WhatsApp becomes India’s new serial killer...via lynching
It was meant to be a phone app which facilitated instant conversations. Instead, WhatsApp is now becoming an instigator for quick violence. Most often the target is an outsider – somebody from another area or state, another religion or simply somebody who looks different or speaks a different language; the poor and destitute are particularly vulnerable.
So far, there have been 13 incidents of lynching related to rumours circulated through WhatsApp about suspected child lifters and kidnappers - resulting in the murders of 27 people, in less than two months. Fake Whatsapp messages whip up a frenzy in minutes and before any sanity can prevail, innocents have been clobbered to death. Mobs are mobilised in seconds because the message has reached scores at the same time, giving real-time details of the so-called suspects.
Wave of Killings
It started in Jharkhand on May 2017 when seven people including two brothers were killed on suspicion of child kidnapping gangs. The same has spread like wildfire in other states too.
In Tamil Nadu, a 55-year-old woman was killed for handing out sweets to children; again, the residents suspected her to be a kidnapper. In Hyderabad, a transgender woman was lynched, seemingly without provocation. In Assam, two men were set upon and killed when they stopped in a rural part of the state to ask for directions.
The darkest case is laced with irony. Sukanta Chakrabarty was appointed by the government of the state of Tripura to tour its villages and dispel social media rumours about child-kidnappers. Last Thursday, he was mistaken for a kidnapper and killed by four young men in the village of Kalacherra.
Role of Social Media
All it takes these days to lynch a man in India is the merest spark of mistrust, fuelled perhaps by a wild rumour on social media. Strangers travelling through villages, a transgender woman, and even a government official have all been set upon by mobs and killed across the country over the past two months.
Most of the lynchings have been caused due to fake news and rumours spread via WhatsApp. The messages were spread quickly in groups thereby enabling maximum people to gather and become a mob.
Role of Police
The policing in India is still on traditional lines of reacting post an incident rather than pre-emptive actions. The numbers and resources with police severely restricting them from being pro-active in such issues. However, some timely measures can definitely save lives.
Karnataka’s police department has a social media control room that monitors viral posts. And Tamil Nadu's police have launched awareness drives to build a sense of alertness about the dubious nature of forwarded WhatsApp messages.
The government of Tripura cut mobile internet services for two days, to try to cut down the spread of rumours. Other states have reacted as well. In Hyderabad in May, police arrested a Facebook user for posting a false video about a "kidnapper" named "Afzal Sagar".
Restricting Social Media
Many voices have risen in the country post these killings to ban or restrict WhatsApp and Facebook to prevent such fake news from circulating. More sane voices are calling on new features which could differentiate between real and fake news. Some are calling for government to monitor the social media.
But in a country with nearly 500 million smartphone users, the state is hard-pressed to curb the flow of information on WhatsApp and social media.
At least 200 million Indians are on WhatsApp, a messaging platform owned by Facebook. In a statement released two weeks ago, a WhatsApp spokesman encouraged users to "report problematic messages so that we can take action. We're also stepping up our education efforts so that people know…how to spot fake news or hoaxes on WhatsApp."
A new WhatsApp feature, which appends a "Forwarded" tag as a caveat to any forwarded message, has not yet been rolled out across the entire platform. Some more technological additions can definitely help people in checking such messages.
The violence instigated by such messages, however, is as much a societal problem as a technological one. We need to grow up a society and be more responsible when acting alone or in mob. Educating our younger generation on societal norms and human values will make a huge difference to our society as a whole.
But the adequacy of WhatsApp's response is also under scrutiny, especially given Facebook's troubles over fake news and alleged manipulation of users in the US and other countries.
It's important that they do all they can to cut down on the spread of these rumours without impinging upon the freedom of speech.
What to do at Individual Level
Never believe on what is being circulated on social media. It may be handiwork of some anti-social elements.
Always counter check messages which disturb communal harmony or spread hatred in society.
Send such messages to police for verification and control.
Never forward any dubious message. Remember, you are responsible for what you forward and court takes that the act of forwarding means that you agree with the message. Court has ruled out bail of few politicians who spread hatred via WhatsApp forwarded messages in West Bengal. You can be the next target.
Act responsibly and teach your children to be a responsible citizen.