How social media storm unleashed in India fueled Hindu-Muslim unrest in UK — experts

Armed police patrol outside the venue on the opening day of the annual Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, central England, on October 2, 2022. (AFP)
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Updated 04 October 2022

How social media storm unleashed in India fueled Hindu-Muslim unrest in UK — experts

  • Rumours spread online included that a Muslim girl was kidnapped and Hindu temple had unleashed masked thugs
  • Rob Nixon, who runs Leicestershire Police, says misinformation on social media had played “huge role” in last month’s unrest

Rumour had it that a Muslim girl had been kidnapped and a Hindu temple had sent masked thugs into combat. Add in local fury over an India-Pakistan cricket match, and Hindu and Muslim men were soon fighting on the streets of central England.
It was a social media storm — mostly cooked up a continent away — that materialized in real life in Leicester, where police made almost 50 arrests and a community was left in tatters.
“It is a powerful illustration of how hashtag dynamics on Twitter can use dubious inflammatory claims to ... escalate tensions on the ground,” said a spokesperson at fact-checking site Logically, which analyzed the posts’ veracity.
Experts say most of the incendiary tweets, rumors and lies came from India, showing the power of unchecked social media to spread disinformation and stir unrest a full continent away.
“I’ve seen quite a selection of the social media stuff which is very, very, very distorting now and some of it just completely lying about what had been happening between different communities,” Peter Soulsby, Leicester’s mayor, told BBC radio.
Rob Nixon, who runs Leicestershire Police, concurred, telling the BBC that misinformation on social media had played a “huge role” in last month’s unrest.
To counter some of these claims, police took to social media themselves, saying they had fully investigated reports of three men approaching a teenaged girl in an attempted kidnap, and found no truth whatsoever to the online story.
“We urge you to only share information on social media you know to be true,” they said.
Fact-checkers also found no truth to claims that gangs of masked thugs were bussed into Leicester.
Many of the misleading posts alleging that Hindus and Hindu sites were being attacked came from India, analysis showed.
Some 80 percent of tweets with geographic coordinates, or geo-tagged information, were connected to India, Logically said.
“The ratio of tweets geo-tagged to the UK versus those geo-tagged to India was remarkably high for what, ostensibly, was a domestic incident,” a spokesperson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“The involvement of high-profile figures in India setting the discourse was a key element.”
BBC Monitoring said that more than half of the 200,000 tweets it investigated came from accounts geo-tagged to India, with hashtags such as #Leicester, #HindusUnderAttack and #HindusUnderattackinUK.
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

HORRIFIC’ HASHTAGS

The fact-checks confirmed what several Leicester residents had suspected for years: online disinformation and abuse aimed at religious minorities came increasingly from users in India, and platforms were doing little or nothing to check it.
“The events in Leicester did not happen out of the blue,” said Keval Bharadia at the South Asia Solidarity Group, a British community non-profit.
“Friends and family have been sending fake news and misinformation for years. It is a never-ending stream of propaganda from troll armies,” he said.
A spokesman for India’s ministry of home affairs did not respond to a request for comment.
The Indian High Commission in London, in a statement, said it “strongly” condemned the violence against the Indian community in Leicester, and the vandalism of “premises and symbols of Hindu religion.”
Some commentators and rights groups say India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has a hand in the social-media warfare that targets religious and ethnic minorities.
The BJP swept into power in India in 2014 and won by an even bigger margin in 2019, its victories in part credited to its savvy tech cell and social-media prowess, fueled by thousands of supporters it calls digital “yodhas” or warriors.
BJP’s tech cell, as well as government appointed cyber volunteers, often abuse religious minorities and spread disinformation about them on social media, rights groups say.
In a recent report, Dalit rights group Equality Labs said “nationalistic, Islamophobic, and casteist disinformation” was spreading among expatriate Indians via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and thousands of Whatsapp and Telegram chat groups.
“Hindu nationalism is one of the largest disinformation networks in the global South Asian diaspora, with bigoted and often terrifying attacks against caste and religious minorities,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan of Equality Labs.
“Just think about the horrific hashtags that are now normal,” said Soundararajan, citing “presstitute” — a derogatory term for journalists — and “lovejihad,” an Islamophobic conspiracy theory popular in India.
“Narratives spread on WhatsApp have led to offline violence,” she added.
MUTE WITNESS
While expatriates have long absorbed content from India, and commented on events, disinformation has mushroomed with the rise of social media platforms, said Pratik Sinha, co-founder of Indian fact checking site AltNews.
“We are so polarized now, and this is particularly true of non-resident Indians who can’t check the reality on the ground,” he said.
“A lot of hate speech and misinformation, particularly in regional languages, goes unchecked on social media platforms.”
Much of the noise emanates from Meta, formerly Facebook, which in 2019 commissioned an independent assessment of its role in spreading hate speech and incitement to violence on its platforms in India, following criticism by civil society groups.
But Meta has since said it would not release the full report, only saying that it had “significantly increased” its content moderation workforce and language support for India.
Twitter — which has about 24 million users in India — has asked an Indian court to overturn some government orders to remove posts which Delhi said spread misinformation.
Last month, in a rare rebuke, India’s Supreme Court said television was the “chief medium of hate speech” and asked why the government was “standing by as a mute witness.”
The government has not responded to the charge.
Meanwhile, hate speech and disinformation on social media platforms goes largely unchecked in one of their largest markets, said Sinha.
“Misinformation leads to radicalization, no matter where you are,” he said. “We are already seeing the consequences on the ground.”


