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YouTube Hatemongers are India’s New Stars

  • Kunal Purohit
  • Sep, 2020
  • 114
  • Analysis

Misogynistic, nationalistic rants get creators rewards-and bans-on social media

India has banned TikTok, along with a spate of other Chinese apps. But its social media problems are homegrown-and go far beyond any one program. The country, with more than 500 million active Internet users, is the largest single market for popular applications such as WhatsApp and Facebook. The country has already witnessed dozens of horrific lynchings, many of them occurring due to rumors spread on social media. Facebook is facing a public-relations crisis thanks to turning a blind eye to hate speech. Now a new genre of video rants threatens to stoke further hate and anger.

In July, four Indian YouTubers were arrested for threatening to violently rape a female comedian, Agrima Joshua, after she made fun of the supporters of a proposed $408 million statue of a 17th-century Indian warrior, Chhatrapati Shivaji. Joshua’s year-old routine made her a target for nationalists and prompted threats of charges that forced her to apologize.

The arrests shone light on a new genre of social media content: selfie videos shot by nationalistic social media influencers, usually young men, often in their cars, delivering rants laced with expletives and violent threats. They have followings ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions, and a list of targets that ranges from influencers in Pakistan to rival right-wingers to critics of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But their favorite targets are women, and their abuse-filled rants are full of threats of harassment and sexual violence.

These videos are circulated on a range of platforms, but it's YouTube that encourages this content most and has handed out accolades to the creators of violent rants. One of the two YouTubers arrested for the threats, a 26-year-old man named Shubham Mishra with close to 300,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, was awarded a Silver Creator Award last year by YouTube.

Last year, YouTube also awarded Vikas Phatak with the Silver Creator Award, a YouTuber with 800,000 subscribers who popularized this genre of content in India through his Hindustani Bhau persona. The award is handed out to accounts that reach over 100,000 subscribers, but isn’t supposed to be awarded for content that violates community guidelines. He has tried to downplay the rape threats by saying they were “as wrong as insulting a religion.” Days after he received the award from YouTube in July last year, he had threatened to insert the country’s flag into a female Pakistani YouTuber’s vagina. YouTube has now deleted both accounts. But the genie is out of the bottle, and there are dozens of imitators.

Phatak and Mishra created their own style of content: videos of themselves in still cars opining on various matters-from feminism to militant attacks to contentious government policies. Most of them are angry abuse-filled rants in Hindi at their targets. Both Phatak and Mishra often issue calls to action-Mishra, when he issued the rape threat against Joshua, also asked his army of followers to abuse her on social media.

In June, Phatak spewed an expletive-laden rant at an Indian film producer, Ekta Kapoor, threatening her and her mother with sexual violence, objecting to a web series produced by her showing the wife of Indian army officer having an extramarital affair. In one of his videos, he said that Kapoor should thank the Army for guarding the borders or else she would not be able to “roam around in her skimpy clothes.”

As when targeting Kapoor, Phatak often tells his followers that his videos are aimed “to clean the nation’s trash,” referring to anyone who “speaks against India.” Earlier this month, Phatak threatened a male filmmaker, Karan Johar, with sexual violence after alleging that the Johar had misrepresented the story of an Air Force officer. In his threat, Phatak said that such misrepresentation would not be tolerated in the “New India,” a term often used by Modi.

Foreign Policy tried to reach out to Phatak and Mishra for their comments but they did not respond, despite repeated attempts.

This style has now spawned multiple other YouTubers looking to imitate Phatak and Mishra. Imtiyaz Shaikh, who has more than 320,000 subscribers, was also arrested for threatening Joshua with violent rape. In a previous video he made with two other influencers, sitting in a car, he is seeing dishing out violent abuses to other female influencers and warns viewers that the video could feel like a “porn film” because of his colorful language. One of the most popular YouTube influencers in India, Ajey Nagar, whose channel CarryMinati has more than 24.8 million followers, has often been called out for homophobic, sexist, and abuse-filled rants, has been awarded four different trophies by YouTube....

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