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Why India is leading the pro-Israel disinformation campaign

Why India is leading the pro-Israel disinformation campaign online
7 min read
24 October, 2023
Analysis: Amid Israel's ongoing bombardment of Gaza, right-wing and Hindu nationalist accounts in India have surfaced on social media amplifying anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic disinformation.

In the wake of Israel's war on Gaza, brought about by the unexpected attack by Hamas on the 7th of October, a curious trend has emerged on social media.

In the past two weeks, Indian right-wing accounts - many of which depict the Indian flag side by side with the Israeli one - have voiced some of the most staunch support for Israel online, and are among the leading producers and amplifiers of anti-Palestine disinformation.

These pro-Israel advocates also make their presence felt on the streets of India, where rallies are organised in support of Israel, expressing unwavering support even in the face of controversial events such as the Al Ahli Hospital bombing, the deadliest attack of this war, which killed over 470 Palestinians.

Right-leaning accounts in India have attributed the strike to Hamas rather than Israel, despite evidence pointing to Israel's responsibility.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi was one of the first leaders to express support for Israel on 7 October, stating, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the innocent victims and their families. We stand in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour".

In Israel’s war on Gaza, there has been a surge of disinformation and fake news on social media, amplified by platforms like X (formerly Twitter), particularly focused on spreading anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic claims.

Experts have observed that right-leaning Indian accounts are significantly boosting the Israeli narrative to South Asian audiences, a demographic not easily reached by Western media.

This phenomenon could have real-life implications for India’s Muslim community, with violent Islamophobic sentiment already widespread. 

“Whereas support for Israel online has been on a mass scale, there have been only pockets of support for Palestinians," Azad Essa, journalist and author of Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel, told The New Arab.

"Many Muslims in India have told me there is a lot of fear that should they come out on the streets en masse, it would be used as another excuse to label them ‘terrorists’ or make them targeted on the streets. So there is a lot of helplessness.”

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A unique bromance

In India, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has forged strong connections with Israel, both on the political and social levels.

Essa explained that Hindutva, the ideology and movement of Hindu nationalism, shares Israel's approach to confronting 'terrorists’ - referring to the perception of Muslims in both countries.

Israel has even supported India in its past conflicts with Pakistan by providing mortars, ammunition, and advanced laser-guided missiles. India is the largest buyer of Israeli-made arms, splurging over $1 billion annually.

In 2017, Prime Minister Modi made history by becoming the first Indian PM to journey to Israel. During the visit, he stated that both countries share a "deep, centuries-old connection," thus ushering in a robust political alliance paired with military and cyber security agreements.

"Hindutva and Zionism both share a similar expansionist nature," Essa remarked. "India considers all of south Asia Hindu, while Israel dreams of a Greater Israel extending beyond its present borders.”

In addition to spreading online disinformation, supporters of India's ruling BJP party have taken to the streets in support of Israel's war against Gaza. [Getty]

In both these nations, certain faiths enjoy more privileges than others, with Hindus and Jews wielding more rights than any minority.

Islamophobia has been on the rise since the ascent of Modi's BJP. A report from the Australia-based Islamic Council of Victoria revealed that the majority of Islamophobic tweets on X originate from India.

“The binding force of these nationalist ideologies lies in Islamophobia and the drive to put Muslims in their place,” Essa added, explaining that for India, Israel serves as a model for governance. 

“India aspires to be like Israel, envisioning itself as a first-world, advanced liberal democracy, similar to Israel, which, as we know, is not an actual democracy," said Essa.

Essa explained that Hindu nationalists dream of replicating the Israeli apartheid system against Palestinians, and this is reflected in endless vilification online.

"In some ways, apartheid is well underway in India," he noted.

Social media wars

In many cases, anti-Muslim and Islamophobic sentiments are tools used by populist leaders to gain popularity by exacerbating social conflicts and pitting one group against another, explained Associate Professor of Middle East Studies at Hamad bin Khalifa University and disinformation researcher Marc Owen Jones.

"This could be deliberate to drive popularity for Modi. It could be a political strategy designed to rally his base," Jones told The New Arab, explaining that India's digital media power and influence on people's perceptions of world events should not to be underestimated.

