The last few years have seen a rise in the persecution of Christians in India – and an increasingly contributing factor is social media. It’s one of the key findings to emerge from an alarming report called Destructive Lies, commissioned by Open Doors, which documents the extreme persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in India.
Social media is aggravating the persecution facing Christians in India, which is number 10 on the World Watch List
When was the last time you appeared in a video or photo on someone else’s social media account? Perhaps it was of you on holiday or at a sporting event, or simply hanging out with family, friends or your church.
Were the same question asked of Christians in India, many of the answers would be very different – and highly disturbing.
When an extremist Hindu mob attacks Christians in India, one of the first things they’ll do is snatch the victims’ phones. This is to stop them from documenting the incident as evidence against their attackers. However, the mob will take out their own phones and record the violence, before adding it to various social media platforms in way that serves their agenda.
This is one of the shocking findings from a new report delivered to Parliament last week (1 July) called Destructive Lies, highlighting the extreme persecution facing Christians, Muslims and other religious minorities in India.
The driving force behind this is Hindutva, an ideology that disregards Indian Christians and Muslims (and other religious minorities) as true Indians because they have allegiances that lie outside India, and asserts the country should be purified of their presence.
The report, based on research by the London School of Economics (LSE), outlines why Hindu extremists are using social media in their persecution of religious minorities.
First, it parades the perpetrators to other Hindutva groups and politicians, showcasing them as bold Hindu nationalists who are protecting Hinduism. Second, it lets the police know that they do not consider their actions unlawful. And third, it serves as a warning to other people affiliated with the victims.
But there is more to these posts than simply documenting the violence. The mobs will also use them to share disinformation about their victims. For example, Christians will be accused of forced or paid conversion. “[The perpetrators] therefore frame their violent attacks against minorities as a form of ‘civic’, patriotic and religious duty to prevent such attributed behaviour,” the report states.
The report adds that posts act as ‘social evidence’ because of the compelling way they are presented. Victims are unable to provide their side of the story, whilst the persecutors embellish the posts with text or commentary to reinforce the disinformation. A routine Christian private prayer meeting, for example, is labelled as a ‘secret meeting to convert Hindus to Christianity’.
It’s here that social media platforms have failed in their responsibilities. By and large they have failed to address the spread of such disinformation at a local and national level (e.g. through the removal of posts or suspension of accounts). The posts therefore go unchecked, which perpetuates the false narrative that religious minorities, including Christians, are guilty whilst the attackers are innocent.
Sadly, the mainstream media in India cannot be relied upon to shed light on the truth. Outlets will systematically exclude victims’ accounts from reports. Even if a local reporter captures the real story, the final edit will be dictated by ‘an institutional hierarchy which is either risk averse or loyal to powerful Hindutva organizations and parties’. If a story cannot be spun against religious minorities, it won’t be covered at all.
Ultimately, the mainstream media reinforces the lies spread on social media. These articles are then in turn shared on individual accounts, groups, pages and closed messaging apps such as WhatsApp, creating a cycle of disinformation that further buries the truth.
“Discriminatory, dehumanizing and inciting speech flourishes on social media because users are able to operate with a sense of impunity which in turn has become normalised amongst far-right users,” the report concludes. Whilst responsibility for this partly falls with the police, local authorities, courts and ruling party, blame also lies with social media platforms whose failure to prevent the spread of false and inflammatory information cannot be excused under a commitment to free speech.
“What is really shocking is how un-seriously this is being taken by [social media] platforms and companies who … support human rights,” said one of the authors of the report. “They should deal with it as seriously as if Christians were being persecuted like this in the U.S. or in the UK. I think they would have a different reaction to it then.”
"What is really shocking is how un-seriously this is being taken by [social media] platforms and companies" Report author
In response to the findings, the report lists eight recommendations for social and mainstream media outlets. This includes more moderators, the implementation of specialised training in international human rights and the complex and diverse use of different languages and dialects, and a more rigorous approach to removing hateful content.
At the launch of Destructive Lies in Parliament, 38 MPs and representatives confirmed their attendance (find out if your MP attended here). Earlier this week, Brendan O’Hara MP confirmed that he has put a motion to Parliament, calling on the UK government to urgently raise the plight of India’s religious minorities to the Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi and the High Commissioner.
The role played by social media in the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities – along with the other findings from the report – is hugely troubling, and change will not happen overnight. However, the voices of our family in India are being heard in power, thanks to you. Progress is being made, but there remains a long way to go.
You can further highlight the plight of Christians in India by emailing Nigel Adams, Minister for Asia, asking him to act. You can also tweet him a powerful video about the violence suffered by believers. Thank you.
Your support helps persecuted Christians continue to courageously follow Jesus.
Together, we can reach those where persecution hits hardest.