Lynchings sparked by WhatsApp child-kidnap rumours sweep across India
WhatsApp cracks down on fake content after at least 18 deaths are linked to rumours spread on platform
WhatsApp is introducing new features to curb the spread of rumours, fake messages and doctored videos within its platform, after a fierce demand by the Indian government this week.
"The use, abuse, (and) misuse of your platform, particularly, which leads to killing of innocent people is plainly not acceptable," India's Minister of Electronics and IT told WhatsApp on Wednesday.
At least 18 people have been killed this year in separate incidents when false information shared through the app fuelled violent mobs to attack innocent people. Most of the rumours warn of child abductors.
Mass protests have followed, yet the vigilante-style attacks have continued.
Beggars suspected of child abduction
On Friday, three men at a railway station in the northeastern district of Assam were rescued by the army from a possible lynching. They were surrounded by hundreds mistaking them for possible child abductors.
According to a report in the Hindustan Times, the men were begging for alms and at one point, appeared to have been speaking to a child. The Times spoke to an officer from nearby Pimpalner village, charged with the investigation.
"Although there was no child kidnapping case recorded with Pimpalner police, there was a rumour in the village and its surrounding areas about an active child kidnapping gang," he said. "This is a tribal area, and any stranger or outsider is viewed with suspicion."
Early last week, five men were beaten to death on similar suspicions in Dhule district of Maharashtra, a western state.
Hundreds from around the local village joined in, first beating the men with stones and sticks, some filming it on their cellphones, before taking them into a confined room and brutally assaulting them. At least 24 people have been arrested in connection to the attack.
Tracing the origin of child abduction rumours
In India, with more than 200 million WhatsApp users, the service has become a primary source of news and information.
But distorted information spreads fast, as was the case with a particular public service video about child kidnapping that originated from Pakistan. The video, styled like CCTV footage, shows two men pull up on a motorcycle in front of a group of children. They snatch a child and drive away. They come back, then hold up a sign that warns parents just how quickly a child could be kidnapped.
In another lynching in Assam in early June, two men stopping to ask for directions were assumed to be the child kidnappers from the video. A doctored version of that video, cropped to end right after the child was snatched and the men ride away, made it seem like footage of an actual incident. They were lynched by an angry mob.
Watch the original public-service video involving the mock abduction of a child from a sidewalk:
Timeline: Deaths linked to WhatsApp rumours
A migrant worker is lynched in Uttar Pradesh after being suspected of kidnapping
- A man in Tamil Nadu was killed after being seen wandering aimlessly through the streets
- A man with mental health issues was killed after being accused of being a member of a kidnapping gang in Hyderabad
- A 55-year-old woman was lynched after offering sweets to children
- A man in Andhra Pradesh is lynched after speaking Hindi, not the local language, Telugu
- A transgender woman was killed in Hyderabad by angry locals suspecting her of being a child trafficker
- A man in Bangalore is tied up and beaten to death by a mob with cricket bats
- Two men travelling in a SUV were killed in Assam after stopping to ask for directions after villagers spread rumours that they were hiding a child in the vehicle
- An activist hired by the state of Tripura to drive around with a loudspeaker and warn communities of fake rumours was killed by a mob, along with two others
- A merchant in Tripura is murdered by a 300-person mob after selling goods in the state for 20 years
- A beggar woman is killed after she and two others are beaten with sticks in Gujarat
- A rickshaw driver in Hyderabad is killed after being mobbed in front of his home after a social media rumour
- Five men are killed while visiting a neighbouring rural district in Maharashtra
WhatsApp outlines plan of action in a statement
WhatsApp issued a statement saying, "like the government, we're horrified by these terrible acts of violence," and that they want to prevent misuse of its service.
The statement reiterated the tools available to its users, including the ability to block or report someone that has sent you a message and is not already in your address book. In India specifically, WhatsApp are testing a new label that highlights when a message has been forwarded rather than composed by the sender.
It has even reportedly offered a $50,000 reward for anyone who can come up with ideas to tackle this issue.
However, the platform's own strict privacy rules and encryption technology pose a unique challenge when it comes to stopping the spread of misinformation.
WhatsApp says that while messages within its platform can go viral, its platform is still private.
The company has enlisted the help of Boom Live, a Mumbai-based organization that works to track down and debunk fake posts. Boom Live was first to debunk the child kidnapping public service video that led to the incident in Assam.
Founder Govindraj Ethiraj says that, although WhatsApp appears to be the vehicle behind the hoax messages, he isn't convinced the social media platform is entirely to blame for the violence.
"It's fundamentally a societal issue and law enforcement issue that needs to be tackled as such," he says.
Ethiraj agrees it is tough to monitor hoaxes that circulate in villages or within specific groups, and even more difficult to trace the origin of a video once it goes viral.
How to fact-check violent messages?
"It's next to impossible for someone like us who is sitting in [Mumbai] and trying to fact-check violent messages."
The quick turn to violence baffles Ethiraj.
"It literally is in a few hours ... when the first messages start, spreads quickly, and some unfortunate soul wandering there — or already living there — becomes the target for whatever reason," he says.
"What do you do when a group of people who otherwise don't have any criminal background get together and become a raging mob and start beating up people? How do you address that?"
Local authorities in some parts of the country are doing their part to prevent the attacks. Police in the southern city of Hyderabad have set up a WhatsApp destination where people can send posts they suspect are fake or doctored.
The deputy commissioner charged with the investigation of the incidents in Assam, told the Times of India: "We have asked people not to take the law into their own hands and report to us if they come across anything suspicious."
The state of Tripura hired a local activist, Sukanta Chakraborty, to drive through villages with a loudspeaker, debunking fears that a gang of child kidnappers were on the loose.
Then, on June 29, Chakraborty and two others were beaten to death by a mob. Multiple reports suggest the mob was angry at the men for downplaying what they perceived as the real threat of child kidnapping in the area.
Watch the full CBC News report: