Images and videos on the internet that are infiltrating minds in the real world are often simply fake or doctored.
Masquerading as reportage, these anonymous and easily accessible posts claim to represent the “truth” about the persecution of Bangladesh-origin Muslims in Kokrajhar and Rohingya Muslims from Western Myanmar’s Arakan region.
The journalistic principle of attribution is an alien being to these self-styled ‘reporters’ who operate in a virtual world, where the concepts of time and distance are irrelevant. They have used the same images interchangeably in videos representing the violence in Assam and those representing the violence in Myanmar.
Particularly disturbing is the image of a man with distinctive northeast Indian features whose head has been bludgeoned. The same man appears in videos on YouTube titled ‘Muslims butchered in Assam’ as well as in those titled ‘Stop killing Muslims in Burma [Myanmar].’ There are similar videos with mutilated bodies of children and women who died once in Myanmar and again in Assam.
There is also the interview of a woman wearing a flowery (Gujarati-Katchi) style burqua in one of the videos purporting to depict violence against Muslims in Assam. She speaks in Gujarati-accented Hindustani of grave atrocities in Kokrajhar. It is only when she mentions Mayaben (Kodnani) that one realises that the interview was from the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 and not Kokrajhar-2012.
While these fabricated videos have received hundreds of thousand of views, legitimate videos posted by mainstream new outlets, ironically, have few takers.
Videos such as these have been widely circulated through mobile phones in Bangalore and have allegedly played a role in stirring up anti-northeast sentiment that has led thousands to flee the city.
The Islamist organisation Social Democratic Party of India held a public meeting attended by a few thousand on August 12. While condemning the violence against Muslims in Assam, leaders also repeatedly told the gathering to be wary of mainstream media, accusing it of selective reportage and indifference to the plight of Muslims.
The mistrust of mainstream media runs deep among Muslims and is driving them toward alternative outlets, many of which are dubious, says Bobby Kunhu, a human rights lawyer who works within the community.
The reigning misconception, though, is that working class Muslims as well as people from the northeast are immune to inflammatory content online. A woman from Darjeeling who runs a street-side momo stall in Bangalore said, “Obviously they [Muslims] will be angry with us. Their people were massacred.” (It is based on her graphic descriptions that The Hindu managed to find these videos online.)
Flashing a cheap Chinese made smart phone, she said, “My neighbour and good friend who is a Muslim forwarded the videos to me.” Many with modest means have these 2,500 rupee phones, contributing to the spread of content that is often fake.