By Prarthana Mitra
Over the past few months, several cases of mob violence have come to light, with at least 27 deaths registered across the country since May. Even though mob violence has always been a familiar social menace, there is something singularly sinister binding these incidents.
A thread of WhatsApp messages, crafted and spread with the intent to create mass panic, have been doing the rounds for some time, warning citizens to beware of child kidnappers, thieves, and sexual predators. Of the 27 deaths reported over the last three months, the mob has cited these messages to the police as their motivation for attacking the victims.
Although this brand of vigilante justice is questionable and worrisome, the real mystery is uncovering what agenda lies behind this potentially life-threatening rumour mongering, and perhaps more importantly, if the government and/or the messaging platform should intervene, to combine their resources to put an end to a potential social epidemic.
With the first death reported in the last week of April, the attacks have revealed an alarming statistic: most of the victims lynched by the mob hailed from minority or fringe communities.
In Tamil Nadu, a mentally unstable man was beaten up based on false suspicion fed by WhatsApp rumours. Shortly afterwards, a transgender begging around Telangana was killed by the mob on similar grounds. Late last month, a 45-year old woman hailing from a nomadic tribe in Rajasthan was confused for a child abductor and brutally lynched in Gujarat. Similar attacks have also taken place in Assam, Tripura and Maharashtra.
Evidence and intervention
The message itself has been pieced together with photographs from news reports on Syria and Rohingya refugee camps. The police have confirmed that there is no veracity in these claims which are nothing but false alarms. Scrambling to find an effective response, law enforcement authorities are doing their best to dissuade people from acting on the basis of such messages, patrolling the city to intervene in case of an occurrence. State-wide awareness campaigns and public alerts haven’t yielded positive results so far either.
In some of the cases, the police have booked members of the violent mob, based on video footage and witness accounts, under murder and riot charges, but it is more difficult to apprehend the original propagators of the messages.
The government has been quick to blame the global messaging platform WhatsApp, accusing them of irresponsibility and directing them to take measures to avoid such malicious abuse of their platform. The Information and Technology ministry said, “While the law and order machinery is taking steps to apprehend the culprits, the abuse of platforms like WhatsApp for repeated circulation of such provocative content is equally a matter of deep concern.”
At present, WhatsApp has over 200 million users in India who exchange audio, video and text messages via the application. The Facebook-owned messaging platform released a public statement on Wednesday, claiming to be “horrified” by the spate of lynchings sparked by false rumours shared on its platform and has solicited government’s support in righting the wrong.
Detailing proactive steps to tackle the menace, WhatsApp said its end-to-end encryption protects the privacy of users but spam messages that spread misinformation and lead to violence need to be treated as exceptional circumstances. To that end, WhatsApp plans to run long-term public safety ad campaigns in the near future, and has offered up to $50,000 to detect “problematic behavior within encrypted systems.”
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.
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