In July this year, the union home ministry told all states and union territories to contain mob lynchings fuelled by rumours of child-lifting on social media. In the same month, WhatsApp, a Facebook-owned company, limited the number of times messages could be forwarded in India. Until then, at least 18 people had been killed across India by frenzied mobs over rumours. Government of India issued a warning to WhatsApp to say it could not evade “accountability and responsibility” for the content its users were sharing.
With more than 200 million users, India is WhatsApp’s biggest market. Research showed that many of the messages that are believed to have triggered violence were forwarded to multiple groups which had more than 100 members each. (Groups on WhatsApp can have a maximum of 256 people). Most of the Indians are exposed to the internet through low-cost smartphones that are used to spread false information.
Most of the mob lynchings were linked to messages that circulated on WhatsApp groups. People blinded by viral rumours of child-kidnappers on the prowl across nine states — from Assam to Tamil Nadu — killed people with impunity. Maharashtra had most of these incidents with 9 people killed, followed by Jharkhand where 7 people lost their lives since May last year. Police said it was proving hard to get people to believe that the messages are false. In one of the lynching in the north-eastern state of Tripura, the victim was a man employed by the local government to go around villages to dispel rumours being spread on social media. In Rajasthan, at least five Muslim men were killed by mobs on the suspicion that they were smuggling cows to slaughterhouses. The state government set up special check posts to prevent cattle smuggling but couldn’t check cow vigilantes from serving spot justice to alleged smugglers.
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In April Pehlu Khan died in hospital days after he was beaten by Hindu outfit men prowling the streets to prevent cattle smuggling. Later this year, Rakbar Khan was killed in a field in Alwar district. Let’s wish 2019 puts an end to such mob killings. Social media platform, WhatsApp, is doing its bit in spreading the information that people should think twice before spreading photos and videos that they receive on their phones because some of that may be fake information. But the governments also need to act so that innocent lives are not lost on the altar of rumours.