On 14 February, I woke up to my phone buzzing from messages unlike ever before. Scrolling through the hundreds of messages from various Indian WhatsApp groups, I learned of the Pulwama terrorist attack where a convoy of vehicles carrying Indian security personnel in Kashmir was attacked by a suicide bomber associated with Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistan-based terrorist group.
The messages from strangers, friends and family were raw with anger, as expected after such a horrific incident, but what followed was far more nefarious. The incident was quickly co-oped by political forces using dangerous speech to serve their electoral narratives ahead of general elections in April or May 2019.
As everyone from the New York Times to local fact-checkers have highlighted, misinformation about the event flooded the internet exaggerating the original attack and the subsequent Indian military strike in Balakot, Pakistan.
More disturbing than the misinformation and propaganda, however, was the potency of dangerous speech which followed the Pulwama attack and could have contributed to the escalation. Calls for violence expanded beyond the topic of terrorism, to the India Pakistan conflict and between Hindu’s and Muslims within India. We’ve since seen a spate of attacks by Hindu nationalist groups against Kashmiris in India and a retaliatory grenade attack on 7 March.
On WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter I saw the catch cries “Khoon ka badla khoon” (blood with avenge blood), #avengePulwama, #IndiaWantsRevenge, and #AbBadlaLo (a call for revenge). #avengePulwama was the 15th most mentioned hashtag among tweets about Pulwama between 17-19 February. Pulwama Revenge became one of the top autocomplete suggestion on Google Search. This rhetoric was reflected by Indian politicians with Prime Minister Modi also vowing to ‘make each one of them pay for every attack’.
The Pulwama attacks seemed to play perfectly into the BJP’s electoral strategy of uniting the Hindu vote and fracturing the Muslim and backward caste votes. Twitter accounts associated with the ruling-Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) began to expand the conflict beyond Jaish-e-Mohammed to a broader anti-muslim narrative that served the Party’s electoral ambitions. @Indiantweeter wrote “Kashmir is not a region problem .. it’s a religion problem. Part of a bigger plan of a caliphate”. Identical copies of this tweet from seemingly fake or shell accounts suggested a coordinated amplification effort, similar to those reported by journalists Dhruv Rathee, Swati Chaturvadi, and fact-checkers Alt-News.
Kapil Mishra, a member of Delhi’s legislative assembly tweeted a call to “destroy the wombs that give birth to terrorists”, which read like a call for genocide. #BeHindu was the 12th most common hashtag associated with #Pulawama over the subsequent week.
Other usual BJP targets, including journalists, intellectuals, and human rights advocates were also targeted with taunts of ‘presstitutes’, ‘urban naxals’, and ‘anti-national’ towards anyone questioning the government’s narrative and claims. I came across several messages calling for critics be shot on sight. This was coupled with a heightened environment of fear, in which several WhatsApp forwards urged families to stock up on food and avoid public gatherings for fear of a second terror attacks.
The opposition Congress party and other major parties were also guilty of publishing misinformation, including by appropriating old footage of a BJP MP saying ‘soldiers die, such things happen’ as a response to the Pulwama attacks. They were quick to criticise Modi and the BJP of failing to sufficiently honor Indian soldiers and martyrs. However, the levels of dangerous speech, was significantly less potent.
The response from Pakistani troll armies were equally venomous. They tried to discredit India’s retaliatory airstrikes at Balakot, alleging that Indian bombs landed harmlessly in a thicket. There also appeared to be a coordinated effort to undermine the peaceful return of captured Indian pilot Abhinanthan. I saw carbon copy tweets with the text “to all the pseudo liberals who are having a soft heart for #Abhinanthan. He came to kill our children. Women and elderly. He came to bomb us. He came to finish us,” sometimes with the hashtag #hangAbhinanthan.
It was the first I had seen of a coordinated online dangerous speech campaign in two countries pushing them towards war. As the nature of war changes, we may see more signals of online dangerous speech campaigns as preludes to kinetic war.
It was also the first time I encountered dangerous speech on newer tech platforms, such as TikTok and Vigo Video, which were shared in WhatsApp Groups alongside Youtube videos. Youtube were relatively swift in removing dangerous content that broke their community guidelines, but the newer video platforms might be starting from a lower base.
What is for certain is that there is more violence on the way. Already ranked as the 4th worst country for religious violence, India is likely to see a further uptick in communal violence fuelled by dangerous speech from political campaigns ahead of general elections and a potential supreme court ruling on a contentious temple.
Arjun Bisen is a Fulbright scholar and Master of Public Policy student at Harvard Kennedy School. Prior to Harvard, he worked as an Australian diplomat for seven years, focusing on Asian geopolitics, trade negotiations, managing large UN aid programs, and drafting Australia’s cyber strategy. He also undertook a diplomatic posting in Cambodia. At Harvard, he has helped the U.S. Census Bureau reform its data portal and is Teaching Assistant for former US Defense Secretary Ash Carter. He also worked at Twitter on trust, safety and tech policy issues. He completed his undergraduate degree in Business with a First-Class Honors in Microfinance and Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Technology, Sydney.
Cover photo by Tore Urnes from Oslo, Norway