The Twitter mentions of Marwa Fatafta have been flooded.
As violence escalated in Israel-Palestine earlier this month, Fatafta, a Palestinian and political analyst for an online think tank dealing with Palestinian human rights in Berlin, posted pictures and stories of families killed in the Gaza Strip, posting pictures and stories of 14,000 followers. In response, she was trolled. Some of the hate speech that Palestinians called their “terrorists” came from far-right Israeli reports. But many seemed to be from India – Fatafta said they had Indian names and the Indian flag in their usernames.
“It seemed like all these ethnic nationalists from India and Israel were coming together,” Fatafta told BuzzFeed News. “It was a fascinating phenomenon. I’ve never been trolled by people from India. “
When deadly violence, in which the Israeli military killed 248 Palestinians and Hamas killed 13 Israelis, was ended by the ceasefire, hate speech against Jews on the internet increased, as did anti-Semitic violence.
But the conflict has also sparked 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 anti-Semitism. Last week the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby group, ran Facebook ads placing Rep. Ilhan Omar’s face on Hamas rockets with the factually imprecise headline: “If Israel Attacks Hamas, Rep Omar it an act of terrorism. “Israel’s official Twitter account in Arabic angered Muslims by tweeting verses from the Koran along with a picture of an Israeli air strike on Gaza (this tweet has since been deleted).
This conflict in the Middle East could spark waves of hatred and lies against Muslims, is not new. But what’s new is the source: India. In the largest democracy in the world, anti-Muslim hatred has become mainstream both online and offline. Just a year ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party politicians and dozens of news outlets accused a gathering of the Tablighi Jamaat, an international Islamic mission 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 investigating misinformation, published an analysis of more than 300,000 tweets related to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. They found a campaign with thousands of tweets and hashtags apparently created in India, one of Twitter’s key markets.
“When analyzing the tweets, we found that the top hashtags always had some Indian references,” Carlotta Dotto, senior data journalist at First Draft, told BuzzFeed News. “It was noticeable.”
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 found that the hashtag was at the heart of a coordinated campaign aimed at trending it from tropics to Muslims that Indian Hindu nationalists have been promoting for years – such as love jihad, an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory, the Muslim one Men accused 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 attention they were getting online,” Dotto said.
Although India had previously avoided engaging in the region, India-Israel relations improved dramatically under Modi, who became the first Indian prime minister to visit the country in 2017. This is partly because the leaders of both countries are conservative nationalists. In addition, the right-wing in India draws on its country’s longstanding rivalry with neighboring Pakistan.
“India’s right wing finds Israel fascinating for a number of reasons,” Jency Jacob, editor-in-chief of Boom, a leading Indian fact-checking organization, told BuzzFeed News. “It is a small country surrounded by Muslim neighbors that are fighting this. It has a strong leader who is focused on protecting its borders.”
“Whenever there is tension between one Islamic country and another, the far-right ecosystem attracts those who are not Muslim,” added Jacob. “For them it is a natural aggression that expresses all of their prejudice against Muslims in general.”
Members of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and their supporters have taken up the conflict. Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, a BJP spokesman, called Islam a “virus” that “creates terrorism in the world” and said, “Israel is a vaccine against this virus, please support Israel.” He also claimed that Muslims believe “religion is greater than nation”. Each of Baggas’ tweets has thousands of retweets and likes. Hundreds of messages denigrating Muslims have also been routed through WhatsApp, Facebook’s own instant messaging app used by hundreds of millions of Indians.
“Most of the # IndiaStandWithIsrael tweet handles have been checked,” tweeted Rana Ayyub, a high-profile Indian journalist often approached by right-wing Modi supporters. “A common thread is a visceral hatred of Muslims and a bloodlust when Muslims are massacred and shown their place.”
When guard dogs in Israel struggled to keep up with the tide of hatred and lies, their counterparts outside the country had a hard time either. Boom, for example, has checked nearly two dozen stories, some of which identified Palestinians as forgers of their plight.
“It’s become one of our big topics,” Jacob told BuzzFeed News.
One of the misinformation incorrectly showed a sham funeral organized by young Jordanians in 2020 to avoid the coronavirus lockdown when Palestinians faked a funeral for “international sympathy”. Another viral clip attempted to relay a 2017 report of Palestinian makeup artists as Palestinian residents feigning injuries during the current conflict.
“Oppression is transnational,” said Fatafta. “Islamophobia is the common denominator here.”