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

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - ONLINERPOL (Faith Online: Transnational Religious Politics on New Media in India and Europe)

Reporting period: 2018-11-01 to 2020-04-30

The ONLINERPOL project is a ground-breaking study into the effects of internet-enabled media on religious politics in India and the Indian diaspora in Europe. It reveals how these online 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 has also created focal points for expressions of hate and exclusion. We examine how online media have revived and reshaped the politics of religious difference and national belonging, with a particular focus on the increasing online presence of Hindu nationalism. We have also researched the online practices of Muslim political groups in India and the UK. Building on research into the Indian case, we have examined extreme speech in a global context and considered the relationship between offline and online behavior of different sets of actors. A key contribution of our project is a fine-grained ethnographic analysis of the situations and practices of actual online users. We examine 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.

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. Studies have shown that authoritarian regimes, Islamic extremist groups and right-wing xenophobic groups have weaponized online speech to take aim against minoritized communities including immigrants, women, and advocates of inclusive societies. 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 makes a contribution by bringing ethnographic sensibility to online user practices in lived contexts and historical privileges that underlie tensions around religious identities and national belonging.

The key impact objectives of the project are to
1. Strengthen critical inquiry on the political impact of digital media by combining the perspectives of anthropology and communication studies, in particular by using ethnography and data-based methods;
2. Observe and advocate for online spaces where political discussion can take place free from intimidation;
3. Rescue digital cultural interfaces from descent into exclusionary discourses based on gender, race, caste, religion and nationality.
The project has completed major part of fieldwork, and published the first set of results in top ranked peer reviewed journals. 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 presented dilemmas of ethical practice among minoritized religious groups. Through particular media practices such as archiving, fun, surveillance and modesty, online media have reconfigured the spaces and contexts of religious politics in India and the diaspora.

Using Hindu nationalism as an example, ONLINERPOL research has shown how right-wing ideologies are employing extreme speech, abusive, humorous memes and digital “evidence” building to engage their audience online. These movements are characterized by online vitriol and aggression and assumed ‘fact-based’ contestation to mainstream media narratives. This is revealed by the wide prevalence of nationalist expressions in online discussions. For instance, in the recently concluded general elections in India, in a pool of over 16 million sampled tweets and retweets that were gathered using Twitter streaming API between 13 March 2019 and 23 May 2019, terms that invoked nation or nationalism comprised a significant number. These terms appeared 263316 times in a pool of 1725013 unique words.

One of the key conceptual contributions has come from the latest publication which has argued that fun should be seen as a salient aspect of right-wing mobilization globally (Udupa 2019). Departing from a leader-centric analysis of populist movements and liberal theories of political action, this theory argues that fun is a meta-practice that links interlinked practices of fact-checking, abuse, assembly and aggression among online volunteers for right-wing movements. Furthermore, fun guarantees an experience of absolute autonomy among online users in ideological battles. Fun not only normalizes extreme speech but also makes it enjoyable in globally shared online cultures. Fun provides distance and deniability which allow actors to evade regulation and machine detection. Fun instigates collective pleasures of identity that can mitigate risk. It is hence both tactical and performative.

The project has also shown that organized Muslim groups in India engage social media with great interest. All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), for instance, has reinvented itself as a national party for disenfranchised Indian Muslims in recent times. This process is driven by the social media popularity of the party’s president Asaduddin Owaisi and his maverick brother Akbaruddin Owaisi. Although some of their social media appearances are termed as “hate speech”, the project has argued that the unequal distribution of the capacity to speak extreme between minority and majority groups should be taken into consideration while examining the implications of online extreme speech (Kramer 2020). Jama’at-i-Islami Hind (JIH), a reformist Islamist group in India, on the other hand, has developed an ethical code for social media use. This suggests their stated distance from digital exhibitionism while also articulating their opposition to Hindu nationalism through distinct language practices. Online media have also provided new avenues for self-fashioning practices among Indian Muslim women in the UK. For instance, hijabi social influencers who identify themselves as “hijabi fashionista” have transformed “hijab” in the online space into a symbol for self-expression, bodily rights and citizenship (Siddique 2019). These practices reveal that online Muslim politics is not restricted to masculine actors portrayed either as violent jihadis or non-violent radicals. There is a panoply of practices, including among female online influencers who fashion their individual brand of Muslimness for their online followers, and in effect, asserting the Muslim woman as a source of authority and influence.

