The Shiva-Vishnu Temple in Livermore is one many Hindu temples in the San Francisco Bay Area, home to one of the country's largest Asian Indian populations. Researchers at Rutgers warn a recent spike in anti-Hindu hate speech online should serve as a warning of potential real-world violence. (Wendy Goodfriend/KQED)
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The research effort was led by graduating senior Prasiddha Sudhakar, who used machine learning tools to explore the social media landscape for anti-Hindu disinformation. She was pretty sure there would be plenty of it, she said.
"I wouldn't say I was surprised, given that there's been a massive rise in all forms of ethnic hatred, whether it's antisemitism, or Islamophobia, or anti-Asian hate," she added.
She and other Rutgers students found explosive growth in anti-Hindu slurs and slogans in the United States, beginning in the fall of 2021. This was on social media platforms you might expect to foster extremism, like 4chan and Gab, but also on mainstream platforms like Twitter, TikTok and Telegram.
“These very specific tropes are targeted right directly at Hindus,” Sudhakar said.
Commonly, there’s a spike in hate speech whenever someone rises to prominence from a community that’s historically been the target of prejudice. One recent example comes from San Francisco.
"Parag Agrawal was appointed as Twitter CEO," said Sudhakar, citing the November promotion. "Immediately, there arises anti-Hindu disinformation on social media, where there were spikes in certain ethnic slurs used against him in particular."
But Sudhakar and her colleagues discovered much of the anti-Hindu hate speech surge can be tied to Iranian state-sponsored trolls who are keen to exploit longstanding geopolitical tensions between Muslims and Hindus, Pakistanis and Indians.
As the connection between political events and the volume of Hinduphobic Iranian troll activity demonstrates, Anti-Hindu disinformation fluctuates with geopolitical incentives. Iran's role as mediator between India and Pakistan becomes more substantial as conflict between the nations grows.
— "Anti-Hindu Disinformation: A Case Study of Hinduphobia on Social Media"
Twitter was the only social media platforms to respond when contacted by KQED.
"We are committed to combating abuse motivated by hatred, prejudice or intolerance, particularly abuse that seeks to silence the voices of those who have been historically marginalized. For this reason, we prohibit behavior that targets individuals or groups with abuse based on their perceived membership in a protected category," a spokesperson wrote.
She added that the San Francisco-based company has "expanded our rules against dehumanization to all protected categories as well including religion and caste."
The potential for real-world violence
Content moderation teams at all the major social media platforms are "drinking from a firehose" of hateful content, according to John Farmer, who directs the Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience at Rutgers, part of the collaboration that produced the report. The platforms have proved fertile breeding grounds for resurrecting and refreshing hate speech tropes or memes.
“The common thread here is the use and abuse of social media,” he said, adding that he hopes Hindu communities in California and beyond will reach out to other faith communities already working to protect themselves, like Jews and Sikhs, to help them establish “a clear chain of what happens if something does come down.”
"There’s somebody detailed to respond to press inquiries. There’s somebody identified as their liaison to law enforcement. The threats can be mitigated, even if they can’t be completely stopped," he said.
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