It was late evening in June. Uddipan Dutta, a professor at the Guwahati University in North Eastern India, was relaxing at home after a day of work when he said he was appalled and disgusted by the images that flashed on the screen of his mobile phone. It was a video footage of a mob mercilessly beating up two young men who were suspected of being kidnappers. The mob’s anger was fueled by rumours they’d received on WhatsApp. The violence was real, shocking, and the footage of this attack was being circulated on WhatsApp too.
"It made me realise how deeply entrenched India is in the throes of a fake news crisis," Dutta says. “No technology has ever grown as rapidly nor taken such significant stride into our lives as the mobile phone. It seemed to me that we were feeling its consequences.”
Over the last year, mob induced violence has been spreading across the country like cancer, aided in part by rumours and doctored videos endlessly circulating on WhatsApp. India Spend, a data journalism website, analysed news reports for the last year and estimated that 33 people had been killed in 69 mob attacks across the country since January 2017. Police have arrested 181 people, but the violence, escalated in the first week of July to a mob attack a day.
“We no longer have faith in credible news sources. No one wants to do even the most cursory check for facts. It’s actions like these that fuel this kind of anarchy,” says Dutta.
Take, for instance, this video. It begins with a text display in bold lettering.
“Caught on CCTV in a Karachi Neighborhood”
Then, two unidentified men, wearing helmets and driving a motorcycle, swoop down and grab a young boy who is playing cricket on the street with his friends. They race away, with the child nestled in their arms. A few seconds later, they return, drop the child back on the street and one of the men holds up a hand-written sign.
“It takes only a moment to kidnap a child from the streets of Karachi,” it reads. Accompanying text states, “Every year, over 3,000 children go missing in Karachi, Pakistan. Keep an eye on your child.”
This brief video was first published on YouTube on 14 June 2016, by Roshini Helpline, a Karachi based charity that fights against child trafficking in Pakistan. Designed for them by an advertising agency, the video was part of a larger campaign to highlight the issue of missing children in Karachi. It was created to address awareness of how quickly children can be taken and the need for more care in safeguarding children.
Little did anyone guess that in neighbouring India, a doctored version of the video would be circulated widely among WhatsApp users, claiming 29 lives till date. Angry mobs were incensed by the false warnings and voice-overs in the doctored versions, asking them to be alert and wary of child traffickers who would kidnap their children for their organs.
How WhatsApp emerged as a weapon
When WhatsApp was first introduced in India, it was launched for iPhone users in 2009. It wasn’t until 2013, however, that it became ubiquitous as an all-mobile phone app. Popular for its end-to-end encryption policy, allowing for complete privacy between sender and recipient, and easy sharing of photos, videos and messages, the mobile phone app has experienced unprecedented growth in India since then. In just four years, statistics show 200 million users in 2017, a dramatic rise from 20 million users in 2013.
At first, the spam was all one had to worry about. A veritable flood of good morning and good evening greetings passed between millions of Indian users every day, clogging mobile phones and jamming networks. Then, it was the occasional forward that you knew was false and that you could likely laugh off.
Jyothi Vinod, a fiction writer based in Bengaluru, in the Indian state of Karnataka, recalls with amusement of how she had once received a forwarded a message telling her to distinguish between a male and female capsicum by counting the number of bumps on the top of each vegetable — odd and it was male; even for the female.
Soon, famous brands were targeted, with many a defamatory message about these products. Misinformation about health and inflammatory content on religion followed. One user received a forward that stated that the missing Malaysian Airlines plane had been found. The more outrageous the claim, the more people seemed to believe it.
Though misinformation is prevalent in all forms of social media and isn’t exclusive to WhatsApp, the nature of the medium has greatly accelerated the spread of fake news in India, says Pratik Sinha, co-founder of Alt News, a website that has been engaged in identifying and defusing rumours since February 2017.
Widespread hate content started circulating in 2015, he says, a problem compounded by millions of first-time mobile phone users. Data packs that came free with mobile phones meant that accessing the Internet was cheap, but these new users, many from rural communities, struggled to make sense of the disturbing images and malicious rumours they received.
“Being first-time users, they lacked in digital literacy — where one can do a quick Google search to check facts,” says Sinha. “When people constantly receive the same frightening content from several of their contacts, it only reinforces their fears. It has helped the rumours grow deadly,” says Sinha.
It didn’t help that the videos and messages were altered with the intention of preying on real fears and insecurity. It was like the ticking of a psychological time bomb.
Most of the videos that led to violence across India follow a pattern, says Bengaluru based psychiatrist Dr Shyam Bhat. There was the crushing fear of personal loss—such as one’s child being the victim of kidnap. There was the “othering mechanism,” a warning about an outsider who looked different, who didn’t belong to the community, someone worthy of suspicion. Then there was an immediate, direct threat perceived from this criminal — such as the sale of organs or trafficking. Inflammatory content is then translated into many local Indian languages and circulated several times.
“Once fear takes root in the minds of people, it spreads like a forest fire, until the entire community comes under the sway of this mass hysteria,” he says. “Individual and rational thinking collapses, group frenzy takes over and the “other” is further objectified and dehumanised,” he says. “Mob violence is a possibility only in communities that are already severely stressed.”
And indeed, modern India bears indications of this stress. In addition to the country’s growing socio-economic development, there is also a rising concern over sexual crimes. In recent months, reports say that sexual crimes against children have escalated as much as 34 percent. Real and perceived fears and anxieties, coupled with a rising sense of helplessness may be fueling the lynching, says Sinha.
But there is no easy solution to stem the misinformation.
The Supreme Court recently said that blanket monitoring of WhatsApp messages and social media posts by the government would make India a “surveillance state.” Many Indians still worry about heightened monitoring, as issues of privacy can possibly fade in the greater considerations of life and death.
Today, academics and local citizens are pitching in to wage their own war against fake news as well. Faculty from the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology in New Delhi and the International Institute of Information Technology in Hyderabad are building a tech tool to flag fake messages on Whatsapp.
“We’re asking the public to forward fake messages and inflammatory posts to our WhatsApp number,” says Dr Ponnurangam Kumaraguru, a computer scientist who is heading the project. “We’ve already developed TweetCred (a tool to assess the credibility of content on Twitter) and Facebook Inspector to identify malicious content on Facebook. WhatsApp is next, he says. Two weeks into the project, his team of students monitoring the WhatsApp number now receive over 40-50 doctored videos and malicious messages every day. This will allow them to build an algorithm to identify (and flag) fake content on WhatsApp. While this may not be enough to stem the unending rise of misinformation, it’s a start.
“Instead of rigid restrictions, we need to build interventions to create better awareness and to help us use technology responsibly,” says Kumaraguru.