How social media is helping spread child lifting rumours

It matters little that the impact implies someone’s death.

 |  4-minute read |   12-09-2019
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Child lifting is suddenly back in the news. The last time I had heard about it was at a seminar on lullabies and vernacular nursery rhymes. Child lifting was part of the lore of childhood and parenting. In the old world, mothers used kidnapping as a means to control a small child.

Fear of kidnap

Fights between mother and child over a cup of milk were a common theme in traditional knowledge about the upbringing of children, especially the male child. Creating the fear of an itinerant kidnapper apparently helped mothers to get a recalcitrant small boy to do what he was told.

The kidnapper was often portrayed as a rough-looking man with a gunny bag, big enough to pack a small boy inside. If the boy asked, “What will he do with me?”, the answer was ready, “He will make you a beggar.” Methodologies of making a beggar were often gruesome, and they too helped the determined boy to give up his struggle against the glass of milk or thali getting cold and attracting flies.

All of a sudden, the fear that your children might get kidnapped has gripped rural parts of the national capital region and adjoining areas. News reports talk about villagers surrounding a suspicious-looking man or woman who they believe has come to kidnap children. Beating the suspected kidnapper starts spontaneously. In some cases, the mob ends up killing the person they had suspected. By the time the police arrive, it is too late to save the person who is now identified as someone living in an adjoining village.

In some of these reports, you are told that the suspected lifter was actually going to school to collect his own child. When reporters ask the attackers why they joined the beating, they say the man looked suspicious.

Many news stories of this kind carry pictures of the victims of mob violence.

As one might expect, they look poor and malnourished. As the statements made by the police after investigation point out, many of these men and women are migrant labourers who wander into a settlement in search of work. If you try to find out more about these stories from the Hindi press, you learn about the role of technology.

Venting goes viral

In other stories of mob violence, where communal hatred was involved, social media was reported to have been used to assemble an instant crowd. The use of WhatsApp and Facebook is somewhat different in the current spate of mob violence against suspected child kidnappers.

Images of potential lifters are circulated among residents, with messages of warning. On some people, these messages make so big an impact that they stop sending their small children to school. And schools too get so nervous that the principal tells teachers to ensure that only parents are allowed to take their child home.

Reading these amazing, outrageous stories makes you wiser about the kind of ethos that the latest technological revolution has helped create in our contemporary suburbia. The smartphone has transcended the considerable distance that divides the settled middle class and its struggling counterpart. The borderline class of people serving the settled middle class lives in permanent vulnerability of sudden change in their limited fortune. They are the ideal victims of rumour.

Those who compose and spread rumours are also right there among them, seeking to derive the pleasure that comes from seeing your mischief making a big impact. It matters little that the impact implies someone’s death. This kind of callousness is a part of the new technological environment. Not that it didn’t exist earlier.

In-camera (in)justice

Watching someone being thrashed was a known social spectacle. You can find its references in myths and stories. Now, you can record it on your phone, and that forms its own evil pleasure. Even in the case of road accidents, one finds people more eager to take pictures than to help the bleeding. Technology creates a buffer zone.

It gives you something to do in a moment which otherwise demands initiative and a helping hand. Those reflexes were scant to begin with in our society. Now, they have been further suppressed by the single new reflex: Taking a picture, or better still, a selfie at a ghastly site. The smartphone has played a facilitating role in making us more callous and cynical.

Our older instincts and prejudices, with their accompanying images and stereotypes have found a new and powerful instrumentality.

A conventional camera was not easy to handle. In any case, not everyone had one. And you could not carry it all the time to click a picture. Now, you are ready to record whatever catches your attention, and the ethos does not encourage you to make a distinction between a beautiful flower and a bleeding man.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: Three reasons why you should immediately unfollow certain people on social media

Writer

Krishna Kumar Krishna Kumar

Author is former director of NCERT.

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