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The Dark Side of Social Media

Two people were lynched in Tamil Nadu in less than 24 hours earlier this month

Two people were lynched in Tamil Nadu in less than 24 hours earlier this month. In the first incident, a North Indian man was lynched in Vellore District of Tamil Nadu over rumours that he was a child kidnapper. In the second incident, an elderly woman named Rukmani was lynched in Tiruvannamalai district.

In the second incident, Rukmani was travelling with four other relatives in Athimoor district in Polur Tank in search of her family deity. While returning, the car stopped at a place, where Rukmani offered imported chocolates to some children. An alarm was raised that the group were in the district to abduct children. Subsequently, a mob attacked the group. Rukmani was declared brought dead by the hospital, while the other four are still receiving treatment.

“Humanity died when they brutally assaulted an old woman. All the culprits would be arrested and murder charge would be slapped on them,” SP R Ponni said addressing the media. Following this, around 30 people have been arrested in relation to the lynching.

The rumours regarding child-nappers were circulated via a WhatsApp voice-note. A nameless man, had been circulating messages via the popular messaging app, ‘warning’ people about the thousands of people who had arrived in the state to abduct children. This created a sense of panic among the local populations. A morphed video from Pakistan was used to show the ‘abductors’. The video was reportedly, made to raise awareness in Pakistan, and was staged.

Ms.Ponni also stated that the police in the district was actively trying to raise awareness among villagers. Autos have been installed with public addressing systems and police officials continuously spread awareness. Lynching happened despite all these measures.

Last year, several men were lynched in various districts of Jharkhand due to circulation of similar messages.

WhatsApp has over 200 million users in India, making it a popular platform to share messages. The app also has features which allows the sharing of videos, voice-notes and links. WhatsApp provides privacy to users, which doesn’t allow a third-party access to the messages sent. This allows people to send messages without accountability.

In recent times, there have been vigilance groups and websites that are actively trying to counter these machineries. Pankaj Jain, the founder of Social Media Hoax-Slayer is one such person. In a call with The Citizen, he said “I was tired of the baseless forwards that I received from my relatives. I decided to start a website through which people could check the facts of such forwards.” When asked about the use of WhatsApp messaging service, he said “With the cheap data plans available in our country, everyone has access to WhatsApp. Even the daily wage labourer has WhatsApp installed in his phone, he is the one who is susceptible to believing the baseless ‘facts’ being circulated.”

In Jain’s opinion, this phenomenon can only be curbed by local news channels. “These channels are the ones that an average person watches. These channels need to tell people to be wary about such forwards and tell them that the popular forwards in their particular region are a hoax.”

The most devastating impact of social media propaganda was seen in Muzaffarnagar in 2013. Riots erupted just prior to the elections. The riots erupted in response to propaganda being circulated by both Hindu Agencies as well as Muslim Units. Over 62 people, both Hindus and Muslims died. Even one journalist, Rajesh Varma, lost his life while covering the riots.

The battle with fake news has also held Mark Zuckerberg, Founder-CEO of Facebook accountable. Many feel that the war on Fake News has to have support of technical teams of major social media sites.

However, despite constant efforts by social media platforms, police and websites, rumour mills continue to churn on the platforms. From rumours about demonetisation (Rs. 2000 notes contain GPS tracking chips) to forged videos that lead to civil and communal tensions.

Pratik Sinha, the founder of Alt News has waged a war on fake news. In conversation with The Citizen, he identified two types of fake news. “The first kind is when someone knowingly decides to circulate false information. It is usually done to create trouble. The second kind is when news channels, due to lack of time and effort, circulate news. This is done unknowingly and is mainly due to competition and the rush to be ‘the first’ to report.” Sinha was critical of the current trend of fast paced news. It often leads to media houses covering a report without fact checking.

In an era of fake news, social media users need to be extremely wary about what they choose to believe in. The responsibility also lies with the media. In such a dark era, it is imperative for media to develop a culture where only genuine news is published and covered.