- - Wednesday, July 11, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Seldom has the Indian public been so exercised by the politics of hate and fear as at present, with online rumor-mongering and fake news igniting vigilantism and witch hunts in different parts of the country.

Much of this churning is taking place through the social media, where Internet trolls, spammers and troublemakers are reigning supreme, sowing incendiary posts to online communities with the intention to provoke and intimidate.

Rumors circulating on WhatsApp about kidnappers marauding for children have been causing widespread panic, with frenzied mobs attacking those they deem suspects, leading to at least 18 unwary men and women being lynched in the streets in just over the last one month alone. Often, the victims are charged with involvement in selling children to adoption centers or to agents for organ harvesting.

Alarmed by this trend, the Indian government has petitioned WhatsApp to do what it can to check rumor-mongering and hoax messages on its platform. The Facebook-owned instant messaging service has agreed to devise means for preventing the spread of such posts in the country.

In a particularly ghastly incident of hate crime, agitated residents of a tribal hamlet 300 km (about 186 miles) from Mumbai surrounded five youths who had got off a public bus and thrashed them to death. Locals were already on tenterhooks because of circulating rumors on SMS and WhatsApp about child abductors prowling around the district, and some reported seeing one of the youths talking to a girl at the bus stop.

The five young men were chased and brutalized by the mob, which also turned upon the policemen who rushed to the spot to try to save the victims. The police later informed that the five youths, tribals themselves, had come to the village in search of alms or work, as their situation back home was desperate.

What has been additionally alarming is the growing incidence of such horrifying assaults being recorded on mobile phones and the footage then being posted on WhatsApp and Facebook, as has happened in this case of lynching. Often, the victims could have been rescued by those filming the brutality who could instead have intervened. In many such videos, the victims can be heard begging for their lives and pleading their innocence.

There have been no reported cases of abduction of children. Yet, stray rumors going “viral” on WhatsApp have led to this spate of lynchings across eight states. Online rumors have also resulted in numerous cases of lynching of people alleged to be cattle raiders or selling, transporting or consuming beef, which is banned in the majority of India’s 29 states. Most of these states are ruled, singly or in alliance, by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which pursues a far-right Hindu-nationalist ideology that prescribes vegetarianism.

The assailants frequently evade arrest and are further emboldened by the support, and even praise, they receive from BJP leaders who often justify these attacks on communal grounds.

In its reply to the government, WhatsApp remarked: “We have been testing a new label in India that highlights when a message has been forwarded versus composed by the sender. This could serve as an important signal for recipients to think twice before forwarding messages, because it lets a user know if content they received was written by the person they know or a potential rumor from someone else. We plan to launch this new feature soon.” It also pointed to the introduction in May of a shield restraining group administrators from reinstating those who had exited from the group, saying this was becoming a form of misuse.

Most do not see the relevance of these measures on the issues of rumor-mongering and hate posts. There are also questions about WhatsApp’s seriousness in this regard. Though India is its largest market with 260 million monthly active users, a fifth of its more than 1 billion users globally, its operations in India yet do not have a head, though it debuted in the country in 2010. Neither does its parent, the social media giant Facebook, which entered India in 2006 and for which too this country is its largest market.

Indian smartphone users, on an average, spend 200 minutes on mobile apps every day, according to a study, which adds that they spend as much as 38 percent of this time on Facebook and its affiliated apps, WhatsApp and Instagram. There were 292 million smartphone users in the country by the end of 2017, and their numbers are projected to swell to 337 million by the end of this year.

The opposition Congress party, however, blames the ruling BJP for creating an “environment of hate” that has engendered vigilantism and emboldened religious extremism across the country. Questioning Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence on the lynchings, it says: “This is the result of silence of the leadership when crimes are committed with impunity by the harbingers of hate.”

• Sarosh Bana is executive editor of Business India.


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