On the evening of June 8, Nilopat Das and his friend Abhijeet Nath were visiting a picturesque waterfall in the Karbi Anglong district in Assam. While enjoying the serenity of the spot, they encountered a few locals who stated quarrelling with the duo. Things got out of hand, and they tried to escape. When they drove their SUV out on the road, a mob was already waiting for them in the next village. Without provocation, the mob dragged both the individuals out of the car and started beating them mercilessly. They begged for their lives, but it was too late. Within an hour both died on the spot after bearing a brutal assault by the local villagers.

The reason for the mob’s fury- a WhatsApp rumour that was being circulated for a week which warned the presence of child lifters in the area. That particular evening when Das and his companion were standing near the waterfall, the villagers assumed that they had found the alleged child lifters. A false rumour spread on social media ended up taking two innocent lives. As unfortunate as the incident is, we cannot look at it in isolation. While the frequency of mob lynching has increased over the last few years, they are also connected and at times fuelled by social media platforms. Fake news and rumours that are circulated on social media are having catastrophic consequences in India, which in cases like this includes death.

Lynchings are not a new phenomenon in India. The country has seen thousands of cases of mob violence erupting that sometimes even turns into riots. In most of the cases, the disturbance or the lynching has its roots in a local conflict. It is sparked off by something as insignificant as a glaring loudspeaker used in a place of worship, which has the potency to incite counter mobilisation in the other community. Rumours and false propaganda are used in these cases by each side to mobilise their people and incite hatred. This is where social media comes in today; as it amplifies these rumours to an audience not conceivable before. Hence, it is the dawn of the digital age that has made the articulation of fake news and propaganda easier and cheaper than ever before. An image that has malicious content can be shared multiple times which has made the communication of rumours so easy.

What makes WhatsApp, in particular, more dangerous than other social media platforms, is that it allows a direct link between the sender and the recipient. Unlike Facebook, where one shares content for all his or her friends to see, WhatsApp is more personal in terms of communication. It is because one can share a provocative image, which has indoctrinating content, to a limited number of audiences within your close family groups or friends, that makes WhatsApp suitable to spread fake news. This is why WhatsApp has become the favourite platform to operate for right-wing vigilante groups in the country. The members typically have a joint group which is used to communicate if any cattle is being transported ‘illegally’. If someone gets an indication of a truck carrying livestock, he is quick to update everyone on the group after which the members usually catch hold of the truck. The altercation between the truck drivers and the vigilantes usually ends up in the truck driver being assaulted, while the police dare not to take action against these groups. Another factor that has made social media a tool for propaganda is the political atmosphere that has engulfed the country. The BJP’s infamous IT cell was the first to exercise the efficiency of social media platforms as weapons for the spread of fake news. It was in 2015 when the country first saw the horrific consequences of this strategy when in a village near the national capital, a fifty-year-old Muslim man Muhammad Akhlaq was lynched for allegedly possessing beef in his house. After which various media houses were quick to point out the role of rumours prevoiusly spread on WhatsApp by the local groups that support BJP’s right-wing agenda.

The case of India is unique as in the country with a population of 1.3 billion people, almost 300 million people possess smartphones according to Counterpoint Research. WhatsApp currently has over 200 million monthly active users in India, making India the messaging service’s biggest market. This also comes at a time when the company is struggling with the spread of fake news, all thanks to its privacy policy which uses end-to-end encryption which means only the sender and the receiver can read the messages. This is one of the notable features of the messaging platform, yet it also makes it impossible for even the company to detect the source of fake news spread on its platform. The dilemma that the company faces is also aggravated by the fact that the government is is still on the back foot in terms of regulation to control the spread of misinformation on the platform.

Social media platforms and especially WhatsApp have become the primary medium to spread rumours is because people know that they enjoy a significant amount of legal immunity. Also, an enormous percentage of WhatsApp users are also first-time smartphone users. For most of these people, this is their first interaction with digital media. Therefore, they tend to easily fall for fake news that’s spread online. In the end, India is definitely is seeing the darker side of its digital advancement.

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