The cliche goes that the first casualty of war is truth.
With Israel’s occupation of Palestine, disinformation often comes with a side of anti-Palestinianism and Islamophobia, turbocharged by social media amplification, especially under Elon Musk’s leadership of X, formerly known as Twitter.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
But an intriguing element of the disinformation that has flooded social media since Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel is that a lot of it has been produced or spread by right-leaning accounts based out of India.
Some of these fake stories include Hamas kidnapping a Jewish baby and beheading a young boy on the back of a truck. Blue check accounts have pushed false reports into the stratosphere of virality. One extremely popular tweet shared by thousands of people even claimed the Hamas attack was a US-led psyop.
The rise of the Islamophobic ‘disinfluencer’
BOOM, one of India’s most reputed fact-checking services, found several verified Indian X users at the helm of a disinformation campaign.
These “disinfluencers” – influencers who have routinely shared disinformation – have been “mostly targeting Palestine negatively, or being supportive of Israel”, according to BOOM.
They have peddled tropes that have sought to showcase Palestinians as fundamentally brutal.
In one instance, an account began circulating a video that claimed to show dozens of young girls taken as sex slaves by a “Palestinian” fighter. However, the video was likely from a school trip to Jerusalem. While relatively low quality, if you look carefully, you can see girls happily chatting and using their phones.
Despite this, the video got thousands of retweets and racked up at least 6 million impressions. An analysis of the accounts sharing the video showed that most were based in India.
It was even shared in the Telegram channel of Angry Saffron, an apparent open-source intelligence or OSINT channel operating from India. This suggests either sloppy intelligence or disinformation aimed at exploiting the credibility that the description “OSINT” might imply.
In another instance, a video circulated that falsely claimed to show Hamas kidnapping a Jewish baby. The video garnered more than a million views in one post alone. Seven of the top 10 most-shared tweets featuring the misleading video were profiles based in India or containing the Indian flag in their biography.
These seven tweets alone received more than 3 million impressions on X. However, the video was from September and had nothing to do with kidnapping or indeed with Gaza.
Islamophobia, India and social media
Many of the accounts sharing these false videos also spend a lot of their time posting anti-Muslim comments on X.
One account, Mr Sinha_, who shared the false video of a boy being beheaded by Hamas, included the hashtag #IslamIsTheProblem in the same post.
Another account that shared the misleading video of Palestinians kidnapping sex slaves had previously written: “The only difference is when Muslim girls convert to Hinduism they live happily ever after. But when Hindu girls convert to Islam they end up in a suitcase or a fridge.”
Others have been more explicit in their hatred of Palestine. One Indian account, purporting to belong to a retired Indian soldier, stated, “Israel must finish off Palestine from the planet.”
It is no secret that India has an Islamophobia problem, one that has only increased since the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
A report by the Australia-based Islamic Council of Victoria found that the majority of all Islamophobic tweets can be traced back to India.
The plight of Palestinians has drawn Islamophobes like moths to a light and this can be witnessed on social media. Part of this online hatred can be traced to what has been called the “BJP’s IT Cell”, who have fanned the flames of hatred.
In her book, I Am a Troll, Swati Chaturvedi discusses the BJP’s online social media army. According to Sadhavi Khosla, one of Chaturvedi’s interviewees, “The BJP has a network of volunteers who take instructions from the social media cell, and two affiliated organisations, to troll critical voices.”
Khosla said she left the “IT Cell” after tiring of the constant barrage of “misogyny, Islamophobia and hatred” she had to disseminate.
A perfect storm: Musk, BJP and #GazaUnderAttack
While the BJP’s IT Cell may have an Islamophobia problem, it also has a disinformation problem, and it is coming to the conflict in Gaza
Pratik Sinha, a co-founder and editor of the Indian non-profit fact-checking website AltNews, tweeted: “With India now exporting its disinformation actors in the Indian mainstream media and on social media in support of Israel, hopefully the world will now realise how the Indian right-wing has made India the disinformation capital of the world”.
Elon Musk’s acquisition of X and his decision to scale back efforts to curb lies spread on the platform has potentially set a precedent that might be influencing other technology giants in their approach towards managing harmful content. Notably, companies like Meta and YouTube appear to be re-evaluating their existing commitments to mitigating hate speech, disinformation and other detrimental content on their platforms.
Last week, the European Union even sent a warning to Musk following the deluge of disinformation on X following the Hamas attack on Israel.
Western support of Israel, Big Tech’s renewed indifference to content moderation and the digital reach of right-wing Islamophobic accounts from India are turning the Gaza crisis into a springboard of hate targeted at Palestinians and Muslims.