Nation reels from killings blamed on fake reports of kidnappers spread on WhatsApp

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The article by Samanth Subramanian was published in the National on July 2, 2018. Pranesh Prakash was quoted.

All it takes these days to kill a man in India is the merest spark of mistrust, fuelled perhaps by a 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.

On Sunday, in the most recent attack, five men were beaten to death in the district of Dhule, in Maharashtra. Three others survived. The eight men had been seen getting off a bus near a village and talking to a young girl, police officials said.

Residents had been reading hoax messages on WhatsApp for a few days already, which claimed that kidnappers were in the area, looking for victims. So a group confronted the eight travellers at the local market and, choosing not to believe their story, beat them to death with sticks.

On Monday, police said they had arrested 23 people in connection with the killing. "I appeal to everybody not to believe in such posts that are circulated on social media," Deepak Kesarkar, Maharashtra's junior home minister, said. "The law should not be taken into one's own hands."

Including the incident in Dhule, at least 19 people in 11 states have been killed in public killings since the beginning of May. Dozens more have been injured in such attacks.

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 killed, 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.

In response, the government of Tripura cut mobile internet services for two days, to try to cut down the spread of rumours. Other states have also reacted. In Hyderabad in May, police arrested a Facebook user for posting a false video about a "kidnapper" named "Afzal Sagar".

Karnataka’s police department has a social media control room that monitors viral posts. And Tamil Nadu's police have launched awareness drives to alert users about the dubious nature of forwarded WhatsApp messages.

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 introduced across the entire platform.

The violence instigated by such messages, however, is as much a societal problem as a technological one, said Pranesh Prakash, a fellow with the Centre for Internet and Society, a think tank in Bengaluru.

"I don't think this is a particular moment in time where people are being taken over by a hatred of the outsider,” Mr Prakash said. “I was doing a little digging and found a very similar case even in 2015, in Maharashtra. But what's new is the speed with which this has spread across the country over the past few months."

In part, Mr Prakash said, the violence betrays mistrust of outsiders but also a lack of confidence in law enforcement. People are not sure that reporting suspected kidnappers to the police will result in a prompt or thorough investigation.

"In a newspaper, I read about how someone in the town of Salem [in Tamil Nadu] had said: ‘Why would the police ever tell us the truth?’ That’s uniquely problematic."

But the adequacy of WhatsApp's response is also under scrutiny, especially given Facebook's troubles over fake news and the 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," Mr Prakash said.

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