It’s March 2020. The coronavirus crisis has just been declared a pandemic, and hundreds of new cases are being detected in India. Days before a national lockdown was introduced, a congregation of the Tablighi Jamaat — a Muslim missionary group — was held in New Delhi, before authorities in India’s capital had ordered restrictions on religious gatherings. Thousands of Covid-19 cases in India were linked to the congregation, but reporting on the event repeatedly targeted the Muslim community as the sole cause of the Covid-19 outbreak in India.
The spread of conspiracy theories and misleading claims about the event was linked to boycotts of Muslim businesses, attacks on Muslims, and riots in West Bengal. Misleading and inflammatory claims were amplified in a number of TV news segments that quickly surfaced and spread on YouTube. Many of these segments have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times and First Draft analysis shows the videos sometimes lead viewers down rabbit holes of anti-Muslim content.
YouTube and TV News in India
India has long been one of the world’s leading consumers of online videos; in 2019 YouTube’s CEO, Susan Wojcicki, declared India the company’s largest and fastest- growing audience. YouTube is now India’s most popular social media app and almost 10 per cent of all YouTube viewers are from India — second only to the United States. Alongside YouTube’s burgeoning success has been the rise of thousands of India-based YouTube channels.
ABP News and Zee News are two mainstream Indian news channels, whose YouTube channels have millions of subscribers. Both have published misleading and inflammatory claims about Tablighi Jamaat and Covid-19 on these channels. Zee News presented a segment on March 31, 2020, featuring prominent journalist Sudhir Chaudhary, titled “Tablighi Jamaat’s ‘betrayal’ to the country?” It was viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube. ABP News ran a TV segment titled “Tablighi Jamaat…meaning a ‘human bomb’ spreading the coronavirus in India,” likening the congregation’s gathering to a terrorist attack.
First Draft’s analysis of YouTube’s recommendations showed that several TV segments about the Tablighi Jamaat led viewers to videos containing anti-Muslim content and misleading claims. For example, a video uploaded by Sudarshan News — a prominent Hindu nationalist news outlet with 1.8 million subscribers — titled “If India is to be saved from #Corona_Jihad.. #BanTablighiJamat and immediate sanctions on foreign clerics,” leads viewers to a video of violence against Muslim buildings and communities. This video was posted by a fringe Hindu nationalist channel that regularly posts false, fearmongering videos targeting Muslims. YouTube’s algorithm also recommended an interview with Tarek Fatah, a Pakistani-Canadian journalist who has previously shared misinformation about Muslims. Out of 52 recommended videos for viewers of the news segment, at least five used language or spread information that demonized Muslims. The YouTube comments underneath these five videos included multiple misleading, false claims about Muslims, as well as derogatory statements describing Muslims as a “virus” and inciting violence against them.
A YouTube video posted by News Nation — a national Hindi news outlet with 3.17 million subscribers — titled “Such Tablighi Jamaat Members Should Be Shot Dead: Raj Thackeray” leads to a video that characterized the Tablighi Jamaat as a “cult” that “shuns modernity,” as well as other news segments asking whether members were becoming a “big problem for society” and questioning the use of loudspeakers by mosques. As in the earlier example, comments under the videos contained anti-Muslim sentiment, with some calling Muslims an “ignorant community” and insinuating that they should leave for Pakistan.
We looked at the YouTube recommendations of ten news segments and found that at least four led to videos that contained anti-Muslim content. Although we looked at only a small sample of videos, our findings showed it was relatively easy to be led toward anti-Muslim content by YouTube’s algorithm when looking at videos espousing similar sentiment.
YouTube and its parent company, Google, have made an effort to improve moderation practices, but a recent study published by the Anti-Defamation League suggested that the changes have not adequately addressed the issue, with the platform still frequently recommending videos from alternative or extremist channels when people watch a video from those channels. A 2019 report by The New York Times illustrated how YouTube’s algorithm led one viewer down dangerous rabbit holes of extremist content; detailed analysis of YouTube and extremist content in India is yet to be done.
