Tamara Yesmin Toma

Research Officer, Dismislab
Religious disinformation in India’s 2024 Lok Sabha Elections

Religious disinformation in India’s 2024 Lok Sabha Elections

Tamara Yesmin Toma

Research Officer, Dismislab

The Lok Sabha Election in India sparked a new wave of religious disinformation across media and social media platforms, with visible hatred towards Muslims and other minority religious communities. Dismislab’s analysis of 202 unique fact-check reports published by five prominent Indian fact-checking organizations—Boom, Factly, Newschecker, The Quint, and Alt News—between January and May 2024 reveals this trend.

According to the analysis, about 62% of the disinformation negatively targeted Muslims and Islam. Sikhs and Christians were also targeted, particularly in reference to political protests and tensions. Approximately one-third of the disinformation was about Hindus and Hinduism, with more than 80% of those claims being positive or neutral in tone.

In 39% of the instances, religious disinformation was spread to target political parties and politicians. Nearly half of these negatively targeted the Indian National Congress (INC). The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was also subject to disinformation claims, but these were mostly positive, promoting actions of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and glorifying Ayodhya Ram Temple.

The major disinformation narratives included allegations of Muslims harassing Hindus, committing crimes such as murder, rape, and kidnapping, and receiving undue advantages from special reservations, particularly from Congress and BJP opponents, thereby marginalizing Hindus. Recent issues such as the inauguration of the Ram Temple, the farmers’ movement, the conflict in Sandeshkhali in West Bengal, riots on Meera Road in Mumbai, the vandalism of mosques and madrasas in Haldwani, and disinformation about Muslims receiving extra benefits from OBC reservation and purportedly gaining a share of Hindu wealth have all been subjects of, or have fueled, religious disinformation during this period.

In recent days, several media reported about campaigns spreading islamophobia and religious hatred in the Lok Sabha Elections campaign. Experts say, right-wing populists focus on negative globalization attitudes, economic vulnerabilities, and cultural fears among majority voters to influence election outcomes. 

Surge in Islamophobic disinformation and hate against minorities 

Fact-checked articles provide a deeper look at religious disinformation trends in India. Of the 202 claims analyzed, about 62% target Islam, 32% target Hindus, and the remainder target Sikhs and Christians. The religious disinformation is mostly hateful, with 70% being hostile to at least one religion, indicating a bias against specific communities. The rest contained either positive (17%) or neutral messages.

The data suggests a surge in disinformation targeting the Muslim community over time since January 2024 and peaked in April. After a sharp spike in January, disinformation related to Hinduism or Hindus dropped consistently and the main reason for the January spike appears to be related to the Ram Temple inauguration in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh.

Disinformation campaigns mostly targeted the Muslim community and the Islam religion, with 96% being negative or hostile to the community. In contrast, disinformation related to Hinduism or Hindus was predominantly positive, with more than 80% of the claims having a favorable or neutral tone.

Nearly half of the disinformation regarding Hinduism portrayed the religion in a positive light. For example, coverage of events such as the inauguration of the Ram temple, visits by world leaders in the event, or narratives emphasizing religious significance or miraculous stories related to the temple.

Disinformation narratives

Various islamophobic narratives portrayed Muslims as extremists, attackers, oppressors, murderers, or rapists. For instance, false claims have circulated about Muslims abducting Hindu girls in Karnataka and Calcutta. Disinformation has spread about alleged Muslim attacks (1, 2, 3), attempted murder (1, 2, 3) and rape against Hindus.

False claims have also targeted Muslim-owned businesses, such as allegations of Muslim restaurants using “impotence pills”, a Muslim ice-cream seller engaging in inappropriate behavior, and a watermelon seller using harmful injections. Even reputable Muslim founded companies like Hamdard Unani, Himalaya, and Malabar Gold and Diamonds have been targeted, with calls for Hindus to boycott them.

According to the United Nations, “Islamophobia is a fear, prejudice, and hatred of Muslims that leads to provocation, hostility, and intolerance by means of threatening, harassment, abuse, incitement, and intimidation of Muslims and non-Muslims, both in the online and offline world.”

