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Social Media Accounts Helped Stoke British Violence, Rutgers Finds

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 11/22/2022 Margi Murphy
The Twitter Inc. logo is displayed on an Apple Inc. iPhone in this arranged photograph taken in the Brooklyn Borough of New York, U.S., on Monday, April 23, 2018. Twitter Inc. is scheduled to release earnings figure on April 25. © Bloomberg The Twitter Inc. logo is displayed on an Apple Inc. iPhone in this arranged photograph taken in the Brooklyn Borough of New York, U.S., on Monday, April 23, 2018. Twitter Inc. is scheduled to release earnings figure on April 25.

(Bloomberg) -- A network of fake accounts originating both inside and outside of the UK helped to stoke violence between Muslims and Hindus in a British city earlier this year, according to research first provided to Bloomberg News.

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An estimated 500 inauthentic accounts that called for violence and promoted memes as well as incendiary videos were created on Twitter Inc. during riots in Leicester between late August and early September this year, according to the Network Contagion Research Institute at Rutgers University. 

Hundreds took to the streets in the days following a cricket match between long-held rivals India and Pakistan on Aug. 27, with some rioters carrying sticks and batons and throwing glass bottles as police were deployed to calm the masses. Homes, cars and religious artifacts were vandalized during the clashes, which went on for weeks and resulted in 47 arrests, according to Leicestershire police. 

Social media was rife with videos claiming to show mosques being set alight and claims of kidnapping, forcing police to issue warnings that people should not believe misinformation online. Many of the Twitter accounts that amplified the unrest originated in India, researchers said. 

Anti-Muslim sentiment has been rising in majority-Hindu India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leading  to a narrative that Hindus outside the country, some of whom who are not Indian, subscribe to Hindutva, a kind of Hindu nationalism. An initial video purporting to show Hindutva Hindus attacking Muslim men sparked uncorroborated claims that local, politically motivated activists amplified, researchers said. The video sparked the interest of a foreign influence network, the involvement of which contributed to real-world violence, according to the findings.

US technology companies played a key role in fanning the confrontations, according to Leicester Mayor Peter Soulsby, numerous media reports and participants including Adam Yusuf, a 21-year-old who told a judge that he brought a knife to a demonstrations and was “influenced by social media.”

“Our research finds that both domestic networks of assailants and foreign actors now compete to use social media as a weapon in the midst of heightened ethnic tensions," said Joel Finkelstein, founder of NCRI. "Our methods highlight a process and technology that democracies need to learn to take preventative measures and protect themselves and their communities."

Using data collected from Google’s YouTube, Meta Platforms Inc.’s Instagram, Twitter and ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok the NCRI report published Wednesday provides one of the most detailed views of how foreign influencers spread disinformation at a local level, transpiring into clashes in one of the most diverse cities in the UK. 

Mentions of “Hindu” exceeded mentions of “Muslim” by nearly 40%, and Hindus were largely depicted as aggressors and conspirators in a global project for international dominance, NCRI’s linguistic analysis found. They found that 70% of violent tweets, using sentiment analysis from Google’s Jigsaw service, were made against Hindus during the Leicester riot timeframe.

One particularly effective meme, eventually banned by Twitter, circulated under the hashtag #HindusUnderAttackInUK, researchers said. The cartoon depicted the Muslim community as insects, alleging that different aspects of Islam were “combining together to destroy India.”

Researchers also found evidence of bot-like accounts which disseminated both anti-Hindu and anti-Muslim messaging, each blaming the other for the violence. The bots were identified based on the time of account creation and the number of repeated tweets, with some tweeting 500 times per minute, according to the findings. 

“It’s not Hindus versus Muslims it’s Leicester versus extremist Hindus who came here through fake Portuguese passports, they started coming here 5 years ago, before the Hindus and Muslims lived peacefully,” wrote one account flagged by NCRI. Another, which has been banned, said that Hindus were trying to “mobilize a global genocide.” 

Largely, the researchers found that UK-based assailants used social media platforms as a weapon to organize attacks and amplify conspiracies against British Hindus, which in turn caused a “tit-for-tat relationship between these two forces,” said Finkelstein. 

After the first instances of fake videos spread on Twitter, a “highly orchestrated echo chamber,” from India kicked into amplify tweets “solely blaming Muslims for the events in Leicester,” the report claimed, which in turned spurred even more violence against Hindus in Leicester. 

This suggested that local community tensions were ripe for exploitation on Twitter by external nationalist groups, the researchers warned. The BBC and disinformation research company Logically also found evidence that a lot of the social media posts during the unrest hailed from India, some 5,000 miles away.

Fiyaz Mughal, an author of the report and the founder of Tell MAMA, a service that allows people in the UK to report anti-Muslim abuse and monitors Islamophobic incidents, said he was shocked at how quickly social networks “could jump on these issues.” Mughal said the events in Leicester proved the “risk to the national security of any country today.”

Twitter didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

Claudia Webbe, the MP for Leicester East, told Bloomberg News the riots were undoubtedly sparked by social media. Although hundreds of police were deployed to areas around the West Midlands to monitor the demonstrations, she said she believed most of her constituents within the Hindu and Muslim community had largely been affected “through their phones.” 

“Even the people who didn't take to the streets were in fear because of what they were receiving through WhatsApp and Twitter — they were afraid to go outside for weeks,” she said.

“You’ve got these overseas influences who are trying to drive political hate and the desire to sow division,” she said. 

(Updates headline and first paragraph to more accurately reflect report’s findings.)

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