Death rides deluge of fake messages

A WhatsApp text circulating in some districts of Madhya Pradesh helped to inflame a mob of 50-60 villagers into savagely beating up two innocent men last week on suspicion that they were going to murder people and sell their body parts.

By Reuters in Mumbai
  • Published 1.07.18
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Paramilitary force personnel keep vigil near a damaged vehicle after a mob lynched one person at a makeshift in Tripura State Rifles camp on the outskirts of Agartala on Friday. (AFP)

Mumbai: A WhatsApp text circulating in some districts of Madhya Pradesh helped to inflame a mob of 50-60 villagers into savagely beating up two innocent men last week on suspicion that they were going to murder people and sell their body parts.

The essence of the message, written in Hindi, was that 500 people disguised as beggars were roaming the area so that they could kill people to harvest their organs. The message also urged recipients to forward it to friends and family. Police say the message was fake.

Police officers who joined several local WhatsApp groups, found three men circulating the message and they were arrested, said Jayadevan A., the police chief for Balaghat district, where the incident occurred.

This happened just weeks after a WhatsApp text warning of 400 child traffickers arriving in Bangalore led a frenzied mob to lynch a 26-year-old man, a migrant construction worker from another state, on suspicions that he was a kidnapper. He was attacked while he was walking on the road.

So far this year, false messages about child abductors on Facebook-owned WhatsApp have helped to trigger mass beatings of more than a dozen people in India - several of whom have died.

With more than 200 million users in India - WhatsApp's biggest market in the world - false news and videos circulating on the messaging app have become a new headache for social media giant Facebook, already grappling with a privacy scandal.

With over a billion phone subscribers with access to cheap mobile data, false news messages and videos can instantly go viral, creating mass hysteria and stirring up communal tensions.

WhatsApp said it was aware of the incidents in India through media coverage.

"Sadly some people also use WhatsApp to spread harmful misinformation," WhatsApp said in a statement. "We're stepping up our education efforts so that people know about our safety features and how to spot fake news and hoaxes."

Group texts, where fake news spreads most easily, are still a minority: 90 per cent of messages are between two people, and the average group size is six people, according to the messaging platform.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

Two senior Indian government officials told Reuters that New Delhi had engaged with WhatsApp on the issue but they were not allowed to discuss the matter publicly. WhatsApp declined to comment on possible contact with Indian government officials.

The ministries of information technology, home affairs and information and broadcasting did not respond to requests for comment.

A deluge of hoax news incidents may bolster the government's attempts to get social networks to share more user data so that the police can track down those spreading rumours. That concerns privacy advocates who fear the authorities will use such access against activists and political opponents, and not just against those spreading malicious information.

"Government restrictions on dissemination of false news are too often an attempt to shroud government intentions of restricting freedom of expression and criticism," according to David Kaye, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression.

The information and broadcasting ministry has also recently floated a tender for a firm to scrutinise social media posts of users and identify fake news.

"There is a distinct link between fake news and laws being proposed undermining privacy," said Apar Gupta, a co-founder of advocacy Internet Freedom Foundation.