Indian Muslims are also often blamed for supporting Pakistan, a historically adversarial country to India. For instance, in a video purportedly from Hyderabad, Muslims were accused of rallying with the Pakistani flag, though it was later debunked as the flag in question was not Pakistani but symbolic of Islam. The procession occurred during Eid-e-Miladunnabi, a Muslim festival.

Conversely, out of the 12 instances of disinformation negatively targeting the Hindu community, false claims included the persecution of a Muslim man and a Christian man by Hindus in Uttar Pradesh, incidents involving rape of a Dalit girl in Gujarat, and cases of harassment against students for wearing hijab in Delhi. 

Disinformation targeting Sikhs spread during the heightened tensions of the farmers’ movement and India-Canada tensions regarding Khalistan-supporting Sikhs. For example, a video depicting pro-Khalistani Sikhs attacking a Hindu temple went viral but was found to be old upon verification. Another instance involved a false claim that during farmers’ protest Sikhs were allegedly attacking the police with kirpans, their religious ceremonial swords.

Disinformation about Christians propagated negative stereotypes against the community. For example, there were false claims that Christians in Kerala were forcing Hindus to collect Christmas donations. In another instance, a BJP leader claimed that those arrested in the Spanish vlogger rape case in India worked for a Christian missionary, labeling the Christian community as “rice bag converts.”

Targeting political parties with religious disinformation

Out of the 202 samples analyzed, the names of Indian political parties or leaders were found in 78 instances, accounting for 39%. Among these, half were against the Indian National Congress and its leaders. Most of the religious disinformation surrounded figures such as Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi, Mamata Banerjee, Asaduddin Owaisi, and Siddaramaiah.

In many cases, there was a clear intention to exploit religious sentiments among voters for political advantage. For example, disinformation about how Rahul Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee reacted to the slogan invoking Lord Ram was primarily aimed at targeting political parties like Congress and Trinamool Congress, portraying them as anti-Hindu. In such cases, the political identity of Rahul and Mamata overshadowed their religious affiliations.

About 97% of the religious disinformation related to Congress was negative or hostile. Several left-wing and Islamic political parties exerting influence in various states of India were targets, with all subjected to negative campaigning. These included All India Trinamool Congress (TMC), All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), Shiv Sena, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), Left Democratic Front (LDF), Popular Front of India (PFI), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), and Samajwadi Party, among others.

The common political narratives with religious spin are allegations that anti-BJP parties ruling different state-governments support Muslims and disfavor Hindus and their religious observances.  In Tamil Nadu, false claims of temples being converted into mosques and another demolished by local governments have circulated, while in Kerala, disinformation alleged that Muslims, backed by the Congress party, have seized a temple and converted it into a meat shop.

In states governed by Congress, Trinamool, or LDF administrations, numerous claims surfaced alleging special privileges being granted to Muslims and Christians. These include false assertions that the Karnataka government allocated funds for minorities (waqf) from the earnings of Hindu temples, depriving Hindus, and false claims suggesting that only Muslims are being recruited in the West Bengal sub-inspector recruitment exam.

At a public event in Rajasthan’s Banswara on 21 April, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made statements about past policies, alleging, “Dr. Manmohan Singh’s government had said – that Muslims have the first right to the nation’s wealth.” However, upon verification, it was found that the BJP chief distorted Manmohan Singh’s speech to make this claim.

Narendra Modi also claimed that the Congress will distribute wealth to “infiltrators” and “those with more children,” implying Hindus would be deprived in favor of Muslim. Later, Modi denied mentioning ‘Muslims’ when referring to ‘infiltrators’ and ‘those with more children,’ but fact-checking disproved this statement.

False claims of blasphemy charges against the leaders and activists of these parties were also observed, including Maharashtra Congress leader Jitendra Awhad being attacked for allegedly insulting Lord Ram, and a video circulated showing Congress activists tearing down hoardings of Hindu deities, which was actually a protest by BJP activists. In an attempt to portray opposition leaders as not being ideal Hindus, disinformation spread claims of Rahul Gandhi refusing to accept an idol of Lord Vitthal and Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah expressing a desire to reincarnate as a Muslim.