These variations mark the contours of what the project defines as “millennial India” (Udupa, Venkatraman & Khan 2019). It is characterized foremost by the expansion of digital media platforms across different sections of society. India’s 450 million Internet users comprise the world’s second largest online user base. Digital media cultures have expanded across major social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter, and homegrown mid-range social media tools such as ShareChat. Facebook has the largest number of subscribers in India (270 million), followed by the United States (Livemint 2017; Statista 2018), whereas the company’s recently acquired messenger service WhatsApp has close to 200 million users (Statista 2017). India constitutes one of the rapidly growing markets for Twitter in terms of active users (estimated at 7.8 million; Mandavia 2018; Statista 2019). There are still wide gaps in access and usage. The Internet usage rate in India is one of the lowest in the world: only 26 percent of the total population are connected to the Internet. Internet penetration rates in rural and urban India stand at 173.42 million and 338.84 million, respectively (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India [TRAI] 2018). Almost a third of the world’s population that is not connected to the Internet are in India (Iyengar 2018). Despite these sobering indicators, continued growth of digital media markets and the state-led digitization agenda (Department of Telecommunication 2018; Poushter et al. 2018) have shaped a climate of tremendous uptake for digital tools as a means for political communication. Online access has facilitated participation in political debates. However, participation is not the same as empowerment. We show 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.
Placing the Indian case in a comparative framework, the project has examined the global phenomenon of vitriolic exchange enabled by the Internet and developed the theory of “extreme speech” (Udupa & Pohjonen, 2019; Udupa, Gagliardone & Hervik, forthcoming). Extreme speech can be defined as speech acts that push the boundaries of acceptable speech along the twin axes of civility/incivility and truth/falsity. Distinct from the legal-normative discourse of hate speech, “extreme speech” foregrounds two perspectives. First, it emphasizes the need to contextualize online debate with an attention to user practices and particular histories of speech cultures. Second, related to context, is the ambiguity of online vitriol, which defies a simple antonymous conception of hate speech versus acceptable speech. With its cross-cultural and global comparative approach backed with bottom-up theorizing, “extreme speech” advances a decolonial approach to digital hate. The decolonial move entails an epistemic challenge to liberal normative basis of the hate speech discourse, while reflecting back upon the current global conjuncture of white supremacy, populism, masculine aggression and racialized discourse from situated understanding of extreme speech in different world regions.

In the area of Internet regulation and digital disinformation, the project has found that fact checking initiatives in India are beginning to follow existing patterns of political and ideological fissures (Udupa 2019). Independent fact checking groups face the constraints of technological and financial resources. In collaboration with the Centre for Internet and Society, India, the project has developed recommendations for Internet speech regulation, building an eight-point “Agenda for Action”. These include the need for evidence-based policy; identification of Internet harms; a co-regulatory mechanism involving Internet enabled social media as well as mass media; transparency in political advertisements and content moderation algorithms used by social media companies; and an industry wide resource sharing mechanism for fact checking (Hickok & Udupa 2019).
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 growing realization that Western liberal democracies are no longer exceptional. 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 “politics-as-usual”. This is a significant contribution to existing studies which largely highlight strong, if idiosyncratic, populist leaders or well orchestrated manipulation as reasons for the current resurgence of exclusionary nationalism. ONLINERPOL reveals a deeper culture of exclusion aided by historical privilege as well as contemporary forms of digital mediations.

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 project has also highlighted several online entrepreneurial innovations emerging both within India and the diaspora in Europe to counter nationalist politics. By focusing on hijabi fashionista, the study has made a departure from an excessive focus on male online users in studies of Muslim politics online.

The study has pushed the boundaries of disciplinary divisions by showing that a thorough study of online politics requires researchers to combine the perspectives of several disciplines, including in our case, anthropology, communication studies, computational sciences, media and literary studies, and cultural studies. Advancing interdisciplinary approaches, the study has innovated on research methods, combining on-the-ground and online ethnographic excavations with data-based analysis and computational methods. The framework of “multiple interfaces” (Udupa 2016) is crucial to this approach. As opposed to understanding new media as discrete channels of communication or an abstract technological context, this framework foregrounds the profound mediation of the Internet media in bringing distinct actors, levels of authority, ideologies and motivations in close confrontation: the nation state, market, diaspora, homeland publics and divergent religious communities. Internet enabled media have led to collisions and contiguities that were not seen before, whether between a political leader and a distant individual voter, or between a diaspora member enthused about politics “back home” and one who lives within the physical space of the nation with vastly different existential conditions.

Expected results in the second half of the project:
• Patterns of user networks and content exchange that compose online nationalist discourse in India will be revealed through quantitative content coding and social network analysis of over 16.2 million tweets and retweets; and exchanges within 8 WhatsApp groups.
• A thorough ethnographic analysis of five prototypes of online Hindu nationalist actors based on interview data and field observations.
• New media practices among Indian Muslim parties will be examined further to understand their distinct language and ethical practices, and how they have navigated Hindu majoritarian regimes using online resources.
• The study will throw more light on the gendered nature of immigration, citizenship and national belonging, and will further investigate Indian Muslim women’s subjective experience of citizenship in a Western liberal democracy such as the UK.
• Digital practices of the Indian Hindu diaspora in the UK and Germany will be explored further, to examine if and how debates on immigration in Europe have affected relations with the “homeland”.
• In collaboration with Internet policy scholars, the project will investigate digital disinformation and election integrity in relation to religious and ethnic politics, and will make recommendations for building robust multistakeholder systems for social media content moderation. These recommendations will be especially relevant for global social media companies such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, and the Election Commissions.
• For global-comparative studies, the project will further advance the ethnographically driven theory of “extreme speech” by curating more empirical evidence and building conceptual resources.