NEW DELHI: Five people were killed by a mob in India on Sunday after rumors spread on social media that they were child traffickers, the latest in a string of lynchings tied to fake social media messages that have left officials stunned and grappling with ways to control the rising violence.
More than a dozen people have been killed across India since May in violence fueled mainly by messages on the WhatsApp service. The cases largely feature villagers, some of whom may be using smartphones for the first time. Inflamed by fake warnings of child trafficking rings or organ harvesters, they have attacked innocent bystanders and beaten them to death.
Governments around the world are considering laws and controls against fake news in the wake of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the rise of hate speech. Such reactions have raised free-speech concerns. But the spread of fake news, a global scourge, has been particularly pernicious in India, where legions of new, inexperienced smartphone users send billions of messages a day on WhatsApp, which has more than 200 million users in India, its largest market.
As the centre weighs what to do, local authorities have been left to tackle fake news as best they can, issuing warnings and employing low-tech methods such as hiring street performers and “rumor busters” to visit villages to spread public awareness. One such “rumor buster” was killed by a mob Thursday in the eastern state of Tripura.
“We are trying to counter the misinformation by aggressive campaigning on social media, WhatsApp and local TV channels,” said M Ramkumar, the superintendent of police in Maharashtra’s Dhule district. It was there that five nomadic beggars were beaten to death Sunday by villagers, who thought they were child kidnappers.
“We want to convey the message that all rumors are false and they should not fall prey to them,” Mr Ramkumar said.
In recent days, officials of WhatsApp – owned by Facebook and based in Menlo Park, California – have introduced a new function that allows administrators of groups to control which members can post messages, and the company is testing a plan to label which messages are forwards. WhatsApp is expanding outreach in India as its 2019 general election looms and political parties are signing up “WhatsApp warriors” by the thousands – who, in some cases, spread incendiary content themselves.
“WhatsApp is working to make it clear when users have received forwarded information and provide controls to group administrators to reduce the spread of unwanted messages in private chats,” said a spokesman for WhatsApp, Carl Woog.