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Malicious looking figure hiding beneath a tunnel looking at its phone.

Targeted Harassment: The Spread of #CoronaJihad

By
Sanjana Rajgarhia
Date Range
February - May 2020
Region
India, Pakistan
Attribution
Vulnerabilities
Campaign Adaptation

Overview:

In the spring of 2020, a viral slogan purporting that Muslims were purposely spreading COVID-19 in India was disseminated online using recontextualized videos. India’s ruling political party eventually adopted the term, allowing it to spread even further, leading to harassment before critical press and mitigation efforts by social media platforms dampened the campaign. Based on the evidence and pattern of activity, #coronajihad was likely not a campaign crafted and executed by a single set of operators, but rather one in which individuals participated organically, with influencers helping to spread the spread the slogan in the early stages.

STAGE 1: Manipulation Campaign Planning and Origins

The hashtag #Coronajihad first appeared on Twitter on February 26, 2020, where it was used to speculate that Pakistan had sent COVID-19 to India.1 The phrase has generally been used pit two identity groups against each other, to convey the idea that Muslims are weaponizing the coronavirus to target Hindus.”2 The term’s emergence initially coincided with Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim missionary movement that held its annual congregation in New Delhi in early March.3 Of the 4,400 cases of COVID-19 in India by April 7, around 30% were traced back to the gathering, and over 27,000 Tablighi Jamaat members and their contacts were quarantined in 15 states.4 Though “the available data does not support the speculation” that the blame for the coronavirus epidemic in India lies mainly with Tablighi Jamaat,5 the convening was branded across social media as a “superspreader” event and directly correlated with the simultaneous rise in Islamophobic rhetoric and hashtags such as #BanTheBook, #Quranovirus, #BiologicalJihad, #MuslimVirus, #MuslimDistancing, and #Jihadivirus.6 Though content blaming Muslims for the spread of coronavirus was first posted to Twitter by Indian Hindu nationalists, it was also amplified by global Islamophobic individuals and groups, many of whom were based in the West.7

Earliest known use of #CoronaJihad on February 26, 2020. Credit: Screenshot by TaSC.

Earliest known use of #CoronaJihad on February 26, 2020. Credit: Screenshot by TaSC.

STAGE 2: Seeding Campaign Across Social Platforms and Web

Aided by targeted harassment and trolling methods, a cascade of recontextualized and decontextualized videos, memes, and posts began flooding social media networks in late March, falsely claiming to portray Muslim men trying to infect others with coronavirus.1 On March 28, a 2018 Vimeo video that showed Muslims licking plates (with the true intention of promoting zero food waste) was shared on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The text accompanying the video accused Muslims of trying to spread the virus in various places across the country.2 On April 1, a video of a Sufi tradition was shared on Facebook with a false claim that it showed Muslims at the Tablighi Jamaat congregation intentionally sneezing on each other to spread the virus.3 On April 2, an old video from February showing a person spitting on cops was rebranded as a video of a Muslim spitting to intentionally infect cops,4 leading to the common use of the hashtag #spittingjihad in addition to #coronajihad. And on April 3, a video from Thailand was shared with a title claiming that a Muslim man from the Delhi congregation was caught intentionally coughing on somebody; in reality, there was no evidence that the person had ever attended the Delhi congregation.5 Images blatantly comparing the Tablighi Jamaat (and Indian Muslims generally) to terrorists or venomous snakes became widespread on social media as well.6

From March 28  to April 3, 2020, the viral slogan #CoronaJihad spread rapidly on Twitter, appearing in almost 300,000 tweets potentially seen by 170 million users.7 On March 31, usage of the term peaked, appearing over 20,000 times that day on Twitter.8 According to a report by Equality Labs, the conversations have since generated more than 700,000 points of engagement, including likes, clicks, shares and comments, and the majority of users creating and sharing such content are young men between the ages of 18 and 34, based in India or the US.9 In addition to Twitter, the term “coronajihad” was used on Facebook, receiving over 694,000 interactions on 6,643 posts between February 1 to September 23, 2020.

Example of the type of tweets using #Coronajihad and the other related hashtags. Credit: Screenshot by TaSC.

Example of the type of tweets using #Coronajihad and the other related hashtags. Credit: Screenshot by TaSC.

STAGE 3: Responses by Industry, Activists, Politicians, and Journalists

Officials from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the current ruling political party of India,  adopted and amplified the narrative linking coronavirus to Islamic terrorism. On April 1, party representatives singled out the Tablighi Jamaat gathering, accusing it of being the single largest source of the virus spread in India, calling it “coronaterrorism”1 and a “Talibani crime.”2 “Tablighi Jamaat people have started to spit on workers and doctors in quarantine centers,” tweeted BJP Delhi leader Kapil Mishra. “Clearly, their intention is to kill maximum people...they should be treated like terrorists.”3 On April 6, officials attributed the doubling rate of infection in India to the gathering. “If it were not for the congregation, India’s rate of doubling— that is in how many days the cases have doubled — would have been at 7.4 days [instead of 4.1 days],” said Lav Agarwal, the joint secretary of India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.4 

