The Indian Express reports today that WhatsApp was used to fan the recent communal riots in Muzaffarnagar in UP that has resulted in the death of over 50 people.
According to the Express report, a video of two boys being beaten did the rounds across the district on the Internet and mobile phones. While the UP cops determined that the video was two years old and was actually recorded in either Afghanistan or Pakistan and blocked the video on the Internet, it spread through WhatsApp.
The report goes on to add that senior police officials admit that WhatsApp has caught them unawares. "We did not imagine so many people would have access to the net on their mobile phones and WhatsApp. Moreover, it is impossible to intercept messages and videos transmitted through this application," a senior officer is quoted as saying.
While this is not the first time a mobile instant messaging app has been used to fan riots globally, it does seem to be the first time this has happened in India, though the government has no excuse because it was clear even in the August 2012 Azad Maidan riots in Mumbai that cell phones had been used to communicate messages that incited the mob. SMS was blamed then.
On one hand the government has been caught napping despite knowing the flip side of mobile technologies and another issue is that WhatsApp does not meet Indian lawful interception norms and this incident may force the government to come down hard on such applications. While most users are not comfortable with government monitoring few would argue that in cases like these, the government should stand by and watch while inflammatory videos are spread to gullible and angry people through such apps.
Incidentally, this development comes even as BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) goes cross-platform and is expected to be released very soon on Android and iOS. BlackBerry India for once would be glad that despite years of friction with the Indian government that resulted in the company getting a lot of negative media attention, and after a lot of work to assuage Indian bureaucrats BBM meets Indian lawful interception norms.
And in case the Indian government decides to get tough with WhatsApp after the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, the biggest gainer would be cross-platform BBM, which is already far superior in terms of features, security and privacy over WhatsApp, which currently seems to India's most popular mobile instant messenger.
Incidentally, BBM was used by rioters in the 2011 London riots but as BBM was compatible with UK legislation on the interception of communication, the authorities there could trace those who incited rioters through BBM and prosecute them.