India has banned TikTok, along with a spate of other Chinese apps. But its social media problems are homegrown—and go far beyond any one program. The country, with more than 500 million active Internet users, is the largest single market for popular applications such as WhatsApp and Facebook. The country has already witnessed dozens of horrific lynchings, many of them occurring due to rumors spread on social media. Facebook is facing a public-relations crisis thanks to turning a blind eye to hate speech. Now a new genre of video rants threatens to stoke further hate and anger.
In July, four Indian YouTubers were arrested for threatening to violently rape a female comedian, Agrima Joshua, after she made fun of the supporters of a proposed $408 million statue of a 17th-century Indian warrior, Chhatrapati Shivaji. Joshua's year-old routine made her a target for nationalists and prompted threats of charges that forced her to apologize.
The arrests shone light on a new genre of social media content: selfie videos shot by nationalistic social media influencers, usually young men, often in their cars, delivering rants laced with expletives and violent threats. They have followings ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions, and a list of targets that ranges from influencers in Pakistan to rival right-wingers to critics of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But their favorite targets are women, and their abuse-filled rants are full of threats of harassment and sexual violence.
These videos are circulated on a range of platforms, but it's YouTube that encourages this content most and has handed out accolades to the creators of violent rants. One of the two YouTubers arrested for the threats, a 26-year-old man named Shubham Mishra with close to 300,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, was awarded a Silver Creator Award last year by YouTube.
Last year, YouTube also awarded Vikas Phatak with the Silver Creator Award, a YouTuber with 800,000 subscribers who popularized this genre of content in India through his Hindustani Bhau persona. The award is handed out to accounts that reach over 100,000 subscribers, but isn't supposed to be awarded for content that violates community guidelines. He has tried to downplay the rape threats by saying they were "as wrong as insulting a religion." Days after he received the award from YouTube in July last year, he had threatened to insert the country's flag into a female Pakistani YouTuber's vagina. YouTube has now deleted both accounts. But the genie is out of the bottle, and there are dozens of imitators.
Phatak and Mishra created their own style of content: videos of themselves in still cars opining on various matters—from feminism to militant attacks to contentious government policies. Most of them are angry abuse-filled rants in Hindi at their targets. Both Phatak and Mishra often issue calls to action—Mishra, when he issued the rape threat against Joshua, also asked his army of followers to abuse her on social media.
In June, Phatak spewed an expletive-laden rant at an Indian film producer, Ekta Kapoor, threatening her and her mother with sexual violence, objecting to a web series produced by her showing the wife of Indian army officer having an extramarital affair. In one of his videos, he said that Kapoor should thank the Army for guarding the borders or else she would not be able to "roam around in her skimpy clothes."
As when targeting Kapoor, Phatak often tells his followers that his videos are aimed "to clean the nation's trash," referring to anyone who "speaks against India." Earlier this month, Phatak threatened a male filmmaker, Karan Johar, with sexual violence after alleging that the Johar had misrepresented the story of an Air Force officer. In his threat, Phatak said that such misrepresentation would not be tolerated in the "New India," a term often used by Modi.
Foreign Policy tried to reach out to Phatak and Mishra for their comments but they did not respond, despite repeated attempts.
This style has now spawned multiple other YouTubers looking to imitate Phatak and Mishra. Imtiyaz Shaikh, who has more than 320,000 subscribers, was also arrested for threatening Joshua with violent rape. In a previous video he made with two other influencers, sitting in a car, he is seeing dishing out violent abuses to other female influencers and warns viewers that the video could feel like a "porn film" because of his colorful language. One of the most popular YouTube influencers in India, Ajey Nagar, whose channel CarryMinati has more than 24.8 million followers, has often been called out for homophobic, sexist, and abuse-filled rants, has been awarded four different trophies by YouTube. Nagar recently put out an 8-minute video defending his use of abuses; the video got more than 30 million views.
Actor and stand-up comedian Manan Desai, who interviewed both Mishra and Phatak for a YouTube video after the controversy broke out, has called this style of content "hate mongering."
"They are not content creators. They are popular only because hate sells right now more than anything else," Desai told Foreign Policy. "Properly produced content is taking a backseat. Instead, people turning up their selfie videos and abusing others is becoming mainstream now."
