled hashtag that was mentioned more than 40,000 times by nearly 6,000 accounts between May 12 and May 17. The analysis showed that the hashtag was at the heart of a coordinated campaign aimed at getting it to trend, accompanied by tropes about Muslims that Indian Hindu nationalists have spouted for years — such as love jihad, a baseless conspiracy theory that accuses Muslim men of converting Hindu women to Islam through marriage. Ten percent of the accounts using the hashtag were created in May.
“It was clear that they were using the Israel–Palestine conflict to promote their own narratives on Twitter in India and around the world given the amount of attention that it was getting online,” Dotto said.
Although India had previously tended to avoid becoming involved in the region, relations between India and Israel improved dramatically under Modi, who became the first Indian prime minister to visit the country in 2017. In part that’s because the leaders of both countries are conservative nationalists. In addition, right-wingers in India draw on their country’s long-standing rivalry with neighboring Pakistan.
“India’s right wing finds Israel fascinating for multiple reasons,” Jency Jacob, managing editor at Boom, a leading Indian fact-checking organization, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s a small country surrounded by Muslim neighbors that’s battling it out, it has a strong leader who is focused on protecting its borders.”
“Whenever there is tension between an Islamic country and any other country, the far-right ecosystem gravitates towards whoever is on the non-Muslim side,” Jacob added. “For them, it’s a natural aggression that brings out all their prejudices about Muslims in general.”
Members of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its supporters have seized on the conflict. Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, a BJP spokesperson, called Islam a “Virus” that was “generating Terrorism in the world” and said, “Israel is Vaccine of this Virus, please support Israel.” He also claimed that Muslims believe “Religion is Bigger than Nation.” Each of Bagga’s tweets got thousands of retweets and likes. Hundreds of messages vilifying Muslims were also forwarded through WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned instant messaging app used by hundreds of millions of Indians.
“Checked most of the #IndiaStandWithIsrael tweet handles,” tweeted Rana Ayyub, a high-profile Indian journalist frequently targeted by far-right Modi supporters. “A common thread that runs through is a visceral hatred for Muslims and a bloodlust to see Muslims massacred and shown their place.”
As watchdogs within Israel struggled to keep up with the glut of hate and lies, their counterparts outside the country weren’t having it easy either. Boom, for instance, has fact-checked nearly two dozen stories, some of which painted Palestinians as faking their distress.
“It’s become one of our big topics,” Jacob told BuzzFeed News.
One of the pieces of misinformation falsely portrayed a mock funeral organized in 2020 by young Jordanians to evade the coronavirus lockdown as Palestinians faking a funeral for “international sympathy.” Another viral clip tried to pass off a 2017 news report about Palestinian makeup artists as Palestinian residents faking injuries during the current conflict.
“Repression is transnational,” Fatafta said. “Islamophobia is the common denominator here.”