From Clubhouse to Most Wanted: The case of Amritpal Singh
The hunt for Amritpal Singh—a radical pro-Khalistan separatist—in India has captured global headlines. The internet is abuzz with discourse focusing on his emulation of slain militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, continued evasion of security forces, and possible links to international terror groups. While there is no doubting the importance of these narratives, what has been nagging me more is the question: who is Amritpal Singh, and where did he come from?
In both pro-Khalistani circles and in the wider public, Singh's rise to fame is often ignored. I had no idea who he was until November 2022 when he emerged as the new leader of Waris Punjab De, a pressure group that started marching across Punjab to promote Sikh values. After doing a bit of digging, it turns out he's only been in India since 2020, moving there from Dubai during the farmer protests. So, how is it that he amassed such an immense, cult-like following in just two years?
The answer—as always—is social media.
Singh's first appearance in 'activist' circles was on Clubhouse, a social networking app that grew popular in India during the pandemic. Through Clubhouse, he began engaging with thousands of individuals who sympathised with the farmer protests, all the while pushing pro-Khalistan separatist rhetoric to them. His popularity on this site quickly grew and spread to other social media platforms, and once he secured that audience? He mobilised them. Now, Singh is the most wanted man in Punjab.
Singh isn't a lone case of 'social media extremist'. Anwar al-Awlaki, Anthime Gionet, and Pooja Shakun Pandey all use, or used, echo chambers and algorithms to push their extremist ideologies - and the list of others who have done the same goes on and on. Social media platforms don't create radical ideologies, but as public forums they can help mainstream them. And that's something I'm reminded of every day.
Whether it's Singh, Gionet, or Pandey – there is no lack of hate preachers on the internet, and they're not going to stop abusing social media anytime soon. There's also no easy one-stop solution to combating it - even de-platforming has its issues. But, to start, we can push for better digital resiliency, fund de-radicalisation initiatives and research, and try to improve the algorithms so that online echo chambers aren't as aggressive and polarising as they have been in the past.
Top down or bottom up?
The media have been giving Tunisia a lot of attention over the last few weeks. Usually, I'm all for the MENA region getting the attention it deserves, but Tunisia has been under the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Since mid-February, there has been an uptick in xenophobic rhetoric centred on the perceived increase of sub-Saharan migration in Tunisia, and conspiracies about a secret ‘project’ to change the demographic composition of Tunisia are spreading like wildfire. Unfortunately, the person at the centre of this uptick is President Kais Saied himself.
On 21 February, Saied published a statement on social media claiming that the migration of sub-Saharan people into Tunisia was a "criminal enterprise". But, Saied is not conjuring these conspiracies himself. Like most threat actors on the internet, Saied is simply scrolling his timelines, taking harmful content at face value, and amplifying it without applying critical thinking to the information because it fits his optics. It happens every second of every day – but when the president is doing it, the everyday behaviour comes at a higher cost.
Saied seems inspired by the National Tunisian Party, a once relatively unknown party with the primary goal of combating the migration of sub-Saharan Africans to Tunisia. Interestingly, the NTP has no notable on-the-ground presence or activity and doesn't have much support. But, they have been active on social media – mostly promoting conspiracy theories that suggest sub-Saharan migrants are a threat to Tunisia’s existence. The party claim they sent a report to the president in December 2022 detailing the ‘colonisation project’ and the EU’s plan to support the settlement of migrants in Tunisia, which would explain Saied's statement, but the problem is - they can't seem to provide any evidence that they sent it.
So, the question is: Is Saied's politics mirroring what is happening online, or is the Tunisian right-wing feeding off of the continued progression of Saied’s power grab and its decline into a digitally authoritarian state where these ideologies are welcomed and accepted? To me, both are simultaneously true; Saied, the NTP, and the general Tunisian right are all mutually benefiting from these conspiracies. For example, following the president’s speech, the party has seen a massive uptick in followers and interactions, with several support pages and groups created, all dedicated to amplifying these xenophobic narratives. Due to the amplification of this theory, the narrative has gone beyond social media posts and presidential statements. Since the speech, there have been multiple reports of migrant attacks and a notable increase in migrants being unlawfully evicted from their homes, fired from their jobs, and even arbitrarily arrested.
And this isn’t the first time Saied's narratives have drawn inspiration from online discourse. He continues to conveniently tap into the darkest parts of Tunisia's information environment, amplifying those who are pushing nonsense for attention. Unfortunately, this won't be the last time either. Once the optics of the anti-sub-Saharan migrant narrative drop, Saied will likely just move on to the next popular narrative that benefits him. But, that doesn't mean all hope is lost. While he is the president, and his narratives do clearly have real-world consequences, there are solutions - the same ones we continually speak about: funding digital resiliency campaigns across the MENA region, building capacity to combat disinformation, and using platforms like this to speak out about harmful narratives.
PGI’s Digital Investigations Team brings you the Digital Threat Digest, SOCMINT and OSINT insights into disinformation, influence operations, and online harms.
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PGI’s Digital Investigations Analysts combine modern exploitative technology with deep human analytical expertise that covers the social media platforms themselves and the behaviours and the intents of those who use them. Our experienced analyst team have a deep understanding of how various threat groups use social media and follow a three-pronged approach focused on content, behaviour and infrastructure to assess and substantiate threat landscapes.
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