WhatsApp rumours spark lynchings
AFTER a string of lynchings fuelled by rumours of child kidnappings on the popular social media platform WhatsApp, it seems India has a significant problem on its hands.
Police arrested 16 people on Monday after two men were killed by a lynch mob who suspected them of kidnapping. The incident is just the latest in a spate of similar killings across the country in recent months.
On Friday, Nilotpal Das and Abijeet Nath, from Guwahati in the north of the country, stopped to ask for directions in north-eastern Assam state when they were assailed and beaten to death by locals, according to the BBC.
Villagers reportedly believed the pair were "kidnappers" they had heard about on WhatsApp. A video of Friday's attack spread around social media over the weekend, prompting protests from students in Guwahati on Sunday.
There is widespread suspicion that one video in particular, disseminated via the messagine app, is fuelling the hysteria. In Bangalore last month - where another man was killed by an armed mob - the BBC was reportedly shown a video by a local resident in which apparent child kidnapping takes place.
In the video, two men riding a motorcycle approach a group of children. One of them grabs a child, and they ride off. But, according to the broadcaster, the video is neither real nor even from India. It is believed to be a child safety film from Pakistan, but the segment of the video explaining this is edited out in the version circulating on WhatsApp.
In the last three months, there have been nine murders in India linked to WhatsApp rumours, even though officials are yet to find any incidents of child abduction related to the messages and videos being shared.
So, who are victims? Why were they targeted? And is enough being done to tackle the apparent rumour-mongering and mob-justice mentality?
One thing common to many of the murders is that the victims were not locals - or, at least, they appeared not to be locals. Back in April, a man in the southern state of Tamil Nadu was killed by a mob after he was seen aimlessly wandering the streets.
In May, a man in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh was lynched for speaking Hindi and not the local language, Telugu. Another man in neighbouring Telengana was lynched when visiting a village to see his relatives. A man who had recently moved to Bangalore was lynched and beaten to death.
Women have also been victims. A 55-year old woman from Tamil Nadu was lynched in May for giving sweets to children, with thirty people arrested. In the same month, a transgender woman was lynched in Hyderabad.
Evidently, hostility to anyone deemed an "outsider" underlies the lynchings, to at least some extent. There are some 22 official languages spoken in India, and the 2001 Census of India recognises as many as 122 "major" languages (where major is defined languages spoken by more than 10,000 people). It is not hard to see how tribalism might emerge in such circumstances.
Furthermore, India still doesn't have any specific anti-lynching law. When the issue was raised in the Indian Congress in July 2017, the Indian Minister of State for Home Affairs, Hansraj Gangaram Ahir, reportedly said "I don't think there is any need to bring changes (in the law)". In a recent Times of India op-ed, an MP from India's ruling party claimed that there was a "streak of underlying violence in India's public culture", and since independence, "political violence has been supplemented by flashes of mob violence aimed at either settling scores or securing justice" .
Yet, whatever the root causes of the lynchings, it is the use of WhatsApp that has really exacerbated the problem. Of course, the global rise of social media has raised a menagerie of unprecedented legal concerns, mainly to do with privacy. But the ability of social media to ferment violent hysteria is arguably even more concerning.
Unlike in the West, the majority of Indians have only recently gained internet access, driven by the proliferation of smartphones. India's Telecom Regulatory Authority says there were more than one billion active mobile phone connections in India as of November 2017.
According to Pratik Sinha, the founder of fact-checking website Altnews.in, the problem is an inability to distinguish fake news from real.
"Reach has exploded, thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and cheap data packages," Mr Sinha told the BBC.
"Rumours spread further and faster. Suddenly, people from rural areas in particular are inundated with information and are unable to distinguish what is real from what is not. They tend to believe whatever is sent to them."
Police attempts to deal with the issue vary by region. Last month, police in the southern city of Hyderabad marched alongside residents with loudspeakers chanting "don't believe the rumours". In Tamil Nadu state, authorities have begun awareness drives to counter the rumours.
In other southern states like Karnataka, police have set up social media control rooms from where they monitor viral posts, messages and videos, and police in Telangana have issued warnings and arrested people who distributed false video messages online.
Given the different approaches taken by different regions, then, it would be optimistic to expect the problem to be tackled quickly across the whole country. Progress will not be easy. But, on the flipside, it seems eminently sensible to trial a variety of possible solutions to the problem, given its novelty. For that reason alone, there is cause for cautious optimism.