Fake News on WhatsApp leads to Violence in India

The term “fake news” has entered mainstream vocabulary in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Typically, fake news refers to certain events of the election cycle, controversial occurrences in other countries, or even the words of the president himself (through Twitter, of course).

However, other countries like India have been dealing with a much more malicious form of fake news. Rather than simply affecting elections, fake news has contributed to violence towards many innocent people.

On May 18, a pair of attacks were caused by a “forward,” or a forwarded message to another person/group chat, claiming child abductors were on the loose – which was later proven false. Two separate mobs formed in response resulted in seven deaths at the hands of almost 500 people.

Two separate attacks on three Africans in India in late March were motivated by false reports that may have also been spread through social media channels like WhatsApp.

The dangerous trend uses the older concepts of ‘chain mail’ and ‘chain letters’ to spread, sometimes false, information. For most Americans, this phenomenon was seen from the early to mid-2000’s as e-mail chains, which were often sets of ‘fun facts’ or hoaxes posing as news.

In rural India, the threat of these hoaxes is much more serious since mob justice is popular in the country, and the circulated information can be hard to prove.

According to the New York Times, widespread internet access is rather new in rural India and because of this, the social media landscape looks much different than it does here in the U.S.. Facebook-owned WhatsApp boasts 160 million more users than Facebook’s own platform, with only 155 million users as of November of 2016, according to the Financial Times. Because of this, smaller villages and communities often communicate through WhatsApp and use it as a social media platform rather than a messaging one.

Because WhatsApp and other encrypted messaging apps are not designed to function as full social media sites, hoaxed “forwards” on the platform are incredibly difficult to trace back to their sources. Increased encryption and privacy is a new reality for WhatsApp, brought about in the wake of another tech company’s difficulties with the law.

Mob action in India has become widespread because of a lack of police and judicial resources, making people more likely to take matters into their own hands. One example of this rural mob justice occurred on April 5, when 11 men were being beaten on the side of the road, one fatally, after a mob of 200 pulled them from their cattle transport trucks, solely on the suspicion that the cattle were being driven to slaughter.

According to the Indian government, nearly 39 percent of judgeships are unfilled, meaning the system would be strained to handle any but the most important of cases. Additionally, police resources are often related to partisan politics. In a comment to the New York Times, Julio Ribeiro, a former police commissioner of Mumbai, said that real change will come “only when the people demand real reform… and they haven’t done that yet.”

Local (and even national) media appears to be unequipped to disseminate accurate information and dispel potential attacks. In an interview with The Guardian, Prabhakar Kumar said journalistic standards suffer because “there is no standard policy for TV news and newspapers about… researching and publishing stories,” leading to rampant sharing of false information. This is even worse in rural areas, however, when it comes to regional news sharing.

According to The Hindu, the laws regarding this use of the apps like WhatsApp are relatively unclear across India. Group message administrators have been warned to be careful with, and arrested because of, actions that may happen as a result of messages under their purview.

Vijay Shah, an expert commenting on the issue of WhatsApp, said in an interview with The Hindu that in these harmful cases, “the police fail to locate the person responsible for generating these posts” in a “majority” of cases, leaving administrators to be held responsible.

Forbes reports that WhatsApp, when served subpoenas for specific accounts (which Indian police rarely discover), the only data shared is “which numbers contacted which… when, and for how long,” but not any message content. All of this makes it extremely unlikely that anybody intentionally starting these potentially fatal forwards will be caught.

These fake news chains represent the power of social media to spread not only false ideas, but violence as well. The blame does not only rest on technology companies’ lack of safeguards, but also on local and national media outlets that do not rectify false information fast enough. For those rural communities without access, the threat of fake news is amplified by apps like WhatsApp.

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