Observers


In India, Hindu nationalists have been accusing the Muslim community of deliberately spreading Covid-19, which had caused at least 2,331 deaths across the country by May 12. A wave of fake news has been circulating online, accusing Muslims of disobeying lockdown orders and seeking to spread the virus.

The roughly 200 million Muslims living in India are often used as scapegoats by the Hindu nationalists who make up Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP or the “Indian People’s Party”). One of the BJP’s core beliefs is Hindutva, an ideology seeking to establish the hegemony of Hindus and the Hindu way of life.

This uninhibited Islamophobia engenders a large amount of fake information, which is often shared in nationalist media outlets, and sometimes sparks real violence and aggression towards the Muslim community.

Things got worse when a number of Covid-19 cases were detected during a rally for the Muslim missionary Tablighi Jamaat held in the Nizamuddin Markaz mosque near New Delhi between March 13 and 15.

By early April, Indian government officials were blaming Muslim religious leaders for the outbreak and estimated that the rally has been linked to 1023 cases across 17 states in India. The country has been on lockdown since March 24 and has extended it twice. The current lockdown is set to continue until May 18.

Muslims accused of spitting on food and objects

As news spread of the Covid-19 infections that occurred at the rally for the Muslim missionary Tablighi Jamaat, a wave of Islamophobia and hate started to emerge on social media.

Hashtags such as #CoronaJihad or #NizamuddinIdiots and #BanJahilJamat (ban the Jamaat movement) appeared, often accompanied by photos said to show Muslims in the act of spreading Covid-19.

One of the first videos that popped up on social media in late March was said to show a group of Muslims licking plates and utensils in an attempt to spread Covid-19.

This video, which circulated on Facebook, was said to show Muslims licking plates, knives and forks in an attempt to spread Covid-19 with their spit.

Indian fact-checking site Boomlive found out the real story behind this video, which dates from 2018 or possibly even earlier. It shows members of Dawoodi Bohras, a religious denomination within Shia Muslim that originated in the Indian state of Gujarat. One of their symbolic traditions involves licking plates and utensils to avoid any food waste.



Social media users also shared other videos said to be “proof” that Muslims were deliberately spreading Covid-19. One showed a man said to be a Muslim employee at an Indian fast food joint spitting into several takeaway bags.

This video was said to show a Muslim employee spitting into takeaway sacks at a fast food restaurant in an attempt to transmit Covid-19. Posts in Hindi featuring this video garnered close to 80,000 views on Facebook, according to BoomLive.
 
However, BoomLive reported that this video has been circulating online since at least April 26, 2019 and that it was filmed not in India, but in Malaysia. How did they figure that out? In the video, you can see the pink logo for fast-food restaurant called Foodpanda. In Malaysia, Foodpanda’s logo is pink, while it is orange in India.

The “Foodpanda" logo in the video is pink, which is the case in Malaysia. Foodpanda uses an orange logo in India.

Similarly, this video, which was said to show a domestic worker spitting into a plant to contaminate his Indian employers, is actually an old video from 2011.

Some of the accusations are incredibly far-fetched. Many social media users shared one video claiming that it showed Indian police using instruments to carefully pick up contaminated bills that Muslims had dropped in the street in an attempt to spread Covid-19.

This post accuses Muslims (who are referred to as "Single source") of dropping bills contaminated with Covid-19 in the streets of Indore.

This video was indeed filmed in Indore on April 16, 2020, according to BoomLive. However, Indore police told several Indian media outlets that they watched surveillance footage and were able to identify that the money had fallen out of the pocket of a cyclist. The lucky man was later able to pick up his lost money at the police station. No trace of Covid-19 was found on the bills.
 
Accused of spreading the virus in their places of worship 
 
Other misleading posts showed Muslims practising their religion as supposed “proof” that they were responsible for spreading the virus.

In early May, for example, Twitter accounts supportive of Modi’s BJP party shared a photo that they said showed 700 Muslims defying lockdown to gather for a midnight prayer in the middle of the street in the town of Tiruppattur.

Tweet that states that 700 Muslims gathered together to pray as night fell, breaking the government-mandated Covid-19 curfew.

However, fact-checking website AltNews demonstrated how a simple reverse image search reveals that the photo was taken during the end of the Ramadan fast in 2018 in the town of Allahabad.

Another video that was widely shared was posted on March 31, and was said to show a group of Muslims sneezing in unison, in an attempt to spread Covid-19, which is an airborne virus that can be transmitted by droplets.

This video was shared by a man who claims to be a journalist. His political views are clearly aligned with the BJP.
 
And yet, once again, that video has nothing to do with the current pandemic. The website 'TheLogicalIndian' identified that the video shows a traditional Sufi ceremony where worshippers practice "Zikr", a repetition in unison of rituals in honour of Allah, including breathing in and out quickly.
 
"Everything is built around a conspiracy theory”

BoomLive published a study looking at the most common themes appearing in fake news items related to Covid-19. Of the 178 articles that BoomLive journalists wrote about fake news items on Covid-19 between January and late April, 30 were about false accusations made against Muslims.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to Archis Chowdhury, who carried out this study for BoomLive:
 
This theme exploded after a number of Covid-19 cases were identified at the Nizamuddin Markaz mosque [which was revealed in late March].

Between January and March, most of the fake news items that we were looking at were aimed at China or about fake remedies for the virus.

The fake news was sparked by a conspiracy theory that followers of Tablighi Jamaat had deliberately brought the virus to India and that, by extension, all Muslims were responsible. This kind of rhetoric was pushed by media outlets, politicians and religious organisations that are sympathetic to Hindu nationalists. We saw a real flood of false information in just about a month.

We documented 30 different fake news items targeting Muslims, while only four targeted Hindu nationalists. However, these false accusations against Muslims aren’t new to social media in India. This pandemic is just stirring up pre-existing tensions.

Virtual fake information with real consequences

The widespread circulation of fake news items about Muslims has real consequences on the perception of Muslims in India. Signs reading “No Muslims” have appeared in certain shops and villages.
 
This poster reads, “Muslim shopkeepers are not allowed.” The photo, which was taken on May 3 in a village near Indore, was picked up by several media outlets and police quickly took down the poster.
 
This bakery shared this image on WhatsApp in early May. It explains (top right) that they don’t have any Muslim employees (in reference to false claims that the Muslim community is responsible for spreading Covid-19). The manager of the bakery has since been arrested.
 
Videos posted on social media show some Hindus openly expressing their opposition to Muslims. In the video below, which was taken in the village of Panchayat, the man says that the "Sahebru", a pejorative term for Muslims, are banned from entering the village, and that those who do business with them could be fined up to 1000 rupees, or 12 euros.

"Sharing this video from Ramanagara, a district adjoining Bengaluru,” explains this social media user. The man in the video explains that any Muslim who enters the village will have to pay a fine.
 
There are no official figures for the number of Islamophobic acts carried out in India during the Covid-19 pandemic. An Indian professor at the University of Michigan counted at least 28 attacks on Muslims between March 30 and April 21, and at least 68 fake videos linking the Muslim community with Covid-19 that were circulating on WhatsApp.

In an attempt to quell tensions, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “COVID-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or borders before striking” and called on Indians to unite in the fight against the virus.
 
Article by Alexandre Capron (@alexcapron)