WhatsApp is an important social media channel that enables instant sharing of text, files, images and videos. Over 250 million Indians hailing from various socioeconomic backgrounds use WhatsApp. However, instead of using it for our goodwill, we exploit it to disseminate bigotry, suspicion and fear. Political groups, local communities, religious circles, ideologically aligned individuals and casual extremists form WhatsApp groups to supply its members with biased information and maintain a hold over their thoughts. To increase the loyalty of their members, WhatsApp groups deliver prejudiced and malicious information against out-groups. Even family groups have fallen prey to such practices. We often receive messages that attempt to alter history by persuading us to believe that a historical monument built by a Muslim ruler such as Qutub Minar was actually a Hindu structure. We also receive videos of men ill-treating their wives along with bold captions suggesting that the women are victims of love jihad.
In the past few months, we have been flooded with stories of innocent people being lynched because of misinformation spread over WhatsApp. Over 20 killings have been reported in Assam, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tripura and West Bengal. The cause remains the same – paranoia about child kidnappers, fueled by rumour mongering WhatsApp messages. These messages, accompanied with pictures of murdered children, caution people against gangs of traffickers and provoke fear. The lack of security and trust in the police drives people to take law into their own hands by lashing out at strangers who they suspect as a child trafficker.
Government leaders, village heads and community spoke persons have washed their hands off the matter by shifting the blame on social media. The government is using WhatsApp as a scapegoat to mask its failure in quelling the mob violence. The Ministry of Electronics and IT has urged WhatsApp to develop a mechanism to check the misuse of its platform. WhatsApp can tackle one aspect of the issue through a technological solution. But can we hold WhatsApp solely accountable for this menace? There are other ways through which people can still communicate rumours; they can make telephone calls, discuss during intimate group meetings or even distribute pamphlets. The most conducive way to deal with this grave problem is through the joint effort of the government, the society, citizens and technology.
The police forces must be proactive in reaching threat prone locations on time and extinguishing mob violence. All the culprits involved in the lynching, including those who share such rumours should be arrested and persecuted. The cases should be handled at fast-track courts. Even public figures or high profile individuals who incite violence and breed mob mentality should face persecution. The sentencing of such offenders will deter crowds from killing people for unwarranted reasons.
Most of the villages where the acts of lynching take place, the population is quite sparse. So a message containing a rumour regarding child kidnappers is sure to reach someone who is in contact with the law keepers. It might also find its way to the phones of those in authority or the people around them. Instead of ignoring such forwards, the authorities must count the matter seriously and alert the public regarding the falsity of such messages. For campaigns to educate the masses on fake news, the government should send volunteers who are known and trusted by the people. It can either be a police person, local MLA or any government officer. When people receive information from trusted sources and those in power, they tend to accept them as the truth and abide by it.
Us and Them
Fear of outsiders seems to be the compelling reason that drives mob attacks. But this fear is also accompanied by feelings of prejudice and hostility towards those who are termed as ‘the other’. Two Sikh men were lynched in Assam. The man lynched in Bengaluru was a native of Rajasthan. ‘The other’ can also be people of the same state but a different town. The victims killed in Telangana and Tamil Nadu hailed from a different area of the same state. In this regard, we need government programs that aim to crush feelings of prejudice among people and ensure harmonious coexistence. Local NGO’s along with governmental support should work towards vanquishing communal and regional prejudices.
In the run-up to the Karnataka elections 2018, BJP and Congress formed around 20,000 WhatsApp groups to amass loyalists and spread its campaign. Through social media, political parties reach out to voters and impress upon them. So why not use these social media and messaging platforms to create awareness and dispel rumours? As a resort to end misuse of media, we need programs that encourage people to check the authenticity of the information they receive.
The Threat of Social Media
Social media is a double-edged sword. It has the power to blow things out of proportion and lead to dire consequences. Rumours on social media are written as news reports and circulated. Instead of verifying it or reporting it, we tend to accept it at face value and pass it on. Since this medium is free, it is exploited by antagonists and thrill-seeking criminals to manipulate the public. Social media has created an aggressive mob by feeding on the public’s feelings of insecurity, enmity and hatred. And as myopic citizens, we are becoming accomplices to hate campaigns and assaulting one another. Despite being educated, we refrain from verifying information and blindly accept it. Instead of approaching the authorities in times of threat, we take law into our own hands and lynch our fellow citizens. Rumour laden messages encrypted on WhatsApp are making their rounds, but it’s up to our discretion on whether we choose to believe it, ignore it or report it.
It’s on us, how do we choose to see modern India?
Picture Credits: web.whatsapp.com