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Trouble in the Midlands

How social media influenced media discourse about civil unrest in Leicester and inflamed the violence.

· 8 min read
Trouble in the Midlands
An India-Pakistan cricket match in Dubai ignited violence on the other side of the globe. Photographer: Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images.

In 2013, David Faggard, then a major in the US Air Force, wrote a paper for the Military Review about an online phenomenon called “social swarming.” In conventional warfare terms, swarming describes a battlefield tactic designed to inflict maximum damage on a target by overwhelming it with a coordinated deployment of all available assets. Faggard suggested that future conflicts will involve “mobile-media wielding e-citizen soldiers employing social swarming tactics to overwhelm a system, a decision maker or a critical node.” If the “swarm” managed to transition from an online setting to the real world, he warned, “violence may ensue.” Although his paper focused on the Arab Spring and countries like Iran, Pakistan, and Russia, a recent report shows that “social swarming” can be helpful to understanding Western unrest, such as the violent clashes between the Muslim and Hindu communities that broke out in the UK during August and September of this year.

After World War II, as Britain began to dismantle its empire, thousands of Asian Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus emigrated to the UK from the Indian subcontinent and East Africa. Many settled in the city of Leicester in the East Midlands, and for the most part, communal relations between the different religious and ethnic groups there have been harmonious. The city was lauded as a multicultural success story, not least due to the largely successful integration of Ugandan Asians driven out of their country 50 years ago by Idi Amin. Occasionally, however, subcontinental politics and rivalries have produced sectarian unrest in the city’s diasporic communities.

On August 28th, violence erupted on Leicester’s Melton Road, in the north-east of the city, as British Indians celebrated that day’s defeat of Pakistan in an Asia Cup cricket match held in Dubai. Street celebrations by Indian fans ended in clashes with British Pakistanis and the ensuing violence produced eight arrests. Similar incidents flared up over subsequent days as calls for calm issued by Leicester police were ignored, and on September 17th, an “unauthorised” protest by a large group of Hindu men resulted in more violence. Rumours and counter-rumours circulated online alleging vandalism and desecration by Hindu and Muslim protesters, respectively. The following day, the police announced it would be employing stop-and-search powers and dispersal orders, and over the next few days, the unrest finally subsided.

A report into the cause of these events by the US-based Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) is titled “Cyber Social Swarming Precedes Real World Riots in Leicester: How Social Media Became a Weapon for Violence.” Its authors collected data from August to September from Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram related to incidents in Leicester, and evaluated cross-platform online activity, “where polarizing elements shared hostile rhetoric, memes, and videos, with numerous documented calls to violence.” The researchers investigated bot-like accounts, catalogued offensive anti-Muslim and anti-Hindu memes, and used a data-driven methodology to demonstrate a correlation between online activity and events on the ground. “Malicious online narratives,” they concluded, “many since deleted, played an essential role in instigating attacks in Leicester.” The NCRI report suggests that most evidence shows the violence was, “directed largely towards Hindus.”

So, what were these malicious narratives? And how did they trigger violence, vandalism, and mobilisation of the mob? An early viral tweet by @tragicBud (whose account had since disappeared) on August 28th included a video clip that attracted nearly 305,000 views. The clip showed celebrating Indian cricket fans on Melton Road shouting “Pakistan murdabad!” followed by violent scuffles. “Translation: Death to Pakistan,” wrote the tweeter. “As if it wasn’t enough in India, now we’ve got these Nazi lovers in the UK disrupting the harmony between different communities.” The NCRI researchers, however, found the suggestion that the video was evidence of “‘Nazi’ or ‘Hindutva’ nationalist objectives” unpersuasive. Such chants, they pointed out, “are common from fans of both teams, during and after games in the historic cricketing rivalry between India and Pakistan” and do not constitute prima facie evidence of anti-Muslim bigotry or ethnic hatred.

That did not prevent some Muslim activists from promoting the most inflammatory interpretation of the tweet in an effort to mobilize Muslim youth, many of whom travelled from outside Leicester. A British Islamist activist and former aid worker named Majid Freeman—who has previously used his Twitter account to pray for the release of convicted al-Qaeda-linked operative, Aafia Siddiqui—quote-tweeted the video to his 21,000 followers with the following comment:

In his next tweet, Freeman added the following innuendo: “It wasn’t too long ago ripped up Quran pages were found on the streets not far from this same road. I hope the people responsible are caught asap before things really escalate.” Subsequent allegations that Hindu men had tried to kidnap a Muslim girl and that a mosque had been attacked were debunked by the police, but nevertheless succeeded in further inflaming community disharmony. Many east Leicester residents removed Hindu symbols from their homes fearing reprisals. Some Hindu youth, falsely accused of being members of the far-Right Hindu paramilitary organization, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), were forced to temporarily relocate fearing for their own safety.

This social-media activity, in turn, helped shape the emerging media narrative, and some of the activists circulating false and inflammatory reports (including Freeman, who was invariably described as a “community activist”) were granted a platform by outlets like the Guardian and the New York Times and asked to explain what was going on. These outlets, the authors of the NCRI report conclude with dry understatement, had “failed to perform due diligence.”

