Fake News: The Poison of Forwards

Saurabh Singh
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Fake news going viral on WhatsApp has resulted in several deaths across India. Can it be stopped?

THE POLICE CONSTABLE had something strange to report to his district chief. In 20 years of service in these parts in Telangana, he had never witnessed it before. Situated over 200 km from Hyderabad, the Jogulamba Gadwal district has recently been carved out of Telangana’s Mahabubnagar district. Accessible from the Hyderabad-Bengaluru national highway, the district comprises 194 villages and 65 tribal hamlets.

In March this year, when Rema Rajeshwari took over as the police chief of this district and the neighbouring Wanaparthy, she asked constables of her rural police stations to take charge of three villages each and interact every week with people there. It is from one such area that the constable reported a new development: nobody in the villages he visited was sleeping outside his or her home at night, as is the norm in summers. Upon inquiry, a police team returned with dozens of videos and images that had made their way into the smartphones of villagers.

Jogulamba Gadwal is a backward district. It has a literacy rate of about 50 per cent (against Telangana’s 66.5 per cent); but with cheap Chinese mobiles and cheaper data packages, everyone has access to the internet. In one particularly alarming video clip, a man was seen surrounded by a mob of 15-20 people with his organs being pulled out. The accompanying voice message, in Telugu, said that the man was a member of a notorious criminal gang that was active in these areas. This fear, the police found, had prompted the villagers to sleep indoors.

By April, Rajeshwari’s team reported scores of such troublesome videos and images: dismembered bodies of children, clips claiming that child flesh was being sold as regular meat in the marketplace, and other grim videos accompanied by the advice that child lifters, wherever spotted, should be killed on sight.

Similar messages doing the rounds of villages and towns and cities across India on WhatsApp have resulted in over 30 deaths of innocent people this year. The country had an estimated 200 million active WhatsApp users at last count. In the next three years, India is projected add another 300 million users of the internet to the 369 million in existence today. Thanks to inexpensive technology, most of them will land up on WhatsApp.

Till recently, it was a platform used by friends and family to send harmless greetings, or real or fake quotes from religious leaders, or poets, or quack health remedies revolving around natural products such as turmeric or bitter gourd. But now with fake messages prodding people to kill imaginary criminals as a way to protect themselves, it appears to have become a lethal device that has already taken several lives.

In parts of Jharkhand, one such fake message that went viral said a weapon-wielding gang had arrived with women and children as its members. Other reports suggested a beggar travelling from Bihar to Jharkhand was caught with hundreds of human bodies from which vital organs like livers and kidneys had been removed. In Karnataka, a man could be seen in a widely-forwarded video claiming that his gang had 400 members working across the state to kidnap children. Widely circulated messages like these have generated fear and panic in many parts of the state.

On July 15th, this psychosis resulted in the death of Mohammed Azam Usmansab, an infotech engineer from Hyderabad, who had come to visit a village along with his friends in the state’s Bidar district. Mistaking them to be child lifters, a mob chased their car on motorcycles and lynched him, while the police rescued the others. In West Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district, four women were recently assaulted on suspicion of being child lifters and two of them disrobed by a mob. It was the district’s fourth such attack.

On July 21st, in Madhya Pradesh’s Singrauli district, a woman was killed on similar suspicions. On July 1st, five innocent people from a nomadic community were lynched in Maharashtra’s Dhule district. Police reports say the mob was so furious that they wanted to burn the bodies of the victims.

One of the videos that fed into these rumours came from Karachi, Pakistan; it was part of a media drive to educate people to keep an eye on their children and safeguard them from kidnappers. In Karachi, the video has helped reunite ten children with their families. But in India, where the message was relayed without its original context, it has had an adverse impact. “These messages have triggered a terrible ‘fear for the other’ syndrome,” says Rema Rajeshwari. “Since most of such messages come from friends and relatives, most people tend to believe them.”

In Jogulamba Gadwal, thanks to police intervention, several lives have been saved in the past four months. In one case, two folk singers who missed the last bus to their home in neighbouring Wanaparthy district and decided to spend the night under a banyan tree on the outskirts of a village, were saved. The incident followed police instructions to Gram Panchayat members to report any suspicious movement instead of taking the law into their own hands.

“It took my team three hours to convince a mob of hundreds of villagers that these women were not child lifters but folk singers. We had to send their Aadhaar card details on WhatsApp and show it to irate villagers,” says Rajeshwari.

