India is grappling with a deadly fake news problem.
At least 20 individuals have been lynched or beaten to death in incidents across India, where rumours on WhatsApp have inspired vigilante mobs to swarm visitors accused of being child kidnappers. Dozens more have been injured in similar attacks.
Outsiders have been targeted for handing out candy, stopping to ask for directions, speaking the local minority language and talking to children, according to police.
The latest attack occurred on Friday in the southern state of Karnataka, where hundreds of people attacked four men, lynching one and severely injuring the other three.
The victims had stopped by the roadside to hand out chocolates to school children, and were attacked after one of the girls let out a high-pitched yelp, local law enforcement officials said.
Authorities say the killings are being inspired by text messages and videos shared on WhatsApp, which dominates the Indian social media landscape with over 200 million users. The encrypted messaging system allows person-to-person or person-to-group communication, making it difficult for law enforcement to monitor or stop the spread of fake stories.
The viral messages suggest that kidnappers are abducting children and harvesting their organs. Some of the messages purport to show video of these kidnappings, while others show images of dismembered corpses, and claim that the organ thieves are disguised as beggars.
Law enforcement officials say there is no truth to the rumours, and that all of the victims have been innocent.
Nevertheless, the vigilante killings continue to sweep through rural areas of the country, drawing widespread condemnation from lawmakers.
India’s ministry of electronics and information technology characterized the messages as “irresponsible and explosive” in a statement last week.
“While the law and order machinery is taking steps to apprehend the culprits, the abuse of platforms like WhatsApp for repeated circulation of such provocative content are equally a matter of deep concern,” the ministry said.
A fake video with real consequences
One popular video in the WhatsApp rumour mill claims to show a child abduction captured on security camera. However, the clip is only part of a longer video produced by the charity Roshni Helpline, which seeks to spread the word about child abductions in Pakistan.
The video shows two men on a motorcycle snatching a small boy from among a group of children playing on the sidewalk.
The men on the motorcycle initially leave with the boy, then return and drop him off.
The video ends with the motorcycle rider holding up a sign that says: “It takes only a moment to kidnap a child from the streets of Karachi.”
WATCH BELOW: Roshni Helpline’s original abduction video
Roshni Helpline posted the original video on its YouTube page on June 14, 2016, with the title: “This child went out to play #cricket with his friends. What happened next is terrifying…”
The clip circulating on WhatsApp does not include the end of the Roshni video, so that it appears as if the motorcycle riders have truly abducted the boy.
Roshni Helpline acknowledged the video’s role in the WhatsApp killings last month, when it posted a BBC video explaining the issue on YouTube.
The Indian government has urged WhatsApp to take action against the spread of fake content on its platform.
WhatsApp responded last week with a series of newspaper advertisements aimed at fake news. The company also introduced labels to flag messages that have been forwarded from other users.
“We are starting an education campaign in India on how to spot fake news and rumours,” a WhatsApp spokesperson said in a statement last week.
“Our first step is to place newspaper advertisements in English and Hindi and several other languages. We will build on these efforts.”
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Internet policy experts say WhatsApp isn’t legally accountable for the way people use its service. “But the platform is responsible for enabling anonymous sending forwards,” said Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist and founder of a portal that covers technology and social media policy in India.
Pahwa said it’s impossible for WhatsApp to track and assess billions of messages being sent each day using its platform.
Pavan Duggal, a cyber expert and an attorney, said WhatsApp needs to comply with Indian laws and also adopt a “more sensitive and customized approach” for the country to reap the benefits of the vast Indian market.
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Many of the mob attacks have been carried out against travellers in rural India.
For instance, on July 1, five men from a nomadic community were beaten to death in a mountain village in Maharashtra state. The men had stopped for food and one of them had spoken to a child, according to police officer M. Ramkumar.
“The mob was merciless,” Ramkumar told The Associated Press.
In a separate incident, police said they rescued five family members, including a two-year-old child, when a mob of thousands attacked them on the suspicion of being child abductors in a town, also in Maharashtra state, on July 2.
“Stern action will be taken against the rumour mongers,” said Devendra Fadnavis, the state’s chief minister, after the incidents.
Several other killings occurred in June, including one in the northern state of Assam, where two Indian tourists were attacked after stopping their car in a village to ask for directions.
Nilotpal Das, a 29-year-old musician and sound engineer, and Abhijeet Nath, a 30-year-old businessman, were beaten to death, even as they protested that they were natives to the area. The attack was partially captured on video.
Mob justice is not uncommon in India. At least 111 people were killed and 2,384 injured in 822 communal incidents last year, according to the federal home affairs ministry.
The Canadian government recommends visitors to India to exercise a high degree of caution, and to avoid large gatherings.
“Both domestic and international political events can trigger large-scale demonstrations that may result in civil unrest,” the government warns on its travel website.
“Inter-communal violence occasionally occurs, and can escalate and spread quickly.”
— With files from The Associated Press and Reuters