Death by ‘fake news’: lynchings shock India

The smartphone footage shows the two blood-soaked men pleading for their lives. Moments later, they were dead, two more victims of lynchings sparked by rumours spread on Facebook and WhatsApp in India.
Musician Nilotpal Das, 29, and his businessman friend Abhijeet Nath, 30, were both from Guwahati, capital of the northeastern state of Assam.
Viral rumours about kidnappers, spread through Facebook and WhatsApp, have led to the lynching deaths of some 20 people in the last two months in India, according to local media reports.
Indian authorities have scrambled to respond but awareness campaigns, public alerts and Internet blackouts have had limited success in deterring the spread of misinformation.
Instead, officials blamed WhatsApp for the “irresponsible and explosive messages” being shared by its 200 million Indian users — the company’s largest market.
WhatsApp said it was “horrified” by the violence and promised action. The social media giant took out full-page advertisements in Indian newspapers offering “easy tips” to sort fact from fiction on its platform.
“Together we can fight false information”, the slick adverts declared.
On their June 8 excursion, the two men were unaware that “fake news” on child traffickers had been spreading on social media in the area.
In the district of Karbi Anglong, Facebook and WhatsApp have become the new word of mouth, and messages on the platforms — however outlandish — are often taken as gospel.
Late in the day, the two men were sitting by a stream when a villager confronted them, causing an altercation. The young men left in their car in a hurry, but their antagonist warned the next village they were coming.
“He made a phone call. He said that child kidnappers were on the way, that they needed to be stopped,” said Gulshan Daolagupu, deputy division chief of Karbi Anglong.
The mob surrounded the car on the country road. Convinced they had caught the child kidnappers, they launched a savage attack, posting videos of the killings online.
The images shocked India.
“Had social media not been there, had this been 2014 — Facebook was not there, smartphones were not cheap — this would not have happened,” said G V Siva Prasad, superintendent of police in Karbi Anglong district.
For researcher Abdul Kalam Azad, the lynchings in Panjuri Kachari must be seen in the particular context of Assam state, which has been routinely hit by intercommunal strife.
“In this situation of conflict, fake news become more dangerous, more violent and that’s evident now,” he said. — AFP

Alexandre Marchand