The Indian government recently admonished WhatsApp for a spate of incidents where murderous mobs lynched innocent men over suspicions of smuggling or slaughtering cows, or kidnapping children, all sparked by rumors spread on the messaging service.
In all cases, the rumors turned out to be blatantly false.
The government also issued a thinly veiled warning, stating that unless WhatsApp took effective remedial measures, it would impose restrictions on its use in the country. Mainstream media has also denounced WhatsApp, calling it the primary culprit behind the proliferation of “fake news.”
However, sociologists and media and tech experts are critical of the move to characterize the problem as a technological one, while ignoring the structural and socio-political factors behind such incidents.
Reports point to prejudiced perpetrators
A recent report revealed that a series of lynchings in Maharashtra and Karnataka were triggered not by WhatsApp rumors, but due to people’s suspicion of, and prejudice against, a nomadic tribe which has been living on the fringes of Indian society for years.
Another report revealed a pattern to the incidents of lynchings. The victims were indigent, itinerant and socially ostracized, while the mobs usually consisted of people charged with petty crimes – and in some cases, serious ones, including riot and arson.
Moreover, in all 27 cases investigated, the close proximity of police outposts to the sites of lynchings did not make any difference. Every time, police either reacted late or were outnumbered and overpowered by the mobs.
The most significant finding was that although no cases of kidnapping or other crimes had been registered by the police in the past six months or so, the mobs still gathered, triggered by acts as innocuous as someone offering candies to a child, asking for directions or passing through an area in a car in the evening.
In one startling case, a heated argument between an auto driver and locals at a country liquor joint resulted in the former being accused of child-kidnapping. He was then bludgeoned to death by a large mob.
The politics of ‘the other’
Suchitra Vijayan, a New York-based barrister and head of the Polis Project which studies and maps political violence in India, said that history showed that lynchings were never apolitical – be it when black men were lynched in the American South in the 18th and 19th centuries, or when members of the marginalized Dalit community were lynched in large swathes of northern and southern India in the pre- and post-Independence eras.
“Present day lynchings are caused by the rapid balkanisation of society and people’s inherent bigotry, by which they unleash the process of ‘othering’ against the most marginalized and vulnerable, [and] against those whose cultural mores – lifestyle, language, dialect – are different from those of the majority,” Vijayan told Asia Times. “The perverse fascination with teaching ‘the other’ a lesson by taking the law into one’s hands is also responsible for the fast-as-lightning speed with which gory videos of the killings are disseminated far and wide.”
Vijanan added, “Painting technology as the villain mistakes symptoms for the cause.”
A call for non-intrusive interventions
Sarvjeet Singh Moond from the Centre for Communication Governance said that it was too much to ask messaging apps or social media platforms to identify fake information. Also, asking Whatsapp to curb the practice will lead to the weakening of encryption, which according to the UN Special Rapporteur is necessary for the advancement of human rights.
Possible ways to tackle the menace would be to give more power to users to identify and eliminate fake news, something which WhatsApp is now doing, he said. Moond also emphasized the role of law enforcement in preventing people from falling prey to fake news and rumors.
“The government’s warning to WhatsApp indicates that it is ready to take a ham-fisted approach to the messaging app’s end-to-end-encryption,” said Sidhharth Narrain of Delhi’s Ambedkar University. “That would be a big setback to privacy and free speech.”
Having researched and written about the role of social media in communal riots, Narrain said that although social media amplifies the spread of vile messages, any technological measure to curb this menace must be non-intrusive. The government and police can ask WhatsApp to identify sources of false news and rumors, but should not profile people and groups according to the information, he said.
One issue that has yet to be addressed is the role of the media.
“Several television channels routinely ratchet up people’s angst and communal feelings by incitement-laden videos and rumors masquerading as ‘news,’ many of which are later proved to be false,” Vijayan said.
“At a time when…television anchors plumb depths in sparking off people’s baser emotions, why should the media…escape scrutiny?” he asked.