Rumors of child abductions have spread across WhatsApp and led to a series of mob lynchings across India in recent weeks. The government of India has asked the popular messaging service, to take action to end the spread of violent messages across its platform. The government has asked WhatsApp to intercept “irresponsible and explosive messages” that have been leading to mass violence, saying the social media company cannot evade “accountability and responsibility” for the India WhatsApp lynchings.
At least 17 people have been lynched in the past three months. Some media outlets have been reporting even higher numbers. The lynching mobs are usually acting out against rumors spread about child kidnappers. The rumors spread like wildfire across WhatsApp, leading to calls for vigilante justice against suspected child kidnappers and abusers.
Police in India have begun a crusade to convince people the rumors are false. Their campaigns have proven largely unsuccessful. The local government in the north-eastern state of Tripura recently hired a man to travel between villages with a loudspeaker in order to convince locals not to believe the rumors spreading across WhatsApp. Locals did not believe him and he ended up falling victim to the lynching mob himself.
India WhatsApp Lynchings Getting Worse?
With more than one billion active phone connections in India, sources believe the situation will continue to spiral out of control. Many millions of people in rural India have just begun using the Internet. Some sources claim this means they do not have the internet savvy to see beyond baseless rumors and fake news.
Over the next three years, India plans to add 300 million internet users. Most of these users will be lower income and non-English speaking. Many will even be illiterate, which means they will mostly be consuming video and other visual content. Technology analyst Prasanto K Roy explained to the BBC how this could be even more dangerous:
“Video is the easiest of platforms for fake news. It’s so easy to misrepresent: just find any old video of a fight or a brutal killing on the internet, describe it as something recent and inflammatory, and send it out. In minutes, it goes viral, racing around on Facebook and WhatsApp.”
Pratik Sinha, the founder of fact-checking website Alt news, explained to the BBC, “Suddenly people from rural areas in particular are inundated with information and are unable to distinguish what is real from what is not. They tend to believe whatever is sent to them.”
Since WhatsApp is a personal messaging service, people tend to believe the messages sent to them, especially when the viral messages come via friends and family.
Could India WhatsApp Lynchings Hurt WhatsApp?
With 200 million active users, India is actually WhatsApp’s biggest market, so the lynchings and subsequent government pushback could have serious ramifications for the social media app.
One of the issues with tracing and preventing the messages is WhatsApp’s own ethics and practices. Messages spread over WhatsApp are encrypted end to end. Unlike other services, messages are not stored on WhatsApp’s server. WhatsApp says, “Only you and the person you’re communicating with can read what’s sent – and nobody in between, not even WhatsApp.”
While this is excellent news for those concerned with privacy and internet rights, it also makes it more difficult for WhatsApp to trace who is starting and spreading the hateful rumors online.
Metadata, who called who and when, however, is stored and has been shared with US law enforcement on occasion, but only with a court order.
WhatsApp has refused to make changes to its messaging encryption system, explaining, “the way people use the app is by nature still very private.” Changing their encryption system could seriously damage WhatsApp’s reputation and the trust users place in the platform.
Possible Solutions to India WhatsApp Lynchings
In China, federal law requires that the government be able to monitor messages across platforms. Messaging services in China, like WeChat, comply with this law. Internet rights activists hope the growing violence in India won’t force the government into such draconian measures.
WhatsApp has put forward a few suggestions for improving the situation. They have made it easier for people to leave group chats and to block users. They will also introduce a feature that labels messages that have been forwarded to you. However, this does not make it easier to trace messages calling for violence or help people to become more aware of fake news and its dangers.
To address those issues, WhatsApp has made connections with local organizations to run safety and awareness campaigns across India. They also hope their partnerships with local organizations will help them prevent the rumors from spreading even further. In addition, WhatsApp plans to develop a program alongside local law enforcement.
WhatsApp has called the situation a “challenge that requires government, civil society and technology companies to work together,” but so far, neither the government nor WhatsApp have come up with a reasonable solution to deal with the India WhatsApp lynchings or other kinds of violence spread through internet platforms. In general, the situation highlights the dangers of fake news and the lack of a real solution for combating this 21st century phenomenon.
Child Abduction in India
Whoever is spreading the rumors is hitting on a real fear in India. Child abductions are a serious concern for Indians in rural parts of the country where young girls are often kidnapped and trafficked into larger cities.
Girls considered more sexually desirable are sold to brothels, while others are auctioned off as child brides. Some girls are lured with promises of gainful employment, only to be kidnapped and sold to employment agencies as domestic slaves. With 4.1 million people living in slavery, India has one of the largest slave populations in the world. Sex trafficking of young girls and sexual slavery is one of the main reasons India was recently found to be the most dangerous country in the world for women.
Combatting the viral rumors and subsequent vigilante justice also means addressing concerns over child abductions, human trafficking, and modern day slavery in India.