Over the past couple of weeks, the threat posed by perpetuation of fake news has ascended new, dismal heights with the recent spate of lynchings reported across the nation. Fear-driven mobs, mostly in rural areas, have attacked and beaten to death innocent individuals, confusing them to be child kidnappers or members of an organ-harvesting ring. The wide-scale paranoia has been fuelled by bogus messages circulated over the popular instant messaging service WhatsApp, which has over 200 million registered users from India.
Disturbingly, the State’s understanding and response to this unfortunate scenario is completely misdirected and brings forth its incompetence to deal with issues stemming from technology and the dangers posed by digital conglomerates like Facebook (WhatsApp’s parent company) with the advent and explosion of internet in India.
Chronological list of occurrences
May 10: A mob of over 20 people beat a man to death and hung him from a bridge in Pulicat, Tamil Nadu suspecting him to be a child trafficker. Another instance was reported from the Tiruvannamalai district, where a woman, who was distributing chocolates among children after paying obeisance to her family deity, was killed by a mob comprising of 30-odd people operating under the assumption that she was trying to lure the kids with the sweets. In Tiruvallur district, an innocent transgender person was assaulted by locals on the erroneous assumption of being a child lifter. Multiple instances of such unreasonable attacks were also reported, with the victims primarily belonging to the Northern States.
May 23: An innocent man engaging with children was attacked by a mob wielding cricket bats and rods who believed him to be child kidnapper in Chamrajpet, Bangalore. The entire ordeal was documented on video, and even though the Police did arrive on the scene and dispersed the mob, the innocent victim succumbed to his injuries later at the hospital
May 27: A fearful mob in Hyderabad attacked a group of transgenders who were begging on the streets in the city’s old area. The mob, 25 members of which were taken by the police into custody, pelted stones as well as physically attacked the group under the assumption of them being child kidnappers, resulting in the death of one and severely injuring three others.
June 8: Two men were dragged out of their car and beaten to death in Panjuri Kachari village, Assam, by an inebriated mob suspecting them to be child lifters. Horrifying videos of the victims pleading for their life to an unrelenting mob were in circulation across various social media platforms.
In Aurangabad, Maharashtra, the local police have booked more than 400 people for assaulting a group of nine people, two of which succumbed to their injuries, falsely believing them to be robbers.
June 13: At Bulbulchandi-Dubapara village in Habibpur, nearly 350 km from Kolkata, a man was tied to an electric pole and beaten to his death with sticks and iron rods as the mob suspected him to be a child lifter.
June 23: A man was beaten to death in East Midnapore, West Bengal, on the pretext of looking suspicious as he had covered his face to shield himself from the heat.
June 26: In Ahmedabad, four women travelling in an auto rickshaw were halted by men on bikes and assaulted under the suspicion of them being child lifters, while in reality they were beggars making their way to another locale of the city. All four victims suffered grievous injuries and one of them succumbed.
June 28: A woman and a hawker originally belonging to Uttar Pradesh were lynched to their deaths in two unrelated instances in Tripura. Subsequently, a man employed by the State Information and Culture Department to spread awareness about rumour mongering and fake news about an alleged organ harvesting racket ring operating within the State via song and music, was lynched to death suspected to be a child kidnapper himself.
July 1: Five men searching for food and shelter were killed in Rainpada village of Maharashtra’s Dhule district by villagers suspecting them to child traffickers.
Apart from the alarming and regrettable strain of xenophobia and the “othering” evident in most of the aforementioned instances, the most apparent commonality is the wide spread phobia of child kidnappers being active in those regions, via messages shared over WhatsApp.
These messages usually comprise of false alarms in regional languages for easy dissemination among the masses, and are accompanied by a video for graphic visual impact. Ironically, the video is an altered version of a child safety campaign from Pakistan, with the actual call for action edited out.