The ecosystem of abusive influencers is an extension of the hate and xenophobia that has flourished under the right-wing Hindu government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Modi. Hate crimes have spiked under the party's rule, while the government has put Jammu and Kashmir under a crippling lockdown and repeatedly targeted Muslims elsewhere.
Shakuntala Banaji, a professor in media, culture, and social change at the London School of Economics, said the rise of abusive content has been closely linked to the BJP's ascent.
"All media content has to be positioned in the context of the societies in which it is produced and circulates. In India, it has a nasty history from the 1990s, when quasi-fascist leaders from the BJP would make mix tapes of their inflammatory anti-Muslim speeches," Banaji told Foreign Policy, adding that during the anti-Muslim rioting that occurred in Gujarat in 2002 under Modi's watch as the state's chief minister, right-wing Hindu leaders circulated videos encouraging and celebrating the murder and rape of Muslims.
The audience for these messages of hate is overwhelmingly male: 65 percent of all Internet users in India are male, and the audience for such influencers is even more male-dominated, with estimates suggesting men make up something between 75 and 97 percent.
While tapes were originally on VHS cassettes or shown at public screenings, the BJP has been quick to adopt digital techniques. WhatsApp, for instance, has been a key mode of communication for the party, especially during election season. Before last year's national elections, the BJP reportedly appointed some 900,000 mobile phone pramukhs (heads), one for each voting booth across the country, whose job was to create three WhatsApp groups each and allow the party to reach more homes. For the upcoming regional elections in the eastern state of Bihar, the party has similarly ordered the creation of 72,000 WhatsApp groups across the state for campaigning.
The BJP itself has relied on disinformation to create narratives that suit it—from posting mischievously clipped videos to attack critics of the government to making communally charged allegations using misleading audio clips.
These WhatsApp groups have been used to fan anger and hatred whenever it needs to set an agenda. For instance, when the Modi government approved a new citizenship law blocking Muslim refugees from neighboring countries Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, WhatsApp groups run by BJP sympathizers as well as party workers were flooded with Islamophobic disinformation. Messages said that the law and the citizenship exercise that was to follow it were ways to "kick Muslims out of India" and as a tool to "halve the country's Muslim population, without doing anything."
Often this disinformation spills over onto the streets. Last year, in February, when a suicide bomb attack in the state of Jammu and Kashmir killed 40 paramilitary personnel, WhatsApp groups were flooded with disinformation alleging that local Kashmiris had aided the bomber in the attack. The hypernationalism and hate fanned by the disinformation led to Kashmiris across India being targeted violently and even being evicted from their homes. Similarly, when close to one-third of India's coronavirus infections in late March emerged from a gathering of the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary movement, disinformation across social media platforms blamed Muslims as a whole.
Banaji, the academic at the London School of Economics, believes that the Modi government has been complicit in its action against such disinformation. "It has even rewarded perpetrators of vigilant violence and hate speech by making them moderators on official WhatsApp and Twitter accounts or making them party candidates or officials," she said. "This signals the government's blessings to the perpetrators of misogyny, violence and hate."
Amid this context, the abusive YouTube influencers serve a crucial purpose—to feed into the overarching narrative of hate and hypernationalism. Such a narrative, said Desai, the comedian, helps distract us.
"Hate is being used to keep us busy and to avoid accountability. Nobody bats an eyelid when politicians make hate speech, but when comedians reference jokes on religion, they get death threats," he said.
The response from social media has been desultory. Facebook is facing a major crisis over claims that it deliberately ignored hate speech from BJP leaders. When asked about the issues, YouTube said, "We have strict policies prohibiting harassment on YouTube, and terminate any channel that repeatedly or egregiously violates those policies, and in accordance with our strike system." But in practice, the systems are opaque and uncertain.
Just days after their channels were terminated by YouTube, both Phatak and Mishra managed to start new channels. Phatak has now been banned from Facebook and Instagram, too. He posted a message on his YouTube channel mocking the ban, saying he will be back soon.
Kunal Purohit is a journalist in India.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on foreignpolicy.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.