Fake images spark flare-up of violence in West Bengal

This Facebook post on the left is one of a series of social media posts spreading fake information after riots in West Bengal in early July.
This Facebook post on the left is one of a series of social media posts spreading fake information after riots in West Bengal in early July.

It began with a “blasphemous” Photoshopped image posted on Facebook between June 30 and July 3 (sources are unclear when it was posted; and the post has since been deleted) by a Hindu student – and ended with one man dead, dozens injured, and businesses owned by Hindus vandalised and burnt in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. The cycle of false information and fake images didn’t stop there, continuing to fan the flames of communal tension for a week afterwards.

The Muslim community in Baduria in West Bengal were incensed by an altered image posted on Facebook on July 2 that showed two men having anal sex on top of the Kaaba, a sacred Islamic building in Mecca. Crowds of Muslims took to the streets the same day to set shops and buildings on fire, torching several police vehicles at the Baduria police station, and demanding the death penalty for the 17-year-old boy that posted the image. The boy was arrested by police and kept in a secure location for fear of violent reprisals. Over the next few days, Hindu mobs then retaliated and police struggled to push back the riots.

West Bengal is an area with a large minority population of Muslims (the most recent census in 2011 revealed that over a quarter of the population identifies as Muslim). India is marked by longstanding tension between Muslims and Hindus, although there is general surprise that these tensions were so ignited in West Bengal, where the two religious communities have tended to co-exist peacefully.

A screenshot from a film — which many thought was real

After the initial violence, a cycle of fake images began to proliferate on social media. On July 5, on Facebook, a man called Bhabatosh Chatterjee claimed that Hindu women were getting molested in Baduria by Muslims. He accompanied his post with a photo of man pulling the sari off a woman surrounded by a crowd of men. Except… the image is actually a still from a Bhojpuri film called ‘Aurat Khilona Nahin’. AltNews tracked down the blog post it came from.

The man who posted the image was arrested for inciting communal violence, while other videos of supposed violence in the region or pictures taken from previous riots circulated online. Police in Kolkata and West Bengal asked social media users not to spread hate or fake information.

“People are getting internet access for the first time and they are not able to filter out fake news”

Pratik Sinha is the co-founder of Alt News, an Indian website that debunks fake news and seeks to act “as an antidote to fake propagandists”. He says that the rise in fake news is a problem in the country.

Social media has enormous reach in India now — an image on WhatsApp can go to every corner of this country. There has been a distinct increase in the rise of fake news and Photoshopped images being posted on social media. It has started to become a problem in a country where people are starting to get Internet access for the first time. Many people who live in rural areas are getting connected after being cut off for so long, and finding this fake information, and they are not able to filter it. Internet connectivity has been happening gradually and now we’re at a point where if there is some rumour, it will spread immediately and have an effect.

There has to be a multi-pronged approach to stop this – main media need to start taking this seriously and proactively fact-checking. TV in particular needs to take a strong position on fake news. It’s about educating people and letting them know that you can’t trust whatever you are sent.

"Modi’s government propagates certain narratives that can lead to discriminatory acts"

Michael Kugelman is the deputy director and senior associate for the South Asia programme at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, a centre for research on international issues. Kugelman has written about, amongst other topics, contemporary Indian politics, and the use of social media amongst Pakistani youth.

The unfortunate thing is that these types of incidents are not surprising because of the very polarising and tense environment in which they take place. Communal tensions relating to Hindu nationalism have been picking up as the Modi government has been advancing its social agenda, which quite frankly involves propagating certain narratives that, while they are not explicitly meant to target Muslims, can lead to discriminatory acts against certain religions. [Editor's note: Narendra Modi has been India's prime minister since 2014. He is part of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a nationalistic party that many say is pushing a Hindutva, or hegemonic Hindu, agenda].

Social media is embraced the most in urban spaces, which in India are numerous. It has an outsize influence. The key power brokers, including politicians, wholeheartedly embrace and utilise social media, which has had a demonstrative effect on others in the country. Social media has become such a dominant and believable source of information for so many people. This is not just a story of people in India being gullible and accepting fake stuff.

I think the fact that social media is used very responsibly by many politicians and respected people in India means that lots of Indians can see social media as something perfectly innocuous and safe, and as something to be trusted. This is not unique to India, but it does also come down to deep levels of political polarisation and the lengths to which people are willing to go to espouse certain causes.