After six-year tenure, General Bajwa retires as Pakistan army chief today

Updated 28 November 2022

After six-year tenure, General Bajwa retires as Pakistan army chief today

  • Outgoing chief holds farewell meetings with PM Shehbaz Sharif, President Arif Alvi
  • Will pass baton to successor General Asim Munir at change of command ceremony

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa will be retiring today, Tuesday after completing a six-year tenure as head of Pakistan's all-powerful military, which has an outsized role in the governance and foreign policy of the nuclear-armed nation.

A change of command ceremony will be held at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi on Tuesday morning during which Bajwa will pass the baton to his successor, General Asim Munir, who will become the 17th army chief of the country.

Ahead of the handing over, Bajwa on Monday held farewell meetings with PM Shehbaz Sharif and President Arif Alvi, in which both leaders lauded the outgoing officer's services for Pakistan, particularly in the areas of defense, security, and geo-economics.

“Under the leadership of General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the army demonstrated exemplary services in effectively dealing with various challenges, including the country’s exclusion from the FATF (Financial Action Task Force) Grey List, COVID-19 pandemic, and the recent flashfloods,” the PM office said in a statement. 

“You had the honor of leading the best army in the world.”

In an interview published in an international media outlet on Sunday, Bajwa reiterated the army’s resolve to remain apolitical and, in an apparent reference to former prime minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, said that a campaign had been launched against the armed forces because it refused to intervene in politics. 

“Despite some criticism and undue vilification of the armed forces through mass propaganda and meticulously crafted false narratives, the institutional resolve to remain apolitical will remain steadfast,” the outgoing army chief said in the interview.

“I am certain that this political quarantine of the armed forces will auger well for Pakistan in the long term by fostering political stability and strengthening the army-to-people bond.”

The army has ruled Pakistan for almost half of its 75-year history either through coups or as an invisible guiding hand in politics.

Munir's appointment coincides with a dispute between the military and former premier Khan, who blames the army for playing a part in his ouster earlier this year and who has been leading anti-government protests since then.


Pakistan minister heads to Russia for oil and gas talks

Updated 28 November 2022

Pakistan minister heads to Russia for oil and gas talks

  • Trip comes as the South Asian nation struggles to meet domestic gas supply needs as winter approaches
  • Finance Minister Ishaq Dar last month said that Pakistan is considering buying discounted Russian oil

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's junior oil minister and the petroleum secretary have flown to Russia for talks on issues including oil and gas supplies, two people close to the matter told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The trip comes as the South Asian nation struggles to meet domestic gas supply needs as winter approaches while battling to contain a current account deficit swelled by energy payments, mostly for oil.

Junior oil minister Musadik Malik did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

The sources provided no further details, such as the exact agenda, who the Pakistani officials would meet in Russia or when the talks will take place.

