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As the world grapples with the coronavirus outbreak, far-right groups and websites across the globe have taken advantage of people’s fears and vulnerabilities in order to push forward a flood of conspiracy theories and disinformation to vilify Muslims and spread Islamophobic propaganda.
In the UK, counterterrorism police have investigated dozens of far-right groups accused of weaponising the pandemic to stoke anti-Muslim incidents over the last several weeks.
In the US, far-right websites have spread anti-Muslim propaganda online and propagated false conspiracy theories that churches in the country will be forced to close during the pandemic while mosques will remain open for worship.
In India, extremists scapegoated the country’s entire Muslim population by claiming they were deliberately spreading the virus through “corona-jihad.”
Perpetrators of anti-Muslim propaganda, many of whom have a documented history of creating xenophobic and Islamophobic content before the virus outbreak, have made up statistics about virus infections and invented stories that blame Muslims for the crisis. And given that many people are staying at home, often getting news and socialising online, the potential for false information and hateful speech to spread is all the more worrying.
“Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is coronavirus as an excuse for existing kind of racist and xenophobic tropes to be pushed out front and centre,” said Claire Wardle, the US director of First Draft News, a nonprofit dedicated to tackling misinformation.
In India, Islamophobic hashtags and memes started soon after the outbreak. Anti-Muslim sentiment is already incredibly high there, and more than 50 people have been killed in anti-Muslim riots since February. But the coronavirus has only intensified Islamophobia in the country and demonised an already-targeted Muslim minority.
After Indian authorities linked nearly a thousand cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, to a fringe Muslim missionary group that refused calls to stay home and held its annual conference, politicians were quick to blame the Muslim population at large for the virus’s spread. The assessment was wrong ― the majority of India’s Muslim population condemned the event and honoured quarantine calls and other groups have also ignored social distancing calls. Still, Muslims were the ones singled out and unfairly held responsible for the spread of the virus.
A cabinet member in the Indian government went as far as to say the missionary group did not act out of negligence, but it had committed a “Talibani crime.”
Soon, viral videos spread that falsely claimed that missionary members were spitting on police and non-Muslim Indian citizens to allegedly spread the virus, a bizarre phenomenon that was dubbed “corona-jihad” or “bio-jihad.” News channels reported on the misinformation and xenophobic memes painted Muslims as evil cartoon characters who maliciously and intentionally disseminated the virus.
This xenophobia spread online. The hashtag #coronajihad was used nearly 300,000 times between March 29 and April 3, predominantly in India and the US, according to Equality Labs, a South Asian digital human rights group based in the US. The organisation tracked hundreds of anti-Muslim hashtags, many of which depict Muslims as suicide bombers strapped with “virus bombs” and included terms like ”#IslamicVirus, #BioJihad, and #MuslimVirus.”
These memes and rumours have caused real harm. A Muslim man in India reportedly died by suicide after members of his village ostracised him because they suspected he had Covid-19 after being in touch with missionary members who had tested positive for the disease. Muslim fruit sellers and vendors were barred and forced to shut down their operations in Haldwani, an Indian city known for its trade market.
Meanwhile, in the UK, white nationalists took to social media and insisted Muslims breached lockdowns and ignored isolation rules by congregating outdoors and at mosques (which many of already suspended services) by sharing old footage taken before the lockdown. Muslim advocacy groups like Tell Mama, as well as the police, have since dismissed and debunked the propaganda.
Far-right figures in the UK also alleged Muslims made up “25% of the coronavirus cases” in the country because they “refused to self-isolate” ― a figure that is unsubstantiated ― according to posts collected by First Draft News and shared with HuffPost.
Similar tactics were employed by far-right figures in the US who have insinuated that shelter in place rules would be lifted just in time for the Islamic month of Ramadan, in order to accommodate Muslims while ignoring other religious communities such as those celebrating Easter.
Advocacy groups are pleading with social media companies to do something to stop the anti-Muslim propaganda and hate speech. On Wednesday, a coalition of advocacy groups released a public appeal letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, urging them to do more to halt the rapid rise of anti-Muslim disinformation online. Equality Labs, which spearheaded the letter, also launched a Twitter “storm” around the hashtag #StopCOVIDIslamophobia in order to raise awareness of widespread Islamophobia in the wake of the pandemic.
“Organisations and corporations like Facebook and Twitter have a huge responsibility, and they’re accountable to what’s happening on their platforms when people are dying because of something they read on Twitter, which is where the majority of these hashtags are taking off,” said a spokesperson at Equality Labs.
Wardle of First Draft News said it was crucial for news organisations now more than ever to fact-check such disinformation due to the immediate backlash and consequential harm faced by marginalised communities.
At a time when most people are staying home in line with social distancing rules, more people are increasingly susceptible to the influx of fake news and conspiracy theories that largely go unchallenged, she added.
“Because people are scared and isolated, we’re going to see more of this and that’s the biggest worry,” said Wardle.