On May 24, a 26-year-old man was beaten to death in Bangalore by a mob that mistook him for a “child-lifter”. Fake reports of child-stealing or kidnapping gangs on the prowl have been going viral over WhatsApp in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka over the past few weeks.
The messages, with graphic and gory images, claim that children are being kidnapped and killed, so that their organs can be harvested.
Last year in May, seven people were beaten to death in Jharkhand after rumours of 'kidnapping gangs' went viral.
The spooked locals are thus on guard, and have taken to patrolling their lanes with sticks, beating up strangers on suspicion. The victims, in most cases, are “outsiders” – people from other states in search of work. The man killed in Bangalore, for example, was a paan-seller from Rajasthan.
This is a macabre story we have seen played out before.
Almost exactly one year ago, in Jharkhand, seven people were beaten to death by tribals who had received similar messages of their children being at risk.
Fake news, thus, is spilling real blood. Rumours are claiming lives, as ordinary citizens, stoked into paranoia, turn into murderers.
Even as tech giants are being spurred into action on making social media less vulnerable to fake news, the government, too, needs to respond - urgently.
The spread of smart phones and Internet has been swift in India – but awareness of both the uses and perils of such media has not kept pace with the onrush. People now receive provocative messages on WhatsApp and automatically believe these – never thinking of questioning their veracity.
As Rema Rajeshwari, the Superintendent of Police of Jogulamba Gadwal district in Telangana, where such rumours have been going viral, said to The NEWS Minute: Through our interactions with the locals, we found out that people are being carried away by visuals and photographs rather than text - since many cannot read.”
Once a rumour goes viral on social media, quelling it can be like putting out a forest fire. Over instant messaging platforms that offer end-to-end encryption, such as WhatsApp, tracing the original source of a message can be difficult.
So far, the authorities have been found dragging their feet in most cases, reacting only after violence erupts, instead of proactively quashing the rumours.
However, government regulating social media has an obvious flipside – the fears of surveillance.
In fact, the central government has recently come up with a measure that seems to offer hope. The information and broadcasting ministry has decided to set up a “social media communication hub” and “deploy executives to monitor online content across each of India’s 716 districts”.
According to a report in The Economic Times, these teams will “monitor local editions of newspapers, cable channels, FM stations and important local social media handles. The teams will also check the spread of fake and incorrect news and information.”
But a closer examination suggests that the cells might not be that good an idea. The language used by the ministry, in its request for proposals sent out to third-party firms, is worrying - and more than safeguards against fake news, the cells sound like a massive surveillance plan.
According to the ET report, the mechanism, once put in place, will get a “360 degree view of the customers by integrating customer relationship management data with social profiles.” The platform will “personalise responses (on the) basis (of) the customer loyalty and past behaviours,” and will also help the ministry “identify influencers' basis attributes like follower count”.”
This seems highly elaborate if the avowed aim is only to curb fake news – to some, this makes the government sound like Cambridge Analytica – analysing and psychologically profiling its “customers”.
To curb fake news, we do not need pan-India grand plans and fancy, overblown systems. First of all, we need pro-active police stations, keeping an eye out for rumours being spread in their area, and moving fast to contain them.
Just weekly meetings by police officers in the villages and towns in their jurisdictions, and an attentive ear to the ground by way of beat constabularies and informers, can go a long way in ensuring that provocative messages do not go “viral”.