After vigilante mob attacks in India were inspired by text and images falsely accusing people of kidnapping children, many of which spread via WhatsApp, that company has announced new features meant to decrease the circulation and effects of misinformation. WhatsApp will indicate which messages have been forwarded to users and will insert a red label reading “suspicious link” to messages with character combinations that suggest spam, or false, inflammatory content. To try to slow the spread of Dangerous Speech and other harmful content, WhatsApp will allow users to forward a particular message to no more than 20 chats, or groups.
WhatsApp is only the latest among several tech companies that have come under fire for Dangerous Speech on their platforms, i.e. content that seems to have inspired killings and other violence. There’s an increasing consensus that such content contributes to offline violence – but it’s also important to note that the causal relationship is not clear in most cases, including the lynchings in India. Certainly, it takes more to assemble a murderous mob than, for example, a message sent on WhatsApp.
In most of these cases, the content is totally false – like much Dangerous Speech in general. Other internet companies, such as Facebook, are beginning to react with new policies to try to curb content that is both false and dangerous.
WhatsApp’s new rules are more restrictive in India, where terrifying messages suggested, for example, that kidnappers would “smash skulls and devour brains” of children. Indians will be allowed to forward messages to only five different chats. And at recent meetings between WhatsApp and Facebook executives, Indian government officials, and NGO representatives, misinformation was the “top priority.”
The WhatsApp efforts are in response to a wave of attacks by vigilante mobs in India in recent years, and especially in recent weeks – following a variety of false assertions online. Rumors of child kidnapping have inspired a series of attacks since January 2017, in which 33 people were murdered – 23 in the last two months. Since 2015, after rumors circulated online that people – usually Muslims or Dalits – had eaten beef or slaughtered cows, which are considered sacred to many Hindus, people who had seen or heard the rumors killed 34, sometimes after lashing the victims to trees or utility poles, and beating them severely.
Most of the people were tortured and killed on mere suspicion alone – without any evidence that they had laid a hand on a cow or a child. The rumors were both dangerous and false, in other words.
Whether WhatsApp’s recent updates will help prevent further attacks is unknown. Is it clear, though, that WhatsApp is used very widely in India, including for the rapid, widespread, and anonymous circulation of false and vivid rumors. WhatsApp is used by over 200 million people in India – 15% of the country’s population – who send 13.7 billion messages every day. By forwarding WhatsApp messages, those 200 million people can swiftly extend the reach of rumors that neither WhatsApp nor the authorities can see, no matter how dangerous they are, since WhatsApp sends messages from one user to another in encrypted (encoded) form.
Fortunately, Indians are not leaving the problem entirely to WhatsApp. On a grassroots level, Indian Police Service officer Rema Rajeshwari has been campaigning against kidnapping rumors in her state of Telangana. So far, Rajeshwari has ordered trainings for police officers on fighting fake news, initiated closer relationships between local police and community leaders, and recruited a travelling group of traditional musicians who sing about the dangers of fake news and of taking violence into one’s own hands. Lecturing alongside her traveling band, Rajeshwari recommends that communities invite local police officers to their WhatsApp groups, so that the police may dispel rumors before they get out of hand. In the 400 villages under her jurisdiction, there have been no murders attributed to social media rumors, since she started her campaign.
Government bodies are also responding in various ways. Earlier this month, the Indian Supreme Court issued an 11-point prescription for policy and enforcement changes; its recommendations include requiring police to disperse mobs and report people who disseminate rumors, and requiring lower courts to issue maximum penalties for participants in mob violence. On a state level, the government of Tripura has attempted both preventative and reactive tactics. Their Information and Cultural Affairs department hired a team of “rumour busters” tasked with traveling throughout the state and warning people about false rumors; unfortunately, one such rumor buster, named Sukanta Chakrabarty, was murdered by another mob on June 28 (though it is not clear exactly why he was targeted). In an immediate response, the Tripura government tried another approach that no doubt had many harmful consequences – shutting off all internet and SMS services for the entire state for 48 hours. The Director General of Police noted in a release obtained by Outlook India that the services were being “widely used for transmission of fake images, videos and text messages which have the potential to incite violence in the state.” Internet and SMS shutoffs like this may interrupt rumor-mongering temporarily, but their implications for freedom of expression are serious.
