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India’s YouTube Vigilante Is Wanted for Murder

On the afternoon of February 14, Junaid Khan, 32, and his nephew Nasir Khan, 25, left their small village of Ghatmeeka in India’s northwestern state of Rajasthan to attend a family function. They didn’t come back.

“When they didn’t return the same night, we got worried,” says Arshad Khan, 44, Junaid’s brother-in-law. “Their phones were switched off as well. We searched for them the whole day.”

Two days later, the men’s bodies were found inside a burned-out vehicle in the village of Loharu, around 240 kilometers away in the neighboring state of Haryana. On their way home after midnight, members of a far-right extremist group had allegedly abducted, tortured, and killed the men, who are Muslims, on suspicion of smuggling cows—animals that are considered sacred by Hindus. Consuming beef and transporting cattle is not illegal, but several states have passed restrictive laws over the past few years, essentially criminalizing a profession that is dominated by Muslims.

“Why did they have to be killed? What was their fault?” Khan says. “Who will look after their poor families now?”

Among the group suspected by police of murdering Junaid and Nasir is 28-year-old Monu Manesar, a high-profile YouTuber who has built a huge following online with his videos of cow vigilantism. Manesar, who is reportedly now on the run, is one of a large ecosystem of sectarian influencers on Indian social media who have benefited from the country’s nationalistic turn under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Human rights advocates say that their content—which is prevalent across Western-owned platforms—is exacerbating social division, and even leading to vigilante attacks on religious minorities.

“We have laws against hate speech that are being used selectively,” Aakar Patel, chair of Amnesty International India says. “Hate speech is allowed both by the government and the social media companies.”

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In an email statement, YouTube spokesperson Jack Malon says that YouTube has suspended monetization on Manesar’s channel for violating its creator responsibility policy. “We also removed 9 videos from the channel in question for violating our harassment policies,” he said.

For the past five years, Manesar—a leading member of the Bajrang Dal, a far-right Hindu group—has been part of a team of cow vigilantes along the Rajasthan-Haryana border, and has uploaded videos of their attacks, predominantly on Muslims, to YouTube. His posts often begin with a car chase in the dark and end with group members posing with a cow they have “rescued.”

Manesar and his group have made no secret of the violence they subject their victims to. In June 2016, he was one of a number of people who appeared in a video in which two Muslim men were stopped in Badarpur border, South East Delhi, and forced to eat a concoction of cow dung, urine, milk, and curd. The men had been accused of smuggling beef. The video went viral on Twitter.

In one of his videos on YouTube, Manesar's team is even seen shooting at a truck driven by someone they accuse of being a cow smuggler, in an attempt to deflate its tires. 

In January this year, Manesar and his team caught three Muslim men they accused of being cow smugglers. They livestreamed on Facebook as they interrogated the men. One of the men, 22-year-old Waaris Khan, died from internal injuries the same day. His family says he was lynched, but police say he died in an accident. The Facebook Live video has since been deleted.

Manesar also has posted routinely on Instagram—where he has 42,000 followers—including images of people he’s alleged to be cow smugglers, often visibly injured. In April 2022, he posted a video on his Instagram account showing a group of men assaulting a Muslim scrap picker with sticks. The caption reads, “These are the scrap-pickers that throw stones at our soldiers and Hindutva supporters.”

Meta did not respond to a request for comment.

Khan said that people in his region are aware of Manesar’s social media. “It is supposed to send a message to us,” he says.

In October 2022, YouTube awarded Manesar a silver play button for crossing 100,000 followers. YouTube’s literature says that Creator Awards are not automatically given when subscriber targets are hit, but are granted at the discretion of the company, which reviews channels before handing out the rewards. YouTube did not respond to a request for comment on Manesar’s award.

Comments under Manesar’s videos are mostly adulatory, thanking him and his team for his “service.” He has also had official endorsements. He’s posted pictures of himself with police officers and bureaucrats. In October 2021, Haryana police included him in a special task force to prevent cow smuggling. Three huge rallies were organized by right-wing organizations on February 1921, and 22.

