India now has nearly 1.2 billion mobile-phone users, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority, with an astonishing one in three citizens now using a smartphone – the fastest growth rate in the world. The galvanising effect on development of ever-widening access to mobile technology is intoxicating in its possibilities: e-learning, cash transfers, good governance and bolstering healthcare, for example. But the dark side of India’s inexorable take-up of mobile phones was exposed in June and July after at least 27 people in nine states were killed in a series of horrific mob lynchings when rumours of child kidnaps on the messaging application WhatsApp went viral.
In one of several incidents in the small north-eastern state of Tripura, the Hindustan Times reported, a large mob chased three pedlars from Uttar Pradesh in the belief they were ‘child-lifters’, killing one and critically injuring the others. Hours earlier in the same area a mentally disabled woman who was wandering past a village was beaten to death by a mob chanting ‘death to child-lifters’. At least eight other people were injured in response to the same rumours in separate incidents in the same state. A Pakistani child-safety campaign video, in which a child is snatched off the street, has been identified as the initial catalyst for the child-abduction panic, the Guardian said, noting that the final scene – of the child being returned – was missing from the version circulating in India. But the lynchings themselves soon became ‘proof’ of the supposed child kidnappers. A Tripura police officer said videos of mobs lynching suspected child abductors in other states had circulated for weeks before the latest violence. A resident said: ‘These lynching videos on WhatsApp gave wings to the rumours.’
Meanwhile, in Maharashtra state five people belonging to a nomadic community were lynched after they stepped off a bus and one spoke to a child, and a beggar was killed when a mob attacked her and three other women in Gujarat state. The most cruelly ironic attack was on Sukanta Chakrabarty, a man hired by the Tripura state government to travel around villages in a public education campaign to curb the spread of these lethal rumours, the Times of India reported. He was beaten to death in one of many villages in the border area that had been ‘on edge’ after rumours spread of an 11-year-old boy being killed by organ smugglers.
The lynchings sparked by rumours on WhatsApp began at least a year ago, when six men were killed in two separate incidents in Jharkhand state, according to Australian Associated Press. But the latest spate began in May in Assam, when two men taken to be phankodongs, or child abductors, were lynched in one incident while on the same night nearby a Nepali woman was beaten to death, according to The Hindu. As a report in Scroll makes clear, these rumours might have circulated on social media but it was not in a vacuum: crucially, Assam has recorded the highest number of human-trafficking cases in India.
Among others murdered in the weeks of panicked bloodletting were a mentally disabled youth killed near Ambikapur, Chhattisgarh, and ‘a transgender woman beaten to death in Hyderabad amid fears of a ‘Pardhi gang’ being on the prowl (the Pardhi are a nomadic tribe long discriminated against, largely because the British Raj classified them as ‘hereditary criminal’). A 65-year-old woman was beaten to death when her family was attacked in Tamil Nadu. One of the two men lynched in Assam, Nilotpal Das, was largely targeted because he had his hair in dreadlocks. Mohammad Ali, an Indian journalist writing a book about lynchings, told the Guardian that the killings had a common thread, linked to rising nationalist sentiment in India. ‘Those who were lynched last month in Assam did not look part of the local culture,’ he said, pointing out that it was a migrant worker who was killed in Hyderabad and members of a marginalised tribe in Maharashtra. ‘The idea is to target anyone who seems different. It is part of a discourse of nationalism and extreme polarisation that consumes anyone seen as the other.’
The authorities have made efforts to counter the problem, even if apparently to little effect. Police in Hyderabad marched with residents, exhorting people over loudspeakers not to believe the rumours, while in Karnataka monitoring centres were set up to keep track of social media, the BBC reported. The initial response by the Tripura authorities was to shut down the internet in the state, while in Delhi the government demanded that WhatsApp take ‘immediate action’ to end ‘irresponsible and explosive messages’ among its 200 million users. However, the messaging platform, which is owned by Facebook, responded that it could not interfere with the content without compromising the service’s prized encryption. It is, however, trying out new ways to indicate when messages have been forwarded, the Independent reported, and has pledged to work with fact-checking websites, such as Alt News, an Indian site trying to expose the fake news behind the lynchings.
Though the lynchings are the most pernicious example of social media, its use by misogynistic trolls to threaten rape or death to silence prominent women has become ever more high profile and sectarian. Actresses, judges, politicians and journalists are all considered legitimate targets for faked tweets or manipulated photographs. For Kavita Krishnan, a left-wing activist almost inured to online abuse, ‘it is not just women. Dalits are targeted a lot, I know. I’m told Muslims also receive lots of hate messages. Basically, it’s minorities who are attacked.’ At the opposite end of the political spectrum, Sushma Swaraj, the foreign minister, spoke out recently after she was attacked online by Hindu nationalist trolls for helping a Muslim-Hindu couple. Rana Ayyub, a respected investigative journalist and a Muslim, has been relentlessly targeted for her exposé of the Hindu nationalist politicians behind the 2002 Gujarat riots, with fake tweets, obscene videos, ‘doxing’ (posting private or identifying information about an individual online), as well as rape and death threats, the Indian edition of The Wire reported. Children are not spared this toxic treatment. India was ranked the third worst country, behind China and Singapore, for cyber-bullying in a Microsoft survey, with more than half of Indian children saying they had been bullied online.
The potential for empowering humankind by harnessing the power of the internet appears infinite. Unfortunately, the perils of allowing online violence to rage across our digital landscape also seem limitless.
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