“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.”
– Helen Keller
The Centre has finally woken up from its slumber as it has asked popular messaging service WhatsApp to take steps to check the circulation of fake messages on its platform after reports of numerous mob-lynchings across the country triggered by social media rumours. This has been a disturbing trend. The government has also conveyed in no uncertain terms that WhatsApp must take immediate action to end this menace and ensure that their platform is not used for such malafide activities. The push to put a check on fake news comes after five people of a nomadic community in Dhule, Maharashtra were allegedly lynched by a mob on the suspicion that they were members of a gang that kidnapped children. That’s not an isolated instance. The IT ministry said that WhatsApp “cannot evade accountability and responsibility”, especially when its technology is being abused by miscreants whose provocative messages are leading to the spread of violence. Around a month ago two young men from Guwahati — Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath — were lynched by a mob in Karbi Anglong in Central Assam that had accused them of being child kidnappers, a 45-year-old man in Telangana’s Wanaparthy district narrowly escaped being killed for the same reason. Two persons were lynched in Tripura recently by a mob which suspected them to be child kidnappers. And ironically, among three people lynched in Tripura on a single day, June 28, was a man hired by the State government to spread awareness against precisely such rumours. In the latest case, three hermits had close shave in Dima Hasao district after miscreants attacked them on suspicion that they were child-lifters. The incident has taken place as a rumour was doing the round on WhatsApp that child kidnappers are roaming around looking for prey.
No place appears safe from the deadly cocktail of social media and rumourmongering centred on child lifting and cattle theft/slaughter. It’s not easy, though, for WhatsApp to control what is being sent on its platform. That’s because WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted which means the message envelope cannot be read by the company or the government. Given this, it is not clear how such a platform can take measures to limit the spread of motivated or sensational messages. Besides circulation of magnified fake news through WhatsApp – as rumours spread like wildfire even as the police fail to comprehend their implications and end up reacting only in the aftermath of violent incidents. Another common factor in most of these incidents is fear against outsiders, which is not necessarily directed only at those people who live in another state, but can be against someone who is not from that particular region.
Both these factors have made it difficult for the police to nip these rumours in the bud. Several states have identified the phenomenon of mob-driven violence against suspected child kidnappers as an “unprecedented challenge”. This is also a law and order problem. There is no denying that keeping track of the spread of rumours and assessing their potential impact is something that the police have failed to do. So, the states have to take measures to end this menace – the district administrations will have to reach out to locals to persuade them against falling for rumours. People have to be made to realise that instead of displaying the mob hysteria, it is better to inform police about any suspicious activity of a person.