YouTube provided First Draft a detailed response about its efforts to counter hatred and misinformation on the platform. A spokesperson outlined that YouTube has strict policies to counter hate on the platform. YouTube has redoubled its efforts to remove harmful content and expanded its policies around hatred and harassment to reduce content that targets specific groups through conspiracy theories. It has a COVID-19 Medical Misinformation Policy to tackle misinformation around the pandemic. Trust and Safety teams have been doubled to 20,000 across YouTube-owned Google to enforce policies and moderate content across different languages, including top Indian languages, and the company has invested in automated systems and machine learning capabilities.
The spokesperson said that “sometimes videos that might otherwise violate our policies may be allowed to stay on YouTube if the content offers a compelling reason with visible context for viewers.” These exceptions can apply to content that is educational, documentary, scientific or artistic.
While the recommendation algorithm is primarily driven by each user’s search history, the company has made an effort to prevent it from recommending dangerous videos, the spokesperson said. Every year, YouTube works to reduce recommendations of content deemed borderline or carrying misinformation, the spokesperson said.
“Today, the vast majority of content on YouTube is not harmful — in fact this harmful content is a very small part of what’s on YouTube — a fraction of 1 per cent and even more importantly, consumption of borderline content or harmful misinformation videos that comes from our recommendations is significantly below 1 per cent and we’re constantly working to reduce this even further.”
“We continue to take a closer look at how we can further reduce the spread of content that comes close to — but doesn’t quite cross the line of — violating our Community Guidelines,” the spokesperson said.
In response to the study published by the Anti-Defamation League, the spokesperson told First Draft that “[t]here is no clear evidence that YouTube frequently exposes people with neutral or mixed views to extremist content,” and that recommendations to potentially harmful videos from other types of videos are rare.
Why it matters
The demonization of the Tablighi Jamaat and Muslims has had far-reaching consequences. While the battle against Covid-19 brought countries and communities together in other parts of the world, it appears to have further polarized Hindus and Muslims in India.
In the weeks and months after the congregation, Muslim businesses across the country were boycotted. Posters appeared in the Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Telangana neighborhoods, barring Muslims from entry. Several hospitals allegedly refused entry to Muslims unless they proved they were free of Covid-19; hospitals in Gujarat created separate wards for Hindus and Muslims as the country was battling the first wave of the pandemic last year.
More than a year on, something of a reckoning is occurring over the frenzied coverage of the event, with many contrasting the negative coverage of the Tablighi Jamaat with later religious gatherings such as the Hindu Kumbh Mela. This month, India’s National Broadcasting Standards Authority issued fines to several TV news channels and ordered them to remove a number of videos targeting the Muslim community from YouTube and other websites. The news channel Times Now was issued a censure for its segment titled “Is Tablighi Jamaat willfully sabotaging India?,” a clip that remains on YouTube. India’s Supreme Court is hearing a batch of petitions over media reports on Covid-19 in light of the Tablighi Jamaat incident.
The problem of Islamophobia in the Indian media predates YouTube. The platform has inherited the problem from the wider social-political context in which it operates. Biased, misleading reporting that perpetuates stereotypes has been shown to have a strong effect on the way a community is perceived.
The dilemma of how platforms should deal with misinformation coming from official sources is not new, and questions remain about how YouTube should tackle false and misleading news videos that demonize a community. Social media companies have the potential to improve the country’s media ecosystem by standing by their already-affirmed values of respect, transparency and reliable information. Equality Labs, a South Asian civil rights organization that has documented false claims and conspiracy theories spread about Muslims and Covid-19, argued that social media platforms can do much more to counter hatred by removing accounts that regularly post provocative content, auditing the impact of such accounts and engaging in dialogue with experts on digital media and Muslim civil society groups. India is YouTube’s second-largest audience and it is rapidly expanding, but it remains to be seen whether YouTube will be successful in its efforts to expand its monitoring and moderation to keep pace.
Note on methodology
First Draft used YouTube Data Tools’ “Video Network” feature to analyze recommended videos for a selection of TV news segments that covered the Tablighi Jamaat event and Covid-19 outbreak and were posted on the platform. You can learn more about analyzing YouTube recommended videos in our Digital Investigations Recipe Series.
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This article was updated after YouTube provided comment to First Draft.