Image Credit: Bloomberg

A single WhatsApp message, distributed over 10 to 15 days could get a person killed in India today.

This statement is a not the result of a single case, but of around 27 killings, in different states across the country. 

WhatsApp is a free-to-download messenger app that allows sharing of texts and audio visual content. Used by over a billion people across the globe, 200 million of the app’s users are in India. WhatsApp also has free audio and video calling features.

WhatsApp said on Wednesday it was "horrified" by a spate of lynchings in India sparked by false rumours shared on its platform as the government accused the messaging service of irresponsibility.

An attendee holds a mobile phone displaying a fake message shared on Facebook Inc.’s WhatsApp messaging service while attending an event to raise awareness on fake news in Balgera village in the district of Gadwal, Telangana, India, on Tuesday, June 12.

More than 20 people have been killed in India in the last two months, according to media reports, after rumours were spread on smartphones about child kidnappers, thieves and sexual predators.

The attacks - usually targeting outsiders - have left authorities scrambling to mount an effective response, with awareness campaigns and public alerts having limited effect. With more than 200 million users, India is WhatsApp's biggest market. Its parent company Facebook has also been grappling with a global data privacy scandal.

The cases

While there is no clear marker of when this trend of false messages started, it is safe to say that widespread mob lynching incidents started towards the end of April this year.

In all of these cases, there are two common factors; a WhatsApp message that claims that certain individuals are a threat to children, and a mob that decides that street justice is their prerogative.  These messages, always false or misguided, have given mob vigilantes a new reason to take law and order into their own hands.

Here are some gory examples of vigilantism fed by false WhatsApp messages since then;

April 27, Tamil Nadu: A man, falsely suspected to be a child trafficker based on WhatsApp and other social media messages, was caught, beat up by villagers and then handed over to the police. Upon ascertaining that the man was in fact innocent and mentally unsound, police released him. He was later captured by a group of young people and beaten to death.

May 27, Andhra Pradesh: A transgender was killed when three people were beaten up by a mob in Chandrayangutta after rumours circulated on WhatsApp alleging that the victims were part of a child-trafficking gang. The victims had, however, reportedly requesting alms in the area during Ramadan.

June 8, Assam: Two men were lynched to death in Assam by a mob after WhatsApp messages alleging that the men had a child captive in the SUV that they were travelling in went viral. Reportedly the two men were dead when police arrived at the scene. Later that week, a gruesome video of one of the young men pleading was widely shared and seen.

June 27, Gujarat: A 45-year old destitute woman of a nomadic tribe from Rajasthan was beaten to death in Ahmedabad when a mob turned up accusing her and her tribe of being child kidnappers. The same message that triggered this attack, also led to four other killings in the state on the very same day. The message alleged that a group of foreigners had entered Gujarat to kidnap and sell children.

Mohinidevi Nath (C) and her family react following their death of her cousin Shantadevi Nath, who was killed by a mob that falsely believed she was intent on abducting children, at their home on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in India's western Gujarat state on June 27

June 28, Tripura: Two separate killings occurred in the state; all connected to viral WhatsApp messages. Sukanta Chakraborty, was attacked and lynched to death, while spreading awareness about erroneous rumours. Another man was killed in West Tripura on the same day, when around thousand people formed a mob to ‘catch’ four men, alleged to be child kidnappers. They were hawkers hailing from Uttar Pradesh.

And now the latest…

July 1, Maharashtra: Five men were bludgeoned to death when a mob of more than twenty people descended on them in Dhule. One of the targeted men was seen talking to a local child which is when a group of people gathered around the men starting off the attack. The men were actually from a nomadic community in another district, having arrived in Dhule looking for work.

The message

The message in these cases is always a false video, audio or text content that alleges that a child-trafficking gang is loose in the city. Some of the pictures used, as reported by the CNN, are of children in war-torn Syria or even from Rohingya refugee camps.

According to reports, police stated that these rumours surfaced out of the blue in many regions, with no link to any actual reports of child kidnapping or trafficking.

Supporters of Nilotpal Das and Abhijit Nath (killed in Assam last month) hold candles during a protest in Guwahati. The two tourists were victims of mob violence fuelled by false rumours on social media

The messages sometimes also focuses on ‘outsiders’ in each state, which means the people targeted usually don’t speak the native language of the state and are migrants. In Tamil Nadu, for example, the victims included Hindi-speaking individuals from other states.

WhatsApp woes

WhatsApp has over 200 million users in India and is one of the most commonly used communication platforms in the country. WhatsApp’s current encryption systems mean that law enforcement officials cannot effectively monitor every message that could be deemed as false or provocative content.

According to cyber laws, the admins of WhatsApp groups that spread false or malicious content are to be held responsible. However, the accessibility of WhatsApp and data services makes it impossible to ‘nip it in the bud’.

A smartphone user could get up to 1.5GB of data daily at less than Dh11 for 28 days in India. Even if he or she couldn’t afford that, WhatsApp is a medium that requires a small data allowance to share and receive information – a 200MB allowance for less than INR 5 per day is enough to facilitate the spread of false messages.

Police and the government

In most of these cases, police have arrested attackers – based on video footage and scene evidence. The attackers have been booked under murder and riot charges. It is harder, however, to track down the actual propagators of the messages that led to the deaths.

A screengrab from the video of the gruesome killings in Assam; most of these mob attackers tend to take videos and photos of the lynching. Two young men in Assam were beaten to death on false allegations of being child kidnappers.

The Indian government asked WhatsApp to take immediate action to end the menace of spreading messages that impact the country’s law and order situation and ensure that the platform is not used for such malafide activities, an official statement said in Mumbai on Tuesday.

“Instances of lynching of innocent people have been noticed recently because of large number of irresponsible and explosive messages filled with rumours and provocation are being circulated on WhatsApp. The unfortunate killings in many states such as Assam, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tripura and West Bengal are deeply painful and regrettable,” the statement from the IT Ministry said.

It added: “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 is equally a matter of deep concern.”

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has taken serious note of these irresponsible messages and their circulation on such platforms.

“Deep disapproval of such developments has been conveyed to the senior management of the WhatsApp and they have been advised that necessary remedial measures should be taken to prevent proliferation of these fake and at times motivated/sensational messages,” the statement said.

The government has also directed that spread of such messages should be immediately contained through the application of appropriate technology.

It has also been pointed out that “such platform cannot evade accountability and responsibility specially when good technological inventions are abused by some miscreants who resort to provocative messages which lead to spread of violence.”

WhatsApp’s reply

Facebook Inc.’s WhatsApp messenger has told India that curbing the spread of false messages through its platform is a challenge that required a partnership between the tech firm, civil society and the government.

In a letter dated July 3 to India's IT ministry and reviewed by Reuters, WhatsApp said it is giving people controls and information they need to stay safe as well as making changes to group chats to prevent the spread of unwanted information.

The firm also plans to run long-term public safety ad campaigns in India, it said in the letter.

India's IT ministry on Tuesday asked WhatsApp messenger to take steps to prevent the circulation of false texts and provocative content that have led to a series of lynchings and mob beatings across the country in the past few months.

With inputs from agencies