For several days, messages warning about child-lifters on the prowl had pinged on smartphones in Rainpada, a tribal hamlet in Dhule district, 400 km northwest of Mumbai. Then, on July 1, the villagers saw a group of seven tribal nomads from the Davri Gosavi community speaking to a child. A group of around 20 locals, certain these were the child-lifters the WhatsApp video had warned of, pounced on them and began beating them before locking them up in the local gram panchayat office. Two men managed to flee.
Soon after, a mob numbering in the hundreds- most had converged on Rainpada from adjacent villages for the weekly market- broke into the office and beat up Bharat Bhosale, Dadarao Bhosale, Bharat Malve, Appa Ingole and Raju Bhosale using whatever they could find- rods, sticks, stones and logs of wood. Two police officers who arrived on the scene and tried to intervene were also attacked. Bharat, Raju and Dadarao died on the spot. Malve and Appa succumbed to their injuries en route to the hospital.
The Dhule incident was only the latest in the series of WhatsApp-transmitted lynchings across the country this year leading to the deaths of 30 people. If technology is a double-edged sword, India felt its sharp edge, the high-speed network’s ability to misinform and inflame. Sixteen such cases have been reported since May 10, from Maharashtra to Tripura.
On June 28, Sukanta Chakraborty, a village crier hired by the Tripura government to dispel misinformation about child-lifters harvesting organs, was lynched by a mob. Earlier, on June 10, two youths from Guwahati were attacked by a mob in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district and beaten to death.
Karnataka alone has seen seven incidents in the past three months. The last took place in Bengaluru where a mob tied Kaluram, 27, to a pole and beat him to death. The migrant worker from Rajasthan caught the attention of self-styled vigilantes because he had been distributing sweets to children in the city’s Chamarajpet area. In the last three years, it was cow protection vigilantes attacking traders for transporting cattle and beef, leading to the murders of 50 people. This year, the mobs have followed another horribly morbid script- attacking and beating strangers to death based on rumours and hearsay on WhatsApp.
Indeed, each incident feels like a field test that demonstrated the ability of the platform to turn into a weapon delivering chaos across the country. The media messenger’s ubiquitous nature and relative anonymity when compared to other social media make it easier to spread inflammatory content and target social cohesion. “This is a strategic threat,” says Pavithran Rajan, an information warfare expert and former military officer. “India is particularly vulnerable because of our numerous linguistic, ethnic, religious, caste faultlines which can easily be accentuated and inflamed by ‘weaponised’ memes spread via social media.”
Waiting around the corner are still more lethal tools in this disinformation war- deep-fake videos- that use face-mapping and AI tools to make people appear to say things they never did. In Kashmir, WhatsApp has become the primary tool for mobilisation and recruitment, especially in the months following the July 2016 death of Hizbul Mujahideen leader Burhan Wani in an encounter with security forces (see Kashmir’s Cauldron of Hate).
There has to be a rational application of the law and its provisions, and within the limits intended and not to stifle free speech. Extending the law would result in a witch-hunt. Exercise of punitive action should be done with caution and against the actual culprits.
The geographical spread of these messages has made the ministry of electronics and information technology (MEITY) sit up and take notice. On July 2, the ministry asked the Facebook-owned company to contain the spread of “irresponsible and explosive messages”. It said it had taken “serious note of these irresponsible messages and their circulation on such platforms” and that “deep disapproval of such developments has been conveyed to the senior management of WhatsApp and they have been advised that necessary remedial measures should be taken to prevent proliferation of these fake and, at times, motivated/ sensational images”.
WhatsApp, in a press statement released on July 4, said it was “horrified by these terrible acts of violence” and detailed a series of safeguards it was planning to instal on its app to prevent their misuse followed by a public service ad campaign and full-page notices in national dailies.
THE MISINFORMATION WAR
India accounts for nearly a fourth of WhatsApp’s 1 billion global users. Each day, over 200 million users wake up and hunch over their smartphones to exchange ‘Good Morning’ greetings, pictures, videos and messages. It is a powerful communication tool used by governments and citizens to instantly disseminate information to multiple recipients, thanks to its ability to support group chats. It also comes at a time when India is awash in fake news, ranging from the absurd to the sulphurous, with messages often routinely forwarded without their veracity being checked.
