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Inciting Hate: The social media powder keg

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By Suhail Ahmad

A recent study by US think tank Pew Research Center revealed that 93 percent Muslims view Hindus favourably, but only 65 percent Hindus view Muslims positively.

The survey titled ‘Attitudes Toward Diversity in 11 Emerging Economies’ may not be conclusive and updated enough, especially as it was conducted between September and October 2018, preceding many important developments which may have a direct bearing on the study findings. However, it’s still relevant and merits an objective assessment.

The survey results beg the question- why don’t the 35 percent Hindus view Muslims in positive light and what about the seven percent Muslims holding unfavorable viewpoint of Hindus? This may be subject of a separate survey, but one can still look into the possible reasons.

One of the reasons, infact, can be discerned from another important finding of the survey about the degree or frequency of interaction. Seventy per cent of Muslims frequently or occasionally interact with Hindus in India, while only 56 per cent Hindus interact with their Muslims counterparts.
As the study points out people who interact more with other religious groups tend to have more favorable opinions of them.

Of the Hindus who said they interacted with people outside their own faith — 71 per cent had a favourable view of Muslims. As opposed to this, just 56 per cent of Hindus, who reported infrequent contact with people of other religions, viewed Muslims favourably.

Let’s now focus on the Hindus who don’t have much interaction with Muslims.  Their beliefs and perceptions are largely shaped by mainstream media and social media and there lies our possible answer about the trust deficit. Social media, in particular, has proven to be a powerful influence on public perception.

A piece by Claire Teitelman (April 19, 2019) in Journal of International Affairs of Columbia University explored the role of platforms like WhatsApp and Twitter in sparking communal hatred and subsequent violence in India.

Before social media, television was the media of the masses. Claire contends that without revenue-generating streams of traditional media like TV, social media companies have had to be more aggressive with advertising, “which includes the development of targeted ads that meets your preferences and prejudices”.

She also quotes Guillaume Chaslot, an artificial intelligence (AI) researcher. “If the AI favors engagement, like on Facebook and YouTube, it will incentivize divisive content, because divisive content is very efficient to keep people online. The longer you retain people online, the more advertisements they see and the more opportunities you have to profit, which is what matters to social media-companies, like any commercial enterprise. The aim of social media algorithms is to keep people angry, engaged, and online.”

India has emerged as the fastest-growing market for Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and YouTube so much so that for many social media has become an indispensible part of life. While the utility of these platforms cannot be denied, the prospect of their misuse remains pretty high. The speed and ease with which rumors spread on social media is frightening. There is a large gullible section of population with poor internet literacy - those who can’t differentiate between fact and rumour.

Claire refers to two incidents- the “Dadri Mob Lynching” in 2015 and the “Kathua Rape Case” in 2018. In both these incidents, protesters were riled-up by viral messages, photos, and videos on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.

Many of the videos were based on alleged cow slaughter or cow meat storage and consumption by Muslims. In an interview with news portal Scroll, the sister of one of the accused Dadri perpetrators claimed that she – and possibly her brother – had been inundated with messages and videos about cow slaughter on WhatsApp. No wonder, hoax WhatsApp messages led to more than a dozen lynchings in 2018 alone.

The Kathua incident that involved the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a young Muslim girl was distorted through social media, contending that the girl hadn't been raped and false claims flooded WhatsApp, including an autopsy report purporting to disprove rape as well as proof claiming the innocent had been framed.

Social media has played a role in accentuating sectarian tensions. It magnifies the communal tensions by rapidly creating national crises out of local disturbances. As Claire argues, “Both the Kathua and Dadri episodes would have remained local events, but social media amplified and polarized them.” The resulting ‘Us’ against ‘Them’ mindset serves the parties who thrive on divisive politics very well.

Unfortunately, there seems to be no end to the social media hatemongering. If the hate and propaganda machinery is not reined in, we may see widening of the gulf between people from different faiths and spike in communal violence. We are sitting on the social media powder keg. Unless defused, it’s just waiting to blow up. 

(Courtesy: The Rising Kashmir)
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