Such rumours are also floated to settle personal scores. In May, Jetti Yadaiah from Gadwal found that his photo and those of two friends had been doing social media rounds along with a voice message identifying them as child lifters. The message said they should be killed immediately if spotted. A panic-stricken Yadaiah contacted the police, and an investigation revealed that two juveniles who had fallen out with Yadaiah were behind the fake forward that had gone viral in a matter of hours.

In most cases, however, nobody knows who creates and sends such messages. In Telangana, many users, especially in rural areas like Gadwal, use other apps such as ShareChat to send innocuous content like locally-made music videos or jokes. But sometimes, deadly fake videos also show up, which users can then share through WhatsApp. ShareChat is popular in regional languages, with Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Punjabi as some of its linguistic markets. But now with people getting killed over fake news across India, it has begun to introduce measures to weed out such content. “We have a dedicated team in Bengaluru that is on the lookout for such dangerous videos appearing on our platform, which are then removed immediately,” says Berges Malu, head of public policy at ShareChat. The platform also monitors individuals who share such content. “If a person has sent one video, it is possible he has been fooled by the piece of content. But if he has shared two or three such videos, it means he is [up to] some mischief and we immediately block that user,” says Malu.

ON WHATSAPP, though, it is a virtual black hole. The company claims its messages are encrypted end-to-end and it doesn’t even have access to them. But now that the Government has pulled up WhatsApp, the platform is taking several steps to prevent fake videos and messages from going viral.

It has introduced a ‘forwarded’ tag for messages that are directly forwarded from one chat to another. The platform has also decided to limit to five the number of times that a single message can be forwarded by any user. But with each one still able to forward to another five, it is not clear how effective this restriction will prove. The earlier limit was 250.

The Government, meanwhile, has constituted a panel headed by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to formulate a plan to tackle fake news and prevent attacks intigated by it. The committee will submit its recommendations to the Government within a month. This comes after the Supreme Court spoke strongly against the rule of the mob, asserting that such incidents ‘cannot be permitted to become the normal way of life’. There are reports that Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a closed-door meeting with senior police officers from across India recently, asking them to closely monitor those who are spreading fake news.

In the past week or so, top WhatsApp executives have held a meeting with government representatives and other stakeholders to deliberate upon what could work in the interest of both parties. WhatsApp is also working with several partners in India to design a digital literacy programme that could have fake news spotted and nipped in good time. It has also brought out full-page advertisements in leading newspapers, offering tips on how to check the authenticity of a particular piece of information.

“[WhatsApp] met us and we asked them to counter fake news, which frankly remains quite a challenge for us to counter,” says Divya Spandana, the Congress party’s social media and digital communications head. “We also asked them to make some of their tools accessible to all. Recently, a mobile platform flashed news that Mr Modi was going to speak in Parliament. So did Mr [Rahul] Gandhi, but no message was sent across about that.”

With pressure mounting on WhatsApp, there are apprehensions that it may be forced to compromise its privacy commitment. This is unlikely to be welcomed by users. Videos and images shared on WhatsApp are also critical to journalism; police sources in conflict areas like Kashmir, for instance, use the app to share crucial material with journalists on the assurance of its confidentiality.

“It is a difficult balance to achieve,” says Rahul Matthan, who heads the technology practice at the law firm Trilegal. “The ideal scenario is to preserve civil liberties and make sure that law enforcement in the country is strong to prevent harm from things aimed at perpetuating violence. But if law enforcement is under pressure, then these liberties will be eroded, which seems to be inevitable.”

Another major concern revolves around misinformation campaigns unleashed by political parties, especially in the run-up to an election. Experts say rumour mills operating on platforms like WhatsApp are now a regular feature of politics in India. “Political parties see prevention of fake news as a hindrance. On a practical basis, thus, I think all kinds of noise will be made now, which will dwindle before we get into election mode,” says Matthan.

In the end, it could all boil down to efforts made by the administration and community leaders of a particular district.

Dakshin Dinajpur of West Bengal is a case in point. Following a lynching in June in neighbouring Malda district, the police along with volunteers now routinely interact with villagers and tell them about the perils of fake news. “We hold regular village- level meetings with pradhans and other prominent people, and use tools, such as posters in Bengali, to educate people,” says Prasun Banerjee, superintendent of police, Dakshin Dinajpur.

In Telangana, the police are using the services of town criers who use traditional drums to press upon villagers that they should not believe in everything they read or see on the internet and that they should inform the police if they see anything suspicious. The police have conducted hundreds of outreach programmes to allay fears of imaginary gangs on the prowl.

“I find it ironic sometimes,” says Rema Rajeshwari, “that we have to use ancient methods of communication to undo the damage done by modern communication.”