Another strategy is to debunking rumors when they appear online. In India, three prominent anti-misinformation sites work against fake news and rumors, largely on a voluntary basis: Altnews.in, SM Hoax Slayer, and Check4Spam. After investigating stories they encounter online, each site provides details of where the stories originated, and whether they are true. But this tactic does not come without limitations. In India, like in many countries, people’s first experiences with the internet are often on their phone through apps like WhatsApp. Users may therefore be more likely to trust what they see in WhatsApp messages, and not likely to take the extra step to search for verification elsewhere. Furthermore, these anti-misinformation sites operate on a minute scale compared to the amount of traffic on WhatsApp in India, and on the internet in general. Lastly, internet platforms and mobile phone applications are, of course, not the only way for rumors and misinformation to circulate.
In several cases of attacks based on rumors, doctored images and videos shared online circulated widely in the time preceding violent outbreaks. After five men were lynched in the city of Dhule in Maharashtra, police told the Indian Express that three particular videos had been circulated among people in the area. One of the three contains disturbing footage of a child abduction. The abduction, however, is fictional – it was filmed for a Pakistani NGO’s awareness campaign about kidnapping, but the doctored video omits the NGO’s message. Another video shows corpses of Syrian children killed in a nerve gas attack in 2013 – but was falsely identified as footage of Indian children whose organs were to be harvested.
So far, it appears as if authorities have been unable to determine who has been producing the falsified videos or any other doctored media behind kidnapping rumors. However, Indian officials have arrested numerous suspects for participation in the mob attacks, including some who spread rumors on WhatsApp. Last week Manoj Patil, a farmer from Bidar district in Karnataka, India, was arrested for sending a WhatsApp message in which he accused four men he saw in his village of being “child-lifters.” Just 30 minutes after he sent the message to WhatsApp users in nearby villages, a mob mobilized which stopped the men’s car, beat them, and killed one of the four, a man named Mohammed Azam Ahmed. Although the near-immediacy of this case is striking, it is again extremely difficult to ascribe a causal relationship to Patil’s Whatsapp message. Patil’s WhatsApp message was one of numerous factors between the accusation, the mob’s mobilization, and the murder.
It may seem surprising that easily-disproved rumors have the power to motivate mob killings, however that power rests in the fact that the rumors appeal to very significant values. In cases of violence perpetrated by so-called “cow protectors” against people rumored to have slaughtered cows or eaten beef, rumors appeal to a reverence for cows held by many Indian Hindus. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government have encouraged and reinforced such beliefs as traditional Hindu ones, since he took office in 2014. Already in his campaign for office, Modi decried what he termed the “pink revolution,” i.e. the growth in beef production in India. According to Human Rights Watch, the growth of the “cow protection” movement (which includes both nonviolent protest against bovine slaughter and violent mob attacks) is tied to Hindu extremist groups allied with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and who target minority populations, especially Muslims and Dalits.
Such ideas are also reflected in law: In the majority of Indian states, bovine slaughter is prohibited, with punishments including jail time. Last summer, the national government attempted to ban the sale of cows for slaughter at animal markets, though the Supreme Court suspended the law.. Just as rumors of bovine slaughter inflame tensions based on appeals to Hindu spiritual and cultural values, rumors concerning kidnapped children appeal to an almost universal value – that adults must protect their children and those of their community. Those who circulate messages containing rumors may mostly be people with genuine, heartfelt concerns, and those intentionally falsifying information about kidnapping likely know how powerful such misinformation is. By fomenting fear of alleged kidnappers who seem to threaten children, propagandists lend an excuse to those perpetrating violent attacks: they can be seen as acting in virtuous defense of their communities’ smallest and most vulnerable members.
Not surprisingly, given how effective it is, propagandists from many countries and cultures use stories of violence against children. In Al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine and the Islamic State’s Dabiq and Rumiyah, both terrorist organizations routinely use stories (real or manufactured) of children killed by Western military actions. Rwandan genocide perpetrators also recounted stories of Tutsi violence against Hutu children, about contemporary Tutsi soldiers as well as about Tutsi leaders from the distant or mythical past. Another mythical and widespread example is that of ‘blood libel’: the claim that Jews used the blood of Christians – especially children – for religious rituals centuries ago. Stories such as these – and stories about children’s kidnappers – rouse deeply emotional reactions of fear, outrage, and make people feel threatened by members of other groups. In the case of India’s kidnapping rumors, threats are further amplified when rumors tell of roving gangs covertly infiltrating villages – an imminent threat lurking right under communities’ noses.
Like Brazil, Nigeria, the United States, and many other countries, India will have significant elections within the next year in which mis-/disinformation may play a major role – either online or offline. In these important countrywide events, shutting off communications or limiting free expression may have disastrous consequences. But by coordinating with local communities and the web services they use, governments like India’s could be able to establish a provisional solution.
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