Pakistan Finance Minister Ishaq Dar last month said that the country is considering buying discounted Russian oil, pointing out that neighbour India has been purchasing oil from Moscow and Islamabad also has a right to explore the possibility.

Pakistan has been unable to procure Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) from the international market because spot prices remain out of its range and shipments under long-term deals remain insufficient to match rising demand.

With dwindling local gas reserves, the country has begun to ration supplies to residential and commercial consumers. Local media has also reported that oil supplies remain tenuous owing to difficulties in paying for imports.


Ex-PM Khan's party announces it will dissolve provincial assemblies after Saturday

Updated 28 November 2022

Ex-PM Khan's party announces it will dissolve provincial assemblies after Saturday

  • Calls on new military leaders to review policy of carrying 'political dead bodies'
  • Pakistan appointed new army chief, chairman joint chiefs of staff committee last week

KARACHI: The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party of former Prime Minister Imran Khan on Monday urged the country's new military leaders to review the policy of supporting the coalition government led by PM Shehbaz Sharif, announcing that the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assemblies would be dissolved after Saturday this week to pave the way for general elections.

Sharif last week named General Asim Munir as chief of Pakistan's army, an organisation that plays a hugely influential role in the governance of the nuclear-armed nation. Gen. Sahir Shamshad Mirza was appointed chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee. 

The PTI has accused outgoing army chief General Qamar Bajwa, who retires tomorrow, Tuesday, of backing the coalition government and helping it come to power through a parliamentary vote of no-confidence that removed Khan from office in April. The army says it does not interfere in politics.

"There is a new dispensation [in the military]," close Khan aide Chaudhry Fawad Hussain said at a press conference after a meeting to deliberate on the PTI's recent announcement that its legislators would resign from the Punjab and Khyber Pakkhtunkhwa assemblies where the party is in majority. 

"The weight of the policies of the last seven months is bending you backwards," Hussain said, addressing the new military leaders. "Our establishment is carrying around the weight of Nawaz Sharif and Zardari's political dead bodies. You will not be able to carry this weight."

He was referring to Sharif's brother Nawaz, a former three time PM and head of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, and former president Asif Ali Zardari, who heads the Pakistan Peoples Party. 

"Pakistan's public is expecting that you will change this policy and we will move forward."

At a rally on Saturday, Khan said he was consulting his party on the possibility of resigning from all provincial assemblies in a fresh bid to push for early elections. PTI has already resigned from the federal parliament, but remains in power in two provinces, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and two administrative units.

Speaking about Monday's meeting where the decision to resign from assemblies was discussed, Hussain said:

“The decision to dissolve both Punjab and Khyber Pakhunkhwa assemblies has been endorsed."

He said KP chief minister Mehmood Khan had already met Khan while Punjab CM Chaudhry Pervez Elahi would meet him on Tuesday.

"On Friday, a session of Punjab's parliamentary party [assembly] has been called and on Saturday a session has been called of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa [assembly]. After both sessions, these assemblies will be dissolved."

Speaking to Arab News, Hussain said the move to dissolve assemblies would force early elections, which has been Khan's main demand since April. 

“A large number of 568 seats will be vacated with dissolution of assemblies and resignations from national and two other provincial assemblies,” he said, adding that the government could not hold by-elections on so many seats. 


Pakistan Taliban end cease-fire, order nationwide attacks

Updated 28 November 2022

Pakistan Taliban end cease-fire, order nationwide attacks

  • TTP agreed to a cease-fire with the Pakistan government in June
  • Both sides have repeatedly claimed the truce was ignored by the other