Government’s flawed approach
The Government, completely neglecting the dystopic socio-political realities, chose to condemnWhatsApp, via a notice issued by the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MEITY). Consider, for example, section of the notice that reads: “[d]eep disapproval of such developments has been conveyed to the senior management of the WhatsApp and they have been advised that necessary remedial measures should be taken to prevent proliferation of these fake and at times motivated/sensational messages. The Government has also directed that spread of such messages should be immediately contained through the application of appropriate technology.”
The Centre issued a warning to instant messaging platform 'Whatsapp' in the wake of the killings taking place across the country due to rumours that circulate via the app
— ANI Digital (@ani_digital) July 4, 2018
Not only does this bring forth the government’s utter lack of comprehension as to how mediums of communication which have pervaded all strata and sections of the Indian populace operate, but also betrays a complete denial about its own responsibility, and indeed culpability, in not doing enough to curtail the spread of rumours and other fake news items that lead to extremely tragic ends such as the current spate of lynchings.
In fact, contrary to the Government’s belief, WhatsApp is incapable of executing the aforementioned directions, as they are inherently opposed to its model which is based on security and privacy. WhatsApp operates on an end-to-end encryption model, wherein the message data is converted to a code which can only be deciphered by the intended recipient, in addition to it being stored locally on devices rather than on the service provider’s servers. Hence, the company cannot “contain” or monitor the information transmitted via the platform.
Further, this stance adopted by the Government displays its disengagement from actual governance and policy, by completely neglecting the evident erosion of public trust in State mechanisms demonstrated by the numerous instances of vigilante and mob justice mentioned above.
In a response letter, WhatsApp stated that it was “horrified by these terrible acts of violence” and “wanted to respond quickly to the very important issues raised”. The instant messaging company company subsequently went on to highlight the tweaks to their group chat functionality via updates over the past couple of months, as well as reiterating their commitment to co-operate with law enforcement authorities as they have done in the past. They even mention their forthcoming plans running “long-term public safety ad campaigns”, “publish new educational materials around misinformation”, and “conduct our news literacy workshops”.
Additionally, WhatsApp signified its intent to launch fact checking mechanisms in India, akin to those it has implemented in Brazil and Mexico. None of these measures though seem to be comprehensive solutions to the aforementioned perils, as the issue in India isn’t testing the veracity of inflammatory information, but to prevent its dissemination. This cannot be done under the current digital architecture of WhatsApp.
Limitations of other proposed solutions
Other recommendations put forth to curb this menace also fall short. One recommendation talks about users getting to pick whether their messages would be public or private. This illusionary choice serves no purpose as fear-mongers will obviously opt for a private label to absolve themselves of scrutiny.
Another suggestion was to label forwarded messages differently, which too is flawed. Labelling does nothing to address the message’s content pandering to the recipient’s confirmation bias. A differently labelled message has no impact on the manner in which the reader perceives the information received; whether it was a personalised message or a message on a group. With respect to the issue at hand, these messages are usually received from an acquaintance, and hence the veracity of the source never comes into question. The mere fact that the messages align with the reader’s political and sociological biases renders the label classifying the message as a forwarded one, or one that has been typed out, moot.
A “report to censor” scheme also comes with its own risk of delegitimising actual campaigns spreading true information by providing an avenue to conduct orchestrated attacks where such messages would be mass reported and be taken down. The feasibility of explaining the logistics of fact checking and then reporting messages carrying false news to the Indian populace, majority of whom are first time internet users, also seems unviable.
Spread awareness campaigns, not hate
In light of the aforementioned issues, it is imperative for the Government to run awareness programmes at a pan-India level, and not just limited to on ground activities, but utilising all mediums available to it. Utilising forums such as the radio via the PM’s wide ranging “Mann ki Baat”, print advertisements in newspapers, video ads on Doordarshan as well as other privately-run TV channels, alongside on-ground activation at a mass scale are required immediately to stop this saddening wave of unjustifiable killings.