Telangana Police's efforts to check spread of fake news and subsequent lynchings plagued by digital limitations

After the horrific incident in May in Bibinagar on the outskirts of Hyderabad, where villagers lynched auto driver Balakrishna on suspicion that he was a thief or kidnapper, the top brass of the Telangana Police went into a huddle. While relieved that they had arrested six accused within two days of them killing the 33-year-old, the police are worried about their technological inability to get to the bottom of where the rumours about kidnapper gangs started.

Telangana Polices efforts to check spread of fake news and subsequent lynchings plagued by digital limitations

File image of Telangana Police. AFP

The Telangana Police is considered one of the most tech-savvy forces in the country that has done a fine job in counter-intelligence, especially with regard to terrorism, eavesdropping in chatrooms, snooping on Islamic State elements, and countering the process of radicalisation. But the wider WhatsApp net — the chosen medium to spread provocative messages about child abductions — makes nailing the brain behind the mobs tough.

A senior Indian Police Service (IPS) officer in the counter-intelligence cell explained: "WhatsApp is an encrypted medium. Their servers are not in India. We do not get data from telecom providers either, making it tough to crack such cases."

That a lynch-happy India is threatening to become the new normal means it is time to push the panic button. Over the past couple of years, mobocracy — thanks to patronage from Right-Wing elements — has bestowed a certain legitimacy to this criminal act. While lynchings associated with gau rakshak gangs had a despicable targeted approach to it, the latest injection of mischief does not seem to have a political or community angle to it. The targets seem random, not belonging to a particular caste, community or religion, but it has painted India as a blood-thirsty nation, given to vigilantism.

According to collated reports, 29 people have been lynched to death since April this year, countrywide — Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telangana, Tripura, Bengal, Karnataka, Gujarat and Assam. Many have been injured in these kangaroo courts, as well.

The most horrific of the incidents took place on Sunday, when five people were lynched in Maharashtra's Dhule. The assembled crowd at the market thought they had put two and two together when they saw the men speaking with a child and suspected them of being child lifters, thanks to a WhatsApp message that was doing the rounds for some days. The videos in these messages, as the police in different states have found out, are not from India but from South America, Pakistan and Bangladesh. But the messages that accompany the videos suggest that a gang of kidnappers is on the prowl.

This puts any stranger in an area at immediate risk, like the two migrant labourers from Odisha, who worked with Chennai Metro, found to their peril. On Sunday, they were attacked because they were seen chatting and playing with a 4-year-old, and his family suspected they were kidnappers. The police saved them from being killed, and they are now recovering in hospital.

A group in Maharashtra's Malegaon, too, were witness to this danger. The group of five, including a 2-year-old, was assaulted on suspicion that arose when they were seen speaking with a teenager in the city. The mob beat up these daily wage labourers till the police rescued them.

Telangana was the first state police force in the country to set up a social media lab, with tech-savvy officers in every district part of the monitoring cell. However, with a humongous increase in data usage in India (200 million GB per month in June 2016 to 1.5 billion GB in September 2017 to an estimated 2 billion GB at present), it is impossible to track content.

"Despite our monitoring by our social media teams, obviously not everything comes under our radar," said Jitender, additional director general of the Telangana Police. "Often, we get information late. We are trying to strategise better, but we have our limitations digitally."

WhatsApp vs Sharechat

Those in the countryside now also use an app called Sharechat as it allows them to communicate in local languages. Extremely popular in the Telugu states and Tamil Nadu, it allows an even higher number of end users to consume unverified data. Also, with the focus solely on WhatsApp, and on Facebook to some extent, Sharechat is escaping the investigator's eye.

Is this then some kind of a trial balloon, designed to check the efficacy of WhatsApp as a medium to play with people's minds?

"It is quite possible that someone or a group is testing the waters," a senior officer in the Telangana Police's intelligence wing said. "It is also possible that having injected it into the system, this has now gone out of control. This presents a real challenge to the police forces across the country."

'Not in my name' protests were launched across India to counter the spate in lynching incidents. PTI

'Not in my name' protests were launched across India to counter the spate in lynching incidents. PTI

Pratik Sinha of AltNews points to how false content is distributed in states in local languages. It is in Gujarati when shared on WhatsApp groups in say, Surat, and in Marathi when it is fed into groups in Aurangabad. This suggests a deliberate design to foment trouble.

"Altouhg the motive is not clear, I think it is organised," Sinha said. "Typically, in fake news, no one changes the narrative, and it gets forwarded on different social media platforms in its original form. But in this case, not only is it getting translated into local languages in different states, it is also getting localised multiple times. For instance, to lend authenticity, the names of places mentioned are geographically close to where the message is being released. Who is doing that?"

Right now, given the inability to track the digital trail, the focus of the police is on preventive measures. For instance, in Telangana's Jogulamba Gadwal district, station house officers at every police station have one from their forces included in WhatsApp groups in every village.

"We also organised a meeting of village heads and asked them to keep an eye on content in WhatsApp groups and alert the cops if anything suspicious or provocative is shared," said Rema Rajeshwari, superintendent of police in Jogulamba Gadwal district. "This is one effective way to neutralise trouble by sensitising villagers about fake news."

In semi-urban centres, too, authorities are making an effort to contain smartphone-induced mass hysteria.

"Stickers have been pasted on autorickshaws to tell people that no outside child-lifting gangs are on the prowl," said Mahesh Bhagwat, Rachakonda police commissioner. "Telugu songs have been recorded and distributed to tell people to be wary of fake information."

On one hand, the well-heeled urban India is worried about virtual death and rape threats anonymous trolls issue on Twitter, and on the other, the real India is witnessing death up close.

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Updated Date: Jul 03, 2018 13:11:28 IST

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