Social Media “Fake News” Blamed For Increase In Mob Violence In India

Two men in their late 20s have been beaten to death in the latest case of mob violence in the north-east of India, The Economist reports. Abhijit Nath and Nilotpal Das were traveling by car to their hometown of Guwahati when they were surrounded by a crowd of villagers wielding clubs and other weapons and accused of being child snatchers. They protested their apparent innocence, but their cries were ignored by the mob. These senseless deaths were part of a larger trend in India which has now suffered 24 deaths in 61 such attacks this year according to Bloomberg. This is a four-and-a-half-fold increase on the number of attacks in the previous year. More recently, in only the first six days of July there have been  five similar deaths. These incidents have been attributed to false rumours of “child snatching” passed on through social media platform Whatsapp. Bloomberg states that all victims have been assaulted on mere rumours of child snatching with no evidence found before or after the attacks.

Commentators have had a number of takes on this disturbing trend. Whatsapp have responded by announcing that they will introduce a new feature to show when a message has been forwarded to a user, in order to allow dubious rumours to be more easily identified. They have said they wish to prevent “irresponsible and explosive messages” being promulgated by their service.

However, it has been suggested that Whatsapp is merely a small factor in the violent incidents. Upneet Lalli, the deputy director of the Institute of Correctional Administration in Chandigarh has argued that this is part of a broader trend of violence in India and comes back to social problems. This is highlighted, she suggests, by previous incidents of cow-related mob violence. “The violence started with cow-related vigilantism, but it is now building up more violent behaviour–from small to big reasons anything could be the trigger,” she told IndiaSpend. Furthermore, criminologist Vijay Raghavan who is the Dean of the Social Protection Office at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences has told Bloomberg that “A rumour starts in one part of the country and travels to other parts like wildfire–first it was beef, now it is child lifting…This changing narrative has a clear pattern of violence that is basically preying on traditional insider-outsider perceptions.”

It is clear that these incidents cannot be seen as purely the fault of social media or the oft-scorned fake news. They stem from broader social issues in India as they exploit both the fears of communities and the division between them. The Economist reports that incidents of missing children have risen by 250% between 2011 and 2016. Hence these latest rumours play into this increasingly prevalent fear for poor families. Meanwhile, the amount of social division in India, from caste to religion, creates toxic identity politics which turn communities against outsiders and make the spread of hate all the more possible. Finally, it is worth noting that India’s law enforcement system is flawed and mistrusted by the public leading to these shocking acts of vigilantism.

While it is important to be aware of the power of social media and the role it has played in this trend, its misuse is better seen as a symptom of India’s social problems rather than the cause of these shocking cases of mob lynching. It is left to the Indian government to protect its people from themselves, starting by improving policing and healing over, rather than politicising and inflaming social divisions.

Ethan Beringen