The BJP’s adoption of the “coronajihad” narrative generated a tremendous amount of media exposure, which resulted in the widespread use of “Coronajihad” by many mainstream news outlets. Domestic media coverage largely advanced the same narrative as the BJT. On April 2, news outlet ABP Live ran a segment about the mosque that serves as Tablighi Jamaat headquarters, entitled  “How Nizamuddin Markaz turned into corona bomb.”5 TV9 Bharatvarsh, a free-to-air TV news channel, broadcast an “investigative report” claiming that several Rohingya refugees were deliberately infected with COVID-19 at the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in March and then sent out to different parts of India to spread the infection on a large scale.6 On April 7, Amish Devgan, the managing editor of News18 India, claimed on his show Aar Paar to have “concrete information” that Pakistan was directly responsible for the coronavirus pandemic in India; this was later debunked by the news website NewsLaundry.7 Islamophobic articles from Indian outlets such as PGurus were published; one appeared on April 8 with the headline “How to deal with Novel Corona Jihad – Time for National crackdown.”8 

This exploitation of this deeply held prejudice against Muslims during the active crisis of the COVID-19 outbreak led to mob violence against Muslims, resulting in 53 deaths and over 200 injuries.9

STAGE 4: Mitigation 

International press coverage was largely critical. Foreign outlets reported widely on the use of #coronajihad online and seemed to condemn India and the BJP for its Islamophobia. Between March 31 and May 22, there were 150 stories in leading global English news sources discussing India’s Islamophobia and use of terms like “coronajihad,”1 featuring headlines such as “Islamophobia taints India’s response to the coronavirus” (The Washington Post),2 “Coronavirus conspiracy theories targeting Muslims spread in India” (The Guardian),3 and “Would-be-autocrats are using covid-19 as an excuse to grab more power” (The Economist).4 

Politicians and NGOs around the world quickly criticized the anti-Muslim hysteria in India and urged the government to take action. On April 2, Sam Brownback, the US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said it was “wrong by governments to do this” and urged them to “put this down and state very clearly that this is not the source of the coronavirus. It’s not the religious minority communities. And they should go out there in open messaging and say no, this is not what happened.”5 On April 6, the World Health Organization stated, “It is very important that we do not profile the cases on the basis of racial, religious and ethnic lines.” On April 7, over 50 international organizations sent a letter titled, “Stop the rapid spread of COVID-19 Islamophobic hate speech and disinformation” to Narenda Modi, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and WHO Head Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.6 The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Kuwait government, a royal princess of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and a number of Arab activists issued public denunciations as well.7 On April 8, 109 members of civil society responded, releaseing a statement “condemning the communalization of COVID-19 spread in India” and explicitly referencing the Islamophobic coverage by the mainstream media and attempts to brand Muslims as the “superspreaders.”8

On April 19, India Prime Minister Narendra Modi attempted to minimize Islamophobia by urging solidarity, tweeting, “COVID-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or borders before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together.”9 Mohan Bhagwat, the leader of BJP’s ideological group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, stated that communities couldn’t be blamed for “the mistakes of few individuals,” an apparent reference to the Tablighi Jamaat celebration.10

On June 22, the Telangana High Court issued a notice to Twitter to remove trending hashtags that were linking COVID-19 to Islam, including #coronajihad.11 On April 15, despite the popularity of the hashtag, its use on Twitter fell sharply overnight, from over 200 occurrences daily occurrences to only one.12 In August a Twitter representative reportedly told the court that the company had removed the content.13 As of September 22, 2020, a search on Twitter shows 21 results, most of which are critical of the hashtag and Islamophobia in India. However, some inflammatory and islamophobic tweets containing #coronajihad are still available, though they have been de-indexed from Twitter search results.14 

Facebook made no announcements about content removal. Users of the platform are still able to search for “coronajihad,” which yields results including content containing the hashtag “#coronajihad.” However, when users search for the hashtag “#coronajihad” itself, the platform returns zero results, indicating the hashtag has been de-indexed. Notably, when searching for “#coronajihad” Facebook briefly displays the text “13K people are posting about this," before changing to “We Didn't Find Anything / Make sure everything is spelled correctly, or try searching for a different hashtag.”15

STAGE 5: Adjustments by Manipulators to New Environment

Though appeals to inclusivity along with content removal and de-indexing have shown to be effective in containing “Coronajihad,” individuals have adjusted to find ways to promote the term at a limited scale through other channels. For example, on May 8, an unofficial definition for “Coronajihad” was added to Urban Dictionary, which remains online.1 Videos using the term in an Islamophobic context are also available on YouTube at time of writing. Elsewhere, allegations of censorship and “whitewashing” can be found on Reddit and smaller outlets.2 Furthermore, because of Facebook and Twitter’s selective response to the term, coronajihad and #coronajihad are still available on the platforms.

Cite this case study

Sanjana Rajgarhia, "Targeted Harassment: The Spread of #CoronaJihad," The Media Manipulation Case Book, October 20, 2020, https://mediamanipulation.org/case-studies/targeted-harassment-spread-coronajihad.