On February 24, thousands of people took to the street in Rajasthan and Haryana to demand justice for Junaid and Nasir Khan. The police filed a complaint against more than 500 people for blocking the highway and suspended internet service in the district for three days, citing the possibility of communal tension.

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Human rights groups say that sectarianism has flourished in the political environment created by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. The party has routinely equated national and religious identities, accusing people who criticize its politics of being anti-Hindu, while itself being accused of promoting hate speech against Muslims. In January, the government forced social media platforms to block clips of a controversial BBC documentary about Modi’s alleged involvement in intercommunal violence in 2002.

The government has banned hundreds of YouTube channels for spreading “fake news” or promoting “anti-Indian views.” But at the same time, there has been a proliferation of channels that broadcast extreme nationalist rhetoric.

In June 2022, a report by the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights found that sectarian content was widespread in India. “The most troubling abuse of YouTube in India involves the targeting of Muslims by backers of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and other right-leaning Hindu nationalist groups.” The report concluded. “Religious intolerance long predated the arrival of YouTube in India, but widespread social media use has intensified the hostility.”

In December 2022, an investigation by The Caravan found dozens of Hindu nationalist YouTube channels that were broadcasting extremist content, with viewing figures in the hundreds of millions. Senior BJP leaders had been interviewed on some of the channels, which were “rapidly out-performing mainstream news channels in terms of their reach.”

Amnesty International’s Patel says that the proliferation is partly due to the growth of the platforms and the number of people now using them, “and partly because of the fact that hate speech has been condoned. If you make heroes out of people who abuse minorities and are violent, you will encourage more people to follow that path.”

Some nationalist and sectarian YouTubers have built massive followings, including Vikas Pathak, who had more than 800,000 followers on his Hindustani Bhau channel before it was suspended in 2020, after he posted a video in which he threatened to sexually assault a YouTuber from Pakistan. Days after his suspension, he managed to start another channel, which has 83,000 subscribers. He also has 2.2 million followers on Instagram.

Prem Krishnavanshi, a YouTuber from Uttar Pradesh with just over 87,000 subscribers, has built a career on pop songs aimed toward supporters of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism. The lyrics of one of Krishnavanshi’s songs, released in 2019, roughly translates to, “You are not humans, you are butchers. Enough of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood.”

“The anti-Muslim online hate industry is booming and the companies are benefiting from it,” says Alishan Jafri, co-author of the Caravan report.

Malon, the YouTube spokesperson, says that the company removed more than 156,000 videos in the third quarter of 2022 for violating hate speech policies.

“Beyond removing harmful content, we also leverage our recommendations system and monetization tools, to promote a healthy ecosystem,” the statement read. “YouTube has always had clear community guidelines that outline what is allowed on the platform and we remove flagged videos and comments that violate our policies. These policies are global, meaning we apply them consistently to all creators on the platform, regardless of their background, political viewpoint, position or affiliation.”

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Malon also says that creators can be penalized for abuse or violence that occurs off its platform.

As of February 28, Manesar’s YouTube channel was still active. He has added about 7,000 subscribers since the Khans’ deaths. 

India is YouTube’s largest market, with 467 million users—nearly twice as many as the US. 

Prateek Waghre, the policy director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights group, says that YouTube’s recommendation algorithms may be partially to blame for the spread of this sectarian content. “YouTube has not been particularly open about its recommender system,” he says. “But the algorithm typically prioritizes engagement. If you watch a certain type of content, it will look to feed a similar type of content.”

Waghre says that detecting hate speech is complex in India, where people often switch between languages. But, he says, social media companies tend to be slow to react when alerted to potentially dangerous content. “Even inaction is a form of action,” he says. “Until it becomes a significant PR crisis, they tend not to take action. Sadly, this is consistent behavior across platforms. These companies need to think about how they perceive their neutrality.”

But Waghre also says he suspects that social media companies are nervous about going after nationalist figures, in case a backlash threatens their business interests. “If you take action against a popular right-wing figure, there is a good chance you might be targeted in some way or the other,” he says.

Patel says that more violence is inevitable as hate speech continues to spread, online and offline. “I am 53 years old,” he says. “I have not seen tensions running so high permanently through the country.”

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