Misinformation acquires a life of its own on WhatsApp mainly because, like in other popular social media platforms, people mistake it as a source of news rather than just an information-sharing platform. The most worrying aspect in the case of the child-lifting videos, says Pratik Sinha, founder of fact-checking site Alt News, is that the same videos are doing the rounds with only minor changes in names and context, indicating a possible weaponisation of these messages. “In Gujarat, the messages are in Gujarati, in Odisha, people are warned about outsiders from ‘Bihar and Jharkhand’. This is atypical behaviour as far as misinformation is concerned and suggests there is actual human involvement in changing the descriptions of these videos,” he says. Alt News discovered, for instance, that one of the incendiary child-lifting videos was actually a public awareness message by a Pakistani NGO showing a re-enactment of a kidnapping, cleverly spliced to induce panic about child-lifters on the loose (indeed, in Maharashtra, the clip was edited with a message in Marathi).
Some of the paranoia is also because crimes against children are on the rise. The National Crime Records Bureau says there were 92,172 reported incidents of crimes against children in 2015, a 300 per cent increase in just six years (since 2009). But strangely, most areas where the lynchings occurred have not reported cases of child kidnappings. Why then did the videos spark such mob frenzy? “Children and particularly atrocities against them arouse the strongest emotions in people. The loss of a child is stronger than the loss of a spouse,” says Mumbai-based psychiatrist Dr Harish Shetty.
Left unchecked, the long-term impact of false news could be deleterious. “Psychological warfare is fought by using social media as a weapon of cognitive hacking, like fake news,” says Dr Manas K. Mandal, military psychologist and former head of the DRDO’s Life Sciences Division. “Over a period of time, this could lead to decrements in logical decision-making, increase in collective anxiety in people and a tendency to de-individuate themselves with the mob. Once it reaches breaking point, mass panic kicks in, leading to various forms of untoward events and social pathology.”
The concern over the viral videos coincides with a convergence of trends that have fuelled hyperconnectivity. An explosive growth of smartphones, the spread of 4G into the hinterland and the nature of the platform itself have aided in the spread of misinformation. The Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) estimates that the number of mobile internet users in India will touch 478 million this year- 187 million of them in rural areas. Affordable services, faster connectivity and cheaper smartphones have fuelled this change. Indeed, smartphone use is growing annually by 18.6 per cent in India’s urban areas and 15 per cent in rural areas, the highest in the world, mostly due to tumbling handset costs and intense competition among telecom service providers. A low-cost feature phone now costs less than Rs 2,500.
Privacy is a fundamental right, which has to be upheld by the state. Without data localisation, our laws will not work. We need to ensure that data generated by Indians stays in India.
And WhatsApp has become everyone’s preferred social media platform. Ever since the mobile messaging platform was launched by Jan Koum and Brian Acton, two Yahoo engineers, it has grown in popularity in India, grabbing a first-mover advantage over other rivals like Telegram and Snapchat. What makes WhatsApp messages hard to track is the fact that the application uses end-to-end encryption, which thwarts police and cyber investigators who want to track the source of messages or how many times they were forwarded (see graphic: Why WhatsApp Messages Can’t be Tracked). And also, unlike other social media, they are hard to track, regulate and control. When riots hit western UP in 2013, for instance, police clamped down on the fake videos on Facebook and the internet, but they had no way of controlling their spread via WhatsApp.
Last year, authorities in various states shut down the internet and 3G services 70 times. In the first six months of the year, the internet was shut down 65 times, mainly to control the spread of rumours during breakdowns of law and order. This will not work in the current scenario as lynchings take place even before the police have had time to react. “A message is viral on so many numbers that one can’t go to each user and verify the number of the sender. Self-regulation is the only way out,” says Brijesh Singh, special inspector general who heads the Maharashtra police’s cybercrime cell. But self-regulation is hardly a solution to such clearly malevolent social media campaigns.
On July 3, the Supreme Court ruled that it was the duty of the state to maintain law and order in cases of mob lynching and vigilantism. The government, though, has refused to consider an anti-lynching law despite a clamour for the same. Indeed, last week, Union MoS for civil aviation Jayant Sinha felicitated eight persons who had been accused of lynching a meat trader for getting bail.
The states, meanwhile, have begun implementing preventive measures to tackle the spread of false news online. On June 25, the Rajasthan police began a public awareness campaign hashtagged #FakeNews highlighting the misuse of social media and teaching people how to identify misinformation. The Karnataka police’s social media cell monitors social media forums to scrutinise messages which could cause societal unrest. The Bengaluru police, with over 1 million followers, now routinely posts messages against circulating fake messages.
