ChatGPT Has Been Sucked Into India's Culture Wars
Mahesh Vikram Hegde's Twitter account posts a constant stream of praise for Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. A tweet pinned to the top of Hegde's feed in honor of Modi's birthday calls him "the leader who brought back India's lost glory." Hegde's bio begins, "Blessed to be followed by PM Narendra Modi."
On January 7, the account tweeted a screenshot from ChatGPT to its more than 185,000 followers; the tweet appeared to show the AI-powered chatbot making a joke about the Hindu deity Krishna.=
ChatGPT uses large language models to provide detailed answers to text prompts, responding to questions about everything from legal problems to song lyrics. But on questions of faith, it's mostly trained to be circumspect, responding "I'm sorry, but I'm not programmed to make jokes about any religion or deity," when prompted to quip about Jesus Christ or Mohammed. That limitation appears not to include Hindu religious figures. "Amazing hatred towards Hinduism!" Hegde wrote.
When WIRED gave ChatGPT the prompt in Hegde's screenshot, the chatbot returned a similar response to the one he'd posted. OpenAI, which owns ChatGPT, did not respond to a request for comment.
The tweet was viewed more than 400,000 times as the furor spread across Indian social media, boosted by Hindu nationalist commentators like Rajiv Malhotra, who has more than 300,000 Twitter followers. Within days, it had spun into a full-blooded conspiracy theory. On January 17, Rohit Ranjan, an anchor on one of India's largest TV stations, Zee News, devoted 25 minutes of his prime-time slot to the premise that ChatGPT represents an international conspiracy against Hindus. "It has been programmed in such a way that it hurts [the] Hindu religion," he said in a segment headlined "Chat GPT became a hub of anti-Hindu thoughts."
Criticism of ChatGPT shows just how easily companies can be blindsided by controversy in Modi's India, where ascendant nationalism and the merging of religious and political identities are driving a culture war online and off.
"In terms of taking offense, India has become a very sensitive country. Something like this can be extremely damaging to the larger business environment," says Apar Gupta, a lawyer and founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights and liberties advocacy group in New Delhi. "Quite often, they arise from something that a company may not even contemplate could lead to any kind of controversy."
Hindu nationalism has been the dominant force in Indian politics over the past decade. The government of Narendra Modi, a right-wing populist leader, often conflates religion and politics and has used allegations of anti-Hindu bigotry to dismiss criticism of its administration and the prime minister.
In January, the government invoked emergency powers to ban the distribution of a BBC documentary titled India: The Modi Question, which investigated Modi's role in 2002 riots in Gujarat--where he was chief minister. These riots resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. Twitter and YouTube were ordered to remove clips from the documentary.
Encouraged by the government's stance, right-wing commentators are quick to portray India's Hindu majority as under constant threat and discrimination.
"The commentators are doing their job, which is to stoke communal problems in the country under any pretext, no matter how silly," says Hartosh Singh Bal, executive editor at The Caravan, a politics and culture magazine. "Not only is the government pushing the narrative, but these commentators are also creating their own environment around them ... They feed off such controversies because it keeps them relevant and gives them a certain prominence."
"The discourse in India is unhinged," says Aakar Patel, a journalist and former head of Amnesty International's India bureau, adding that there is no logic around what gets sucked into the culture war.
So far, there have been no official calls to ban ChatGPT, and the government hasn't weighed in on the controversy, but companies that get caught up in these political firestorms face fallout, which is making some potential users nervous.
"A majority of my buyers are Hindu. I don't know their love or hate for science, but I won't risk offending them with a controversial software," says Zaid, a Delhi-based entrepreneur who asked to be identified by his first name only to avoid a backlash from customers. He added that he "absolutely won't put anything like ChatGPT for his online business."
In 2020, a jewelery company called Tanishq became the focus of an online protest campaign after releasing an ad depicting a mixed-faith family. Radical Hindu groups called for a boycott, and the company pulled the ad. In 2021, clothing and lifestyle company Fabindia promoted a range of garments for the Hindu festival Diwali using an Urdu phrase (a language primarily associated with Muslims in India and Pakistan). Within hours, #boycottFabindia was trending on Twitter. The brand caved, removed the ad, and renamed the clothing line.
In May 2021, Unacademy, one of India's largest edtech platforms, was forced to apologize after a question on one of its exam papers sparked a backlash from Hindu nationalist groups. Six months later, a video of a student performing a skit based on the Hindu epic Ramayana at a company-sponsored event went viral, and right-wing groups accused the platform of insulting the religion. #AntiHinduUnacademy trended on Twitter.
In 2016, ecommerce company Myntra was attacked for trivializing Hindu culture after a meme that combined a scene from the epic Mahabharata with the company's brand circulated on social media. Both the meme and the controversy were revived in 2021. The company maintained it had nothing to do with the image, but #BoycottMyntra and #UninstallMyntra trended nonetheless.
Tech industry figures said they hope that the controversy won't keep people in India from experimenting with generative AI, which they say has huge potential across multiple sectors.
"You can't blame AI for this," Raviisutanjani Kumar, an executive at edtech startup Testbook, told WIRED. Testbrook is already using generative AI in its business.
However, some in the tech sector say the controversy over ChatGPT has given them pause. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a manager at edtech platform PhysicsWallah, which has a market valuation of over a billion dollars, said the company is likely to steer clear of ChatGPT, at least until the storm blows over. "We would ideally stay away," they said. "But if the business potential is high, we would wait out for the controversy to die and then deploy it."
A senior manager at TradeIndia who also requested anonymity was more pragmatic, stating that they are already using ChatGPT extensively to write website content for business clients. "Look, at the end of the day, it's about costs," they said. "If ChatGPT can help save money on writer salaries and yields desired results, controversies won't matter."
Gupta says tech companies that want to operate in India will have to be ready for future controversies. These grievances are being spun for political gain and to win over powerful conservative and religious constituencies, he says, and the government has shown little sign that it is willing to dial back its rhetoric for the sake of the business environment.
"Companies must also have a process in place to deal with online boycotts or any type of allegations that arise," Gupta says. "But [they] will have to do a lot of firefighting because these types of incidents will continue to occur."