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Recently, there have been a series of horrifying lynchings spurred by fake Whatsapp forwards. How do we combat this murderous epidemic?
Maharashtra woke up recently to the horrifying news of five men being lynched in Dhule.
The victims were wrongly believed to be child abductors, based on Whatsapp forwards doing the rounds. These forwards have encouraged a mob mentality causing people to adopt violent measures over baseless rumours. The original forward, which was a video shot in Pakistan to create awareness about child safety, has been intentionally edited to set this chain in motion.
The forwards contain warning messages about child abductors, kidnappers and child lifters (among others) being on the loose. These messages are sent over groups on WhatsApp or even sent to various contacts in bulk.
Most people receiving these messages send them on to their contacts without going through the trouble of checking the facts. Given the nature of the message, it creates panic among receivers who then feel it their responsibility to make others aware – this leads to a mass panic and since most people receive the forward from a known person, they assume it to be true even if no news channel or local authorities have confirmed it. This panic then causes them to take action when confronted by a situation even remotely resembling the message forwarded. For example, in Assam on June 8th, two men in an SUV were lynched because of a rumour spread on WhatsApp about a child being held captive by two men in a car.
With the advent of social media, news – be it real or fake – spreads like wildfire. We are constantly bombarded by news and don’t have the time to check what is true and what is not, so the easiest thing to do is believe whatever we read. While a few of us may go through the pain of verifying, the majority of us don’t. This makes it very easy for people to fool other people and incite hate and in these cases, violence.
In May, a transgender woman was killed because of forwards stating a group of kidnappers were planning to kidnap a child. A day before this incident, a man who was suffering from mental health problems was killed on account of similar rumours. The two incidents occurred in Hyderabad.
Two weeks ago, about 50 to 60 villagers killed two men in Madhya Pradesh. The rumour through WhatsApp stated that 500 people were in the city disguised as beggars. They were planning to abduct people and harvest their organs to sell.
Policemen joined local WhatsApp groups to identify the source of the rumours. They were successful and arrested the three men responsible.
Another such incident occurred in Bangalore where a 26-year-old man, a migrant construction worker from another state, was killed. The rumour stated that there were 400 child traffickers in the city. A similar incident occurred in Tripura where three people were killed. These people were wrongly assumed to be child abductors.
Just this Sunday, five people – poor agricultural workers – were killed in Dhule, Maharashtra. They were rumoured to be child lifters and were attacked by 40 people. The forwards had been circulating for a good week or two. The police were successful in arresting 23 people who were involved with the incident.
The issue with these WhatsApp forwards are that they are encrypted which means that every conversation between people is confidential. This is great from a normal user’s point of view but it makes it very difficult for the police and WhatsApp itself to trace the origin of the message.
So, the only way to keep people safe is by educating them of such incidents, which is exactly what the police is doing.
Officials have also held gatherings wherein they talk to locals and encourage them to avoid forwarding unverified news and believing in them. They have also started monitoring social media sites along with conducting awareness drives.
Like in Karnataka, the police have set Social Media Control rooms where they monitor feeds, posts, sites, messages, etc. Along with this, they have also issued warning and arrested those who spread the news.
Of course, the main culprit here is the person or people who designs the message and forwards it. But we must recognize the role we play here as well. At the end of the day, the reason these messages get forwarded is because we blindly accept them as the truth. We don’t go through the effort of checking the news with reliable sources.
We’re all connected so if one posts something, chances are four others would have reposted the same within minutes. And then another four would have done the same and so on.
For starters, don’t press the forward button as soon as you are done reading the message. Think. Is this really true? Do some research or just type on Google and find valid articles on reputed news sites. If not that, make use of sites that have been created to catch or verify fake news.
One such site is AltNews, an Indian fact checking website. It claims to be an ‘antidote’ to fake news on social media. You can type in keywords and the site offers a set of articles, debunking fake news. This site was created by Pratik Sinha, a former software engineer.
Another site is TinEye. This works for images that do rounds on social media. One has to upload the image in question and the sites runs a search wherein it tells us where the image was used before and from where it originated. Google Images does the same, it’s known as ‘reverse search’. Something similar to TinEye is InVid. It works the same way but its used for videos.
Other sites that can be used to identify fake news is SM Hoax Slayer as well as BBC’s Reality Check (this is more of a general myth buster).
India is WhatsApp’s largest market with over 200 million users. There are crores of messages sent back and forth every day. These messages often are forwards that are used by people to incite hate and violence. WhatsApp is making an effort to get this under control by making people aware of its safety features and educating them on fake news.
We must also make a conscious effort to not believe everything we read and make it a habit to question the news we consume.
Top image is of Nilotpal Das, one of the innocent young men killed in Assam based on such suspicions. The image was used in prayers and remembrance events for him.
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