Social media ‘kills’

Murderous Mob

By Poonam I Kaushish

Social media ‘kills’ and how! Mob lynching is back on the political-social scene with 17 cases across 9 States from Assam to Tamil Nadu including Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tripura, Andhra Telangana, Gujarat and West Bengal leaving 27 innocent bystanders murdered by a frenzied crowd blinded by viral rumours of child-kidnappers or organ harvesters on the prowl. With gossip wining over fact along-with the mob moving faster than the police, predictably a clueless officialdom grappling with ways to control the rising violