As several instances of post-poll violence marked the victory of Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the 2021 West Bengal Assembly Election, a parallel propaganda war continues to dominate the social media landscape of the state.
Social media users aggressively shared videos and images purportedly showing the 'intensity' of this violence, many of which went viral with misleading claims and were subsequently called out by fact-checkers and other media organisations.
Amid this, several right-wing influencers accused the media of trying to “delegitimise the violence” by debunking instances where disinformation and fake news was being shared.
They claimed that the scale of disinformation was negligible and "people who were calling it out were the only ones actually sharing it."
The Quint’s WebQoof team analysed trends and hashtags around West Bengal violence for over a week and found that far from being negligible, there was an exponential rise in fake news meant to either communalise the situation or add false political angles to unrelated incidents.
Fake News Galore in West Bengal
The news of violence between workers and supporters of different parties including the BJP, TMC, Congress and Left Front started making headlines as soon as election results were declared on 2 May. As per reports, as many as 17 people have lost their lives so far.
Amid this, hashtags like #BengalViolence, #BengalBurning #PresidentRuleInBengal, #AntiHinduMamata and #ArrestMamata started gaining traction on Twitter. As many as 290.8k tweets were made using the hashtag ‘Bengal Burning’, 220.4k using ‘Arrest Mamata’, 232.5k using the hashtag ‘PresidentRuleInBengal’ on 4 May, alone.
While these hashtags were being used to amplify images and videos of the violence unleashed by political workers in the state, they also became carriers of disinformation.
Old and unverified images and visuals were shared with these hashtags to insinuate that they show the situation on ground in West Bengal.
For example, image of an injured woman from Bangladesh was revived and linked to the West Bengal violence. A tweet carrying the image with a misleading claim that it shows a woman who was assaulted in West Bengal, had over 23,000 likes and 1,500 retweets at the times of filing this story.
Similarly, an image from the 2019 anti-CAA protests in Bengal was widely shared with the hashtag 'PresidentRuleInBengal'. It had around 400 likes and as many retweets at the time of filing this story, despite being debunked by multiple fact-checkers.
In another instance, a video from Bangladesh, where a group of men can be seen forcibly carrying a woman away from her house has been shared with a claim that these are "Muslim men who are assaulting a Hindu girl in broad daylight in West Bengal."
Post-Poll Disinformation Used to Further Communal Narrative
The state of West Bengal has a long history of political violence. In his report for news website Scroll, Shoaib Daniyal details how violence by cadres of Congress, Left Front and TMC have shaped the politics of the region since 1960s.
However, we observed that misinformation on social media was used to confuse political violence with communal violence.
The alleged rape and murder of a college student in Medinipur was shared on social media with a communal spin with several users falsely claiming that the perpetrators in the case are Muslims. Among those who shared the false claim is BJP leader Saumitra Khan.
While BJP leader Swapan Dasgupta claimed in a tweet that Hindu families in West Bengal were escaping mobs targeting BJP supporters, the party's Delhi MP Meenakshi Lekhi compared the violence with that "unleashed on Direct Action Day by Muslim League under Jinnah."
We spoke to Torsha Sarkar, researcher at Centre for Internet and Society, who told us that there are multiple reasons behind why communally sensitive (mis)information travels faster on the internet when compared to credible news reports.
"“There has been research that shows social media platforms are designed in ways to make misinformation and extremist speech viral, since such virality can be monetised. In addition to this, the reach of communication apps like WhatsApp coupled with a lack of digital literacy, and the nature of facts on the internet, also contributes to the rapid-spreading and consumption of sensitive misinformation.”" - Torsha Sarkar, Researcher at Centre for Internet and Society
Further, this is not the first time that m/disinformation is being used as a vehicle of communal narrative. We have seen similar patterns of fake news during the anti-CAA protests in 2019, the 2020 Delhi Riots, the Tablighi Jamaat Congregation during the first outbreak of coronavirus in India and even during the 2019 protests against a fee hike in JNU.
How BJP Contributed to a Disinformation Campaign in West Bengal
While several right wing influencers would have you believe that the scale of disinformation is much less and "people fact-checking the claims are the ones who share misleading videos and images in the first place to delegitimise violence," we found several BJP politicians and the party's official Facebook page propagating fake news.
These include party’s Mahila Morcha President Priti Gandhi, who shared an altered clip of people dancing with weapons to claim that they are TMC workers celebrating victory.
On 6 May, the official Facebook page of BJP in West Bengal shared a video blaming TMC for the violence. In this video, the party used an image of journalist Abhro Banerjee, who is very much alive, an identified him as a BJP worker killed in the violence.
In a statement issued on 4 May, the Vishva Hindu Parishad – a member organisation of the Sangh Parivar – urged the Hindus to "rise in self defence."
It Does Not Stop Here
Disturbing videos of violence became a huge favourite of the fake news factory in West Bengal in the follow up to election results, even if they were from outside the state or for that matter, from outside India.
The Quint debunked several such claims in a span of just over a week. A video of a man being brutally thrashed by locals in Uttar Pradesh's Muzaffarnagar went viral as a "wake-up call for Hindus from West Bengal". Similarly, graphic videos of violence in Venezuela and Brazil were revived and linked with post-poll violence in Bengal.
It has been observed in the past that mis/disinformation is a popular tool to spread communal narratives. The post-poll violence in West Bengal became the social media birthing ground for triggering videos and images – many of which were shared with misleading claims.
However, it is not always possible for fact-checkers and media organisations to match the pace at which disinformation is shared. As Torsha Sarkar puts it, “It is almost impossible for fact-checkers to keep up with the scale of misinformation, because as evidence has suggested, a lot of misinformation is manufactured and spread in a coordinated fashion.”
Hence, while the responsibility of keeping the law and order situation under control rests entirely on the newly elected Mamata Banerjee government, several BJP leaders and related organisations must stop amplifying communally sensitive fake news in an already volatile situation.
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