#OPINION: Recent killings in India prove that WhatsApp fuels lynch mobs
Some time in July in the town of Dhule, located in the west Indian state of Maharashtra, five men accused of being child lifters were lynched due to a rumour spread on the messaging platform WhatsApp.
The police team that reached the place where the lynching was taking place were confronted by hundreds of angry villagers.
The police tried to plead with the angry mob that two of the survivors should be allowed to live, but they found them beyond reason. Consumed by murderous hate, the mob continued to beat them with sticks and iron rods till they had satisfied themselves they were dead.
The victims were nomads who had been visiting the village for years. They not only had nothing to do with child lifting, but also did not really fit into the description of those shown in the WhatsApp message. This did not deter the people baying for the blood of those they believed were kidnapping children and selling their body organs.
As has been the trend for the past few years, the lynching was recorded on cellphone cameras and their grisly images of torture and violence forwarded to a world of millions who do not question text or visuals before consuming them. Finally, fake is as real as real can be. Tragically, this fake news stokes passion, kills innocent people and shapes politics.
Not just in Dhule, but also in other parts of India, village communities have taken the law into their own hands to lynch 20 strangers in the past month. In June in the northeast part of India, a person mandated by the government to raise awareness on fake news peddled by WhatsApp was also not spared.
Despite his desperate pleadings, he was killed by the villagers who believed he was a child lifter. Earlier, two young men who were heading out to a waterfall in their SUV were dragged out of their vehicle and killed. A friend who called their phone heard a voice inform him that they had killed him and that he can watch his friend’s death on the TV the next day. It is clear the lynch gang was confident the video that had been shot on the cellphone will not just be WhatsApped, but also sent to the local TV station.
Interestingly, the victims of these latest rounds of lynchings are mostly Hindus.
The authorities have been blaming WhatsApp forwards for this spike in violence. Indian law-enforcement agencies have asked Facebook, that also owns this messaging platform, to find ways to prevent dissemination of these fake videos that spread hatred and lead to mob violence. WhatsApp, which has 200 million users in India, has promised to prevent the spread of hate messages, but could be confronted with a serious dilemma as many of the lynching cases in India in the past few years represent the point where politics, sociology and history intersect with each other.
For instance, the lynching of Muslims for consuming beef or trading in it by cow vigilantes has not elicited a trenchant response. Furthermore, civil aviation minister Jayant Sinha and some governing party MPs have stepped out to support those involved in the lynching of a Muslim in the state of Jharkhand.
Sinha, in fact, garlanded them after they were released on bail. The dilemma for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Delhi that has the support of the Hindu lunatic fringe would be to tell the messaging platform what kind of rumours peddled through WhatsApp forwards were fine and what were not.
This is a question that is unlikely to find a response, but WhatsApp is the vector that is used by different political parties to send out audio and video messages. There is an acknowledgement among political parties that the messaging platform is being used to shape the perception of an individual in a manner that may not be possible in the case of Facebook or Twitter.
Many of those who get a WhatsApp forward take it to be the gospel truth as it falls into their inbox.
What is apparent is that it would take more from the Indian government to request WhatsApp to filter hate from the messages to end this spiral of rumours and lynching that have blighted India’s landscape.