The report also presents examples of misinformation circulated about the Muslim community by online Indian and Hindu networks. Rumours that Muslims had burned a mandir (Hindu temple) in Birmingham on Navratri (a major Hindu festival) were also debunked by the police. Prior to this false claim, a Hindu temple had in fact been vandalised—footage appeared to show a Muslim man pulling at a Hindu flag on the Brahma Samaj building on Melton Road and another flag being burnt. It is now evident that UK police forces will need better-resourced counter-disinformation units to help deal with situations like this in future. Temporary Chief Constable Rob Nixon later said that online disinformation had been one of the “biggest challenges” his force faced amid the unrest.

Ominously, NCRI’s social-media analysis finds that an international dimension was at play in the information war: “Among the most retweeted content that leveled identity attacks, NCRI found blame for the events was placed on Muslims by a concentrated but highly retweeted network coming from India.” A Bloomberg article about NCRI’s research initially appeared under the headline, “India-based Twitter Accounts Fanned UK Unrest, Researchers Say.” This headline was subsequently amended following complaints from, among others, one of the NCRI report’s lead authors, Prasiddha Sudhakar. “Our report,” she tweeted, “notes that an Indian SM [social-media] echo chamber amplified blame on Muslims, where some escalated to anti-Muslim rhetoric. There’s no evidence to suggest they ‘fanned UK unrest,’ as @business puts it.” The headline now reads, “Social Media Accounts Helped Stoke British Violence, Rutgers Finds,” which is a more accurate reflection of the authors’ findings.

The NCRI report provides some helpful analytics. For example, during the violent clashes on September 17th, it notes that the “hashtag #HindusUnderAttackinUK trended on Twitter with close to 200k retweets,” driven by Hindu and Indian account activity. According to the report, on the same day, Hindu mobs threw glass bottles at Muslims and the police. When tensions spilled out into Smethwick in Birmingham on September 20th, a group of 200 Muslim men arrived at the Durga Bhawan Temple shouting slurs and obscenities that then appeared on social media, and were answered by anti-Muslim slurs and abuse online. However, the report’s authors draw a qualitative distinction: “Anti-Muslim disinformation centered primarily on blame attribution, whereas anti-Hindu disinformation was highly specific, identifying particular actors, alleged crimes, and mobilizing targeted action around them.”

Charlotte Littlewood, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society (HJS) and the author of a research paper on the Leicester unrest published earlier this month, told me:

The NCRI report was a much-welcomed granular analysis of social media activity. Its findings also confirmed that the Hindu community were targeted with a false narrative of Hindutva extremism. With now two evidentially thick reports published it calls into question how some MPs continue to suggest there was an attack on Muslims by Hindutva extremists. It is a worrying trend indicative of a post-truth, social-media-run era, wherein evidence does not carry the same authority it once did.

The HJS report reaches broadly similar conclusions about events that led up to violence in Leicester, insofar as it investigated social-media messaging, concluding that activists “inflamed community tensions [by] spreading fake news.” Both reports show that anti-Muslim and anti-Hindu hate was present, and that the attacks on the Hindu community were based on a dangerous and false “Hindutva” narrative, which was widely circulated, including by respected media outlets.

However, the HJS report points to evidence that social divisions in Leicester were initially precipitated by local concerns about community cohesion following the recent influx of immigrants from Daman and Diu, a former Portuguese-run colony in India. This wave of migration created tensions with the established Muslim communities as the new arrivals engaged in disruptive and anti-social behavior, which eventually escalated into civil unrest. This factor was also noted by a blog posted on the website of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), which stated:

A complex combination of factors—recent, historical, local, international—have played a role in the current Leicester tensions.

Recent disputes regarding the sudden expansion of the Daman Hindu community, who predominantly migrated from Portugal and entered the low-wage employment market in Leicester, have coincided with existing tensions over the use of local facilities which had hitherto been the preserve of Muslim communities. These younger Indian migrants have been accused of partying late, playing loud music and consuming alcohol, all activities which are said to have created friction with more conservative Muslims. Compounding this, tensions between Gujrati and Pakistani communities have been simmering for several months, with flashpoints including the burgling of a Hindu temple during the Navratri festival.

The ISD blog post also noted that the invitation of Hindu nationalist Sadhvi Rithambara to attend an event in Leicester (since rescinded) “further raised the temperature in the community.”

For the time being, an inquiry ordered by the city’s mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, is on hold after his decision to appoint Islamophobia expert Professor Chris Allen to lead it was met with accusations of bias. The HJS report sensibly calls for an independent judge-led review into Leicester’s civil unrest, and the NCRI report recommends that better understanding of social-media networks is needed to help monitor and counter inflammatory sectarian activism and disinformation. The NCRI report warns that conspiracies about “Hindutva dominance” aren’t going away and are “likely to increase dramatically in the coming months.” This kind of community violence, they add, “is highly replicable.” Policy makers and the police must take heed.

Leicestershire police have made a total of 73 arrests to date and investigations into these events are continuing. Last week, Leicestershire’s Police and Crime Commissioner Rupert Matthews announced a £53,000 investment on new CCTV cameras, which he predicts “will dissuade further criminal activity and give peace of mind to East Leicester’s communities and businesses.” Let us hope that he is right.

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