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s Taliban said Monday they have called off a shaky cease-fire agreed with the government in June and ordered fighters to stage attacks across the country.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a separate entity from the Taliban in Afghanistan but sharing a similar Islamist ideology, have been responsible for hundreds of attacks and thousands of deaths since emerging in 2007.
They agreed to a truce earlier this year after Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers took a prominent role in brokering peace talks, but negotiations made little progress and there were frequent breaches.
“We... have shown our continued patience so that the negotiation process is not sabotaged,” the TTP said in a statement.
“But the army and intelligence agencies do not stop and continue the attacks, so now our retaliatory attacks will also start across the country.”
Less than two weeks ago the TTP claimed an ambush that killed six policemen in northwest Pakistan, claiming they were plotting a “raid” on their base in the area.
Since Friday the military has been patrolling the area in an attempt to root out militants, with helicopter gunships shelling their hideouts.
The TTP was founded in 2007 by Pakistani jihadists who fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s before opposing Islamabad’s support for American intervention there after 9/11.
For a time they held vast tracts of Pakistan’s rugged tribal belt, imposing radical Islamic law and patrolling territory just 140 kilometers (85 miles) from the Pakistan capital.
The Pakistani military came down hard after 2014 when militants raided a school for children of army personnel and killed nearly 150 people, most of them pupils.
Its fighters were largely routed into neighboring Afghanistan, but Islamabad claims the Taliban in Kabul are now giving the TTP a foothold to stage assaults across the border.
In the year since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Pakistan has seen a 50 percent surge in militant attacks, according to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS).
Lawmakers and business owners in northwest Pakistan have also told AFP that instances of TTP blackmail in the area have increased.
The presence of militants in the area is a deeply sensitive topic for Islamabad, which has long struggled to establish a writ there.
Analyst Saad Khan, a Peshawar-based retired brigadier, played down the significance of the TTP statement saying the cease-fire was barely observed anyway.
“The Afghan Taliban have assured the whole world that they will not allow their territory to be used against any other country,” he told AFP.
“It is important to initiate serious negotiations with the Afghan Taliban on this issue and make them aware of the seriousness of the matter.”


Pakistan vs England Test: English skipper Ben Stokes to donate match fee to flood relief

Updated 28 November 2022

Pakistan vs England Test: English skipper Ben Stokes to donate match fee to flood relief

  • The three-match series, part of the World Test championship, starts in Rawalpindi on Dec. 1
  • PM Sharif thanks English skipper, says “empathy for suffering humanity greatest of all virtues”

RAWALPINDI: English cricket captain Ben Stokes on Monday announced he would donate his match fee from an upcoming Test series against Pakistan to the country’s flood relief efforts to “give something back that goes far beyond cricket.”

The English team is currently in Pakistan to play a three-match series against the host, starting in Rawalpindi on December 1. This is the first Test that England will be playing against Pakistan after a hiatus of 17 years. The second Test will be held in Multan from December 9-13 and the third in Karachi from December 17-21, respectively.

The Test series comes months after Pakistan was hit by floods which affected 33 million people.  The deluge killed more than 1,700 people and inflicted billions of dollars of damage. Pakistani authorities' estimates of the damage have varied from $10 billion to $40 billion.

“This is great to be in Pakistan for the first time for this historic series. To be back here after 17 years as a Test side is very exciting. There is a sense of responsibility amongst the playing and support group and to be here is special,” Stokes wrote on Twitter.

“The floods that devastated Pakistan earlier this year was very sad to see and has had a significant impact on the country and the people. The game has given me a lot in my life and I feel it’s only right to give something back that goes far beyond cricket.”

Appreciating the gesture, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif thanked the English team captain.

“Empathy for suffering humanity is the greatest of all virtues. His gesture epitomises the great British tradition of philanthropy.”

Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah also welcomed the English team to Pakistan after 17 years and thanked British High Commissioner to Pakistan Christian Turner for making the tour possible

“We welcome England team, who will be playing test matches on soil after such a long hiatus. It’s a result of the relentless efforts of all the ppl involved to make this happen, especially Chargé d'affaires Christian Turner. Hoping for a great contest btw the two quality sides,” Sanaullah wrote on Twitter.

Last year, England were due to visit Pakistan but pulled out after New Zealand abandoned their tour minutes before the first one-day international, citing security alerts.

There were fears of a similar pullout earlier this month following an attack on former prime minister Imran Khan during a protest march in Wazirabad, a city in Punjab province.

But England’s Test skipper Ben Stokes quashed all fears following positive security advice.

“It’s been a long time since England have played Test cricket in Pakistan,” Stokes said in Abu Dhabi on Friday.