Blaming WhatsApp for deaths due to lynchings has shielded govt accountability

A messaging application such as WhatsApp, with a large user base, has been arraigned as a co-conspirator to these tragedies.

A serial killer is on the loose in India, painted with a luminescent green, and in the pockets more than 200 million people in India. As per burgeoning public commentary, it is the popular internet messaging application WhatsApp, which has caused the loss of about 30 lives in a calendar year.

These are purportedly through public lynchings on the basis of a single rumour of, “child kidnapping”. Such assertions are posited as incontrovertible facts that have framed a debate around the growing use of technology by the ignorant masses and the responsibilities of a technological platform. This is a problematic and shallow understanding that serves as a distraction from facing the harder, vexing questions on the sectarian discourse set by our political leadership, a deepening divide that is damaging fraternity within Indian society and the tough, structural reforms necessary to restore law and order.

We are made to believe that in the age of social media, socially acceptable facts have recently become fungible. There is little distinction left between established media outlets with websites springing up on a daily basis which incessantly broadcast propaganda and hate speech. A messaging application such as WhatsApp, with a large user base, an ability for instant and wide transmission has been arraigned as a co-conspirator to these tragedies.

Representational image. Reuters.

Representational image. Reuters.

Social panic

It is easy to get swept up in this wave of social panic, draw neat narratives which by themselves ignore factual complexity. Hence, before we delve into the technology it is important to take a step back and examine some facts to determine this alleged chain of causation and also critically examine the existing narrative. This is important as many of the public policy responses which are being suggested will ultimately weaken the features of encryption that promote privacy and may even bring in forms of pre-censorship on justifications of security and safety.

An absence of data and an anti-lynching law

The first fact which is clear is that the government of India maintains no central data on public lynchings. As per parliamentary responses provided by the Ministry of Home Affairs, there is no record keeping conducted periodically by the National Crime Records Bureau. Hence, a common response in many of these answers provided to legislators is, “it is not possible to draw any conclusion regarding the trend….”.

The absence of data is revealing of the substantive legal framework in India which does not have any anti-lynching offences. While some may oppose a special law for public lynchings, most scholars like Paul Brass who have studied such riots which often involve public lynchings in India, term them to be, “organised political productions”, in which there is an element of group identity and politics with the desire to establish, “dominance of one community over another”.

These are well understood by activists who work with victims evident in their efforts last year to start an online campaign for an anti-lynching law under the name of, “MASUKA”. This coincided with many protests that were organised in Indian cities under the banner “NotInMyName”. Despite such civic actions, the parliamentary replies reveal bluster and indifference with the central government stating that “there is no proposal to bring a law against it”.

Media reports and dramatic opinion writing

The second fact is in the absence of official data or a substantive law, media reports which derive off statements by the police become the principal source to build a public narrative.

As many of us crave simplicity and clarity in our facts, opinion writing has often homogenised incidents into a factual straitjacket. In the instant cases which form the set of 30 public lynchings, it is claimed that the common factor is the use of WhatsApp that was used to spread rumours relating to the abduction of children ostensibly for the purposes of forcible organ harvesting. These grotesque details underplay, obfuscate and ignore the underlying incidents in which the victims of mob lynchings are quite often members of nomadic tribes and religious minorities.

They ignore pre-existing social tensions, asymmetry of social capital and power amongst groups, past instances of mob violence and killings and the efficiency of policing. As per these press reports the incidents reveal the following details; 18 May, 2017 in Jharkhand involved four of the seven victims were Muslims; May, 2018 in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, the victims were, a mentally unsound man in Sarapaka, a deaf and mute man in Bhodhan and a Hindi-speaking stranger in Armool; 13 June, 2018 in Aurangabad the two victims were part of a pastoral tribe; 13 June, 2018 in Malda there was no reference to social media and reports claim the rumour spread through word of mouth; 1 July, 2018, in Dhule the five victims were part of a nomadic tribe (a Google sheet of these 30 deaths focussing on the identities of the victims is available here).

The identities of the victims demonstrate existing social prejudices, their distinction from the local communities and lack of power, their, “othering” and absence of state protection, was a significant factor in the suspicion and distrust which rose to the level of organised mob violence. However, due to the framing of the instant problem as primarily technological, the onus for policing and public broadcasting has been principally placed on WhatsApp.

The WhatsApp newspaper ad on false information.

The WhatsApp newspaper ad on false information.

Lynchings coincide with the rise in communal violence

The third and final fact which needs to be stated is that these lynchings are not removed from the trends and timeline of mob lynchings which predate any press reports of WhatsApp but focus towards the incidences of majoritarianism spurred by cattle preservation laws.

A fact-finding report titled as, Lynching without end, published last year in December and collating data from 2015, documents 24 instances of lynching resulting in the murder of 34 persons and rape of 2 women. They reveal that 94 percent of these were instances of violence by organised vigilante groups as opposed to spontaneous mobs with 91 percent being bovine related.

They indicate severe structural faults from a substantive deficiency of laws to the absence of long pending police reforms. There is only one solitary instance of WhatsApp in which the originator is clearly identified as the leader of one of these vigilante groups. These findings, which are on basis of the rigorous study, partnership and research between several organisations should be a more meaningful benchmark than dramatic opinion writing.

Step back, look at the outstanding work, ask the tougher questions

Taken together, these three facts indicate our willingness to reach for quick and easy fixes which are harmful public policy prescriptions. We ignore the problems within our legal framework and law enforcement and prescribe policy choices with the same ease with which we install applications on our smartphones. Such framing is leading to WhatsApp being made the principal offender in designing a technical architecture which offers security, privacy and has expanded the avenues of free expression and political organising for masses of Indians.

This is not to say that WhatsApp does not need to act with greater responsibility in supporting fact checking or making technical, product choices which would stem the tide of misinformation without compromising on digital rights. But WhatsApp cannot and should not perform the duties of our democratically elected government. Our problematic framing is leading to public officials and police departments escaping accountability, as they continue to place the onus of governance on a private corporation for maintaining an ordered and democratic society.

As Paul Brass notes, it is the duty of public commentary to, “fix responsibility and penetrate the clouds of deception, rhetoric, mystification, obscurity and indeterminacy…”.

To conclude, if we continue to ask the wrong questions, we shouldn’t expect to find the right answers.

The author is a lawyer based in New Delhi. The article originally appeared on Medium

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