"India is the most populous country in the world with many Internet users, especially English-speaking users, so the mobilisation of Indian influencers or disinfluencers promoting disinformation is really significant," Jones said.

"If you look at the most popular Tweets (posts on X) about Israel and Palestine, the majority are from Indian journalists who tend to support Israel and misrepresent Palestine," he added.

Furthermore, the BJP's IT Cell  -  the department that manages social media campaigns - plays a key role. According to Swati Chaturvedi's "I Am a Troll" book, volunteers are hired to follow instructions from the social media cell and its affiliated organisations to share propaganda.

“The amount of disinformation is staggering this time," Essa remarked. “Thousands of Indian right-wing accounts are bolstering Israeli propaganda and helping Israel reach South Asian audiences."

Essa points out that these false narratives serve a dual purpose, not only portraying Palestinians as stereotypical terrorists but also as predators against women.

“Both Zionism and Hindutva share a common fear of being outnumbered by Muslims, which strengthens the case for nationalism. Anyone daring to oppose these ideologies is labelled as anti-nationalist,” Essa said.

“It's increasingly challenging to discuss Palestine in India.”

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Paid to spread fake news

One individual actively working to debunk misinformation and counter Israeli propaganda while amplifying Palestinian voices is Mohammed Zubair, an Indian journalist and co-founder of Alt News, an Indian nonprofit fact-checking website.

Zubair has faced backlash from official accounts, including the Consul General of Israel to Midwest India, Kbbi Shoshani, who urged him to “Stop spreading fake news and hatred about Israel," in his post on X.

"People often fail to fact-check information and tend to use any piece of information to justify the attacks on Palestinian civilians,” Zubair told The New Arab.

Given that India has more WhatsApp users than social media users, Essa argues that most misinformation and disinformation originate from WhatsApp, particularly within large group chats.

However, Zubair contends that X remains the primary platform for the spread of misinformation and disinformation: "Numerous right-wing Indian influencers with substantial followings, some even followed by high-ranking officials such as Modi himself, play a pivotal role in disseminating Israeli propaganda".

The spread of Islamophobic information online could have real life consequences for India's Muslim community, which already faces severe persecution. [Getty]

These accounts intentionally share emotional content, even if it is false, so that they can attract a large audience, Zubair explained. Additionally, X's current regulations permit these accounts - particularly subscribers to X Premium -  with substantial followings and interactions to earn money, providing additional incentive to keep posting.

Despite the availability of community notes, which allow audiences to explain facts beneath each post, some people remain unfazed and keep posting to generate revenue, Zubair added. By doing so, disinformation campaigns become lucrative businesses.

"'Prior to Elon Musk's acquisition of the platform in 2022, accounts that posted inappropriate or false content would receive warnings before being suspended. Now, these accounts get amplified, especially if they have a blue checkmark,” Zubaied explained.

Despite efforts from individuals speaking up for the Palestinian side, the pro-Israeli stance remains dominant among the public.

In a recent incident, a 20-year-old Muslim from Karnataka's Hospet district was arrested for posting a WhatsApp status that appeared to 'support' Palestine. Although some local reports described the post as 'provocative,' the content featured a picture of war-torn Palestine with the words 'We Stand with Palestine — Palestine Zindabad.'"

"This wave of misinformation is undoubtedly going to have implications for Muslims in India, as they will have to address every terrorist attack occurring worldwide, and justify how they are not associated with militant groups like Hamas," Zubair noted.

Jones notes that the Islamophobic sentiment can spill out to real-life consequences for Muslims all over the world, similar to the tragic killing of Wadea Al-Fayoume, six-year-old boy in Chicago, who was stabbed to death by a man who police say targeted him and his mother because they were Muslim and Palestinian Americans.

"Islamophobia stemming from Indian accounts will not only contribute to hate crimes inside India alone. Who says it won't affect the experiences of Muslims abroad, including those living in the US for instance?"  Jones asked.

Dana Hourany is a multimedia journalist based in Beirut

Follow her on Twitter: @DanaHourany