“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.”