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Faith Online: Transnational Religious Politics on New Media in India and Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - ONLINERPOL (Faith Online: Transnational Religious Politics on New Media in India and Europe)

Reporting period: 2021-11-01 to 2022-04-30

The ONLINERPOL project is a ground-breaking study into the effects of internet-enabled media on religious politics and nationalism. It reveals how online social media platforms allow right-wing movements to benefit from extreme speech globally.
The growth of internet-enabled social networking sites and messaging services has raised the possibility of wider democratic participation but it has also created focal points for expressions of hate and exclusion. A key contribution of the project is a fine-grained ethnographic analysis of the situations and practices of actual online users. It has examined what kinds of online cultures and affordances shape their discourse and what meanings users attach to online practices. These insights are tied to a broader analysis of the historically-shaped political structures of religious difference and nationalism, as well as the complicity of social media companies.
The study is significant in the context of rising concerns about online media’s negative impact on political cultures. Online hate speech and disinformation have emerged as a major problem for democratic societies worldwide. These developments have posed a real threat to values of tolerance and diversity, endangering the basic foundations of human rights and dignity. To these raging debates about online hate speech and nationalism, ONLINERPOL has made a contribution by bringing ethnographic sensibility to online user practices in lived contexts, and attention to longer historical forces of coloniality and racialization that shape the current conjuncture. Theoretically, it has advanced the critical frameworks of “extreme speech”, “ethical scaling” and the Internet as an arena of “multiple interfaces”.
The project has published peer reviewed articles in major journals alongside a co-edited collection and a co-authored monograph by university presses and policy recommendations. It has also disseminated research by engaging general public through open access multimedia outputs such as podcasts and media publications.
ONLINERPOL project has revealed the critical role of Internet media in fueling online extreme speech, and in forging connections between the diaspora and the homeland. These processes have facilitated further consolidation of Hindu majoritarian politics in contemporary India. At the same time, online media have provided opportunities of assembly and triggered dilemmas of ethical practice among minoritized religious groups. Through media practices around archiving, fun, surveillance and piety, online media have reconfigured the spaces and contexts of religious politics in India and the diaspora.
The Indian diaspora members in Europe are actively participating in online discussions, leading to fissures between nationalist discourses and active resistance to religious majoritarianism through street protests in major cities (Jain 2022; Anderson & Longkumer 2018).
One of the key conceptual contributions relates to theorizing fun as a salient aspect of right-wing mobilization globally (Udupa 2019). The argument is that fun is a meta-practice that links interlinked practices of fact-checking, abuse, assembly and aggression among online volunteers for right-wing movements. Fun not only normalizes extreme speech but also makes it enjoyable in globally shared online cultures.
The project has also shown that organized Muslim groups in India engage social media with great interest. Jama’at-i-Islami Hind (JIH), a reformist Islamist group in India, for instance, has developed an ethical code for social media use (Kramer 2020).
Such variations mark the contours of what the project defines as “millennial India” (Udupa, Venkatraman & Khan 2019). The project has shown that a politics of civic action has grown simultaneously with violent vigilante action fueled by rumors and hateful expressions circulating on social media platforms such as WhatsApp.
The project has also examined the global phenomenon of vitriolic exchange enabled by the Internet and developed the theory of “extreme speech” (Udupa & Pohjonen 2019; Udupa, Gagliardone & Hervik 2021).
Based on inquiries into extreme speech and global digital media, the project has proposed a set of action items for the United Nations in commissioned research paper (Udupa 2019). It has proposed four priority areas for UN entities: tackling global unevenness in platform governance; connecting critical communities such as factcheckers and anti-hate groups on a global scale; monitoring ‘gray’ zones, fringe actors, and smaller/domestic platforms; engaging repressive states to tackle coordinated disinformation and hate campaigns.
In a major intervention in ongoing debates surrounding artificial intelligence, hate speech and content moderation, the project has developed the framework of “ethical scaling”. Highlighting severe shortcomings in the content moderation practices of big tech, this work has developed procedural guidelines to involve communities, AI developers and ethnographers to collaboratively identify and label contentious expressions online (Udupa, Maronikolakis, Schuetze & Wisiorek 2022).
Studies on Internet enabled media still largely focus on North America and Europe, raising concerns about filter bubbles and echo chambers. While these concerns are no doubt valid, ONLINERPOL has taken digital politics scholarship beyond the moral panics triggered by the expansion of Internet enabled communication. Challenging such moral panics that presuppose calm rationality as characteristic of Western liberal democracies, the study has brought the focus on longer histories of religious difference and colonial power to understand Internet media’s complicity in contemporary forms of xenophobic and religious majoritarian nationalism. In so doing, the study has highlighted several factors that influence online supporters for nationalism. Rather than seeing them as indoctrinated foot soldiers, the study has exposed a variety of factors that influence their actions: from precarious labor arrangements that underlie online political propaganda to nebulous networks of patronage, brokerage, idolatry and ideological affiliation. By tracking these influences, the study has revealed a complex scenario that has transformed nationalism into a fraught discursive battle with immense affective energies.
Similarly, by revealing connections between India and the diaspora, and the global circulation of nationalist tropes and cultures online, the study has contributed towards understanding how the Internet, despite all the local variations, has become a vital connective tissue for xenophobic and exclusionary nationalist politics globally.
The study has advanced interdisciplinarity by combining on-the-ground and online ethnographic excavations with social network analysis, discourse analysis and natural language processing.
The project has been active in public dissemination of research and social engagement. This has paved the way for “For Digital Dignity”—a network of scholars and activists with a shared vision to foster enabling spaces of political expression online. “For Digital Dignity” is an effort to rescue digital cultures of contact from descending into exclusionary discourses.
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