Several fake election manifestos of Congress were also circulated, including one claiming the party’s support for love jihad, legalization of beef, and burqa (hijab). It falsely stated that Congress would declare same-sex marriage legal if it came to power. 

Disinformation campaigns portraying the BJP positively often include calls to vote for the party. For instance, in Tamil Nadu, amidst rumors of temple conversions into mosques, calls were made to vote for the BJP to save ‘future generations.’ In negative propaganda about the BJP, disinformation photos and videos surfaced showing BJP leader Smriti Irani posing with fish during Navratri, despite a ban on non-vegetarian sales during the festival, or BJP leaders merely posing to clean temples, indicating their hypocrisy.

When it crosses the border

Videos from neighboring countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan also contribute to spreading false information, often misrepresented as incidents occurring in India. For instance, a video of a Bangladeshi religious leader was circulated in India with a caption claiming that Hindus would be invited to convert to Islam door-to-door if Congress comes to power. Similarly, a video depicting a rape victim in the Sindh province of Pakistan was circulated as a case of rape of a Dalit girl in Gujarat.

Eight claims, mostly videos, (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) from Bangladesh falsely circulated as incidents in India. These included false and misleading claims such as the torture of Hindus by Muslims in Bangladesh, harassment for not wearing the burqa, love jihad, and forced conversions, which also gained attention in India.

Fuelling ‘panic’ among Hindu voters

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, among minority parties in India, Jains are the sole group that strongly supports the BJP, and only a small proportion of Buddhists (29%), Muslims (19%), Sikhs (19%), and Christians (10%) reported voting for the BJP in the 2019 general elections.

Journalist Anurag Verma argued that an undivided Hindu vote is crucial for the BJP’s 2024 campaign. However, according to the study by the Pew Research Center, differences in language, food habits, and rituals among Hindus also shape their religious-political preferences. 

According to BOOM research, Muslims have been the top target of India’s fake news since 2021. One of its latest reports suggests, about 44 million Indian rupees have been spent in ads on Meta platforms in April , largely to spread islamophobic content targeting BJP’s opponents. According to BOOM, many advertisements claimed that the Congress prioritizes Muslims among Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

In their article, Anne Metten and Michael Bayerlein argue that anxiety plays a crucial role in populism. They suggest that right-wing parties exploit economic vulnerabilities and cultural fears to mobilize people, with higher levels of existential anxieties correlating with a greater likelihood of voting for such parties.


Methodology

There are more than a dozen sites in India that regularly fact-check false or misleading claims. This study sampled five major fact-checking sites that regularly produce reports in English. The research team studied each of the fact-checks published in the past five months (January-May 2024) and documented all the contents with reference to religions for analysis.

The claims in the sample articles were categorized with respect to four religious communities: Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs, as no content related to other communities was found. References to words or phrases associated with each religion, such as religious symbols, places, practices, or cultural references, were used to determine which religion each claim referred to. 

In cases where multiple religions were mentioned, the subject performing the action was determined based on the context provided. For example, the claim that “Three members of a Hindu family were killed by Muslims in Bangladesh” was recorded as negative content against the Muslim community since Muslims were stated as the subject.

Indicators of sentiment within the content were used to classify the data as ‘positive,’ ‘negative,’ or ‘neutral.’ Positive sentiment included expressions of admiration, respect, or support for the religion, its followers, or its beliefs. Negative sentiment involved criticism, derogatory remarks, or expressions of hostility towards the religion and its practitioners. Neutral sentiment comprised factual statements or descriptions without any apparent bias or emotional tone.

To determine these categories, the study considered the communal spin of each disinformation, the targeted religious community, and the attitude towards them. It includes analyzing the context of the incident, the sources from which it spread, and the use of language.

The sentiments of the claims that directly mentioned political parties and their leaders were classified as positive, negative, or neutral based on how the disinformation campaigns portrayed them.