But WhatsApp’s ubiquity cannot explain the violence it triggers. What would make seemingly common folk turn into teeth-gnashing monsters who beat strangers to pulp? Like, in the Karbi-Anglong lynching where one of Abhijeet’s killers even answered the dying youth’s phone, “We’ve killed him, see the papers tomorrow.”
Psychiatrists say the mob lynchings are a manifestation of a deeper malaise, an era of disconnection where social media has become a substitute for real interaction. Behind the urge to forward unverified content is a person seeking a reward in being the first to tell a story. “There is disenchantment, anger and disconnection,” says Mumbai-based psychiatrist Dr Harish Shetty. “WhatsApp has given an instant connect and when they see something there, they don’t wait for a stimulus to reach the pre-frontal cortex (the brain region that relates to decision-making and moderating social behaviour). They simply act in a primeval sort of way. They are also shielded by the anonymity of the lynch mob,” he says.
The fact is that other social media are also used to stoke and celebrate violence and the state has done little about this. YouTube videos of gau raksha violence and other public beatings are an old and continuing phenomenon. The Indian state’s (central or provincial) message on this issue is problematic to say the least: wavering between inaction, mild punishment and felicitating perpetrators.
THE BLAME GAME
At the heart of the current debate over false news on WhatsApp lie multiple issues of privacy, culpability and liability, all of which will be closely scrutinised in the months ahead. Will the government’s outrage over WhatsApp, for instance, extend into its new data protection bill which is in the works? On May 25 this year, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, among the world’s toughest data protection laws, came into effect.
The GDPR’s next big privacy push will be aimed at over-the-top messaging (OTT) apps like WhatsApp and Skype. The new rules, it is believed, will treat them like traditional telecom companies and make it tougher for these apps to profile their users. But this may only deepen the problem of inflammatory messaging by shielding the creators and disseminators even better.
Experts say it would be disingenuous to blame WhatsApp for the violence in India because Section 79 of the Information Technology Act does not make the intermediary (in this case the messaging app) liable for third party information or messages sent out by users. “The core issue is that lynchings are a law enforcement issue and not a platform issue. False information is not illegal, breaking the law is,” says Nikhil Pahwa, digital rights activist and founder editor of Medianama, a portal which covers digital and telecom businesses in India.
But Pawan Duggal, Supreme Court advocate and president, Cyberlaw Asia, argues that the existing IT Act predates the advent of social media. “We desperately need new India-specific laws that will tackle challenges thrown up by social media and OTT applications like WhatsApp,” he says.
Experts say government and law enforcement authorities face a dilemma in enforcing the law against messaging and social media platforms. “On the one hand, the platform could claim immunity as it is only an intermediary. On the other, the platform is what provides the opportunity for abuse. These companies also seek protection based on territoriality,” says N.S. Nappinai, a Supreme Court lawyer who specialises in cyber laws.
Awareness that spreading such information could cause harm to life might work as a preventive measure. Also the fact that there are no safe harbours for persons actually disseminating such content. While existing provisions of the Information Technology Act and the IPC are sufficient to deal with such incidents, it is only when the law is seen to be effective that it also acts as a deterrent.
“There has to be rational application of the law and its provisions- within the limits that it was intended and not to stifle free speech. Expanding the law too much would result in a witch-hunt. While such acts of violence are clearly abhorrent, exercise of punitive action should also be done with caution and against the actual culprits,” says Nappinai.
Globally, social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook are coming under increasing pressure to regulate the spread of fake news being disseminated on their platforms and on privacy concerns.
On July 11, Facebook was fined £500,000 by the UK information commissioner’s office for failing to protect users’ information in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. On July 8, the Google-owned YouTube announced a $25 million fund to support news organisations and earlier, in March this year, Google announced a $300 million Google News initiative to help media companies with quality journalism.
Experts say the misinformation on WhatsApp is a problem that eludes a silver bullet solution, but it is nevertheless incumbent upon the platform provider to instal safeguards to prevent misuse. WhatsApp has responded with a detailed statement on what it was doing to curtail the spread of misinformation on its platform. These include spotting accounts sending out large volumes of messages and restricting them.
The messaging app also announced it would start marking all forwarded messages as ‘Forwarded’. ‘We believe that false news, misinformation and the spread of hoaxes are issues best tackled collectively: by government, civil society and technology companies working together,’ WhatsApp added. That’s one message that needs to go viral.
-With Kiran D. Tare, Rohit Parihar, Romita Datta, Aravind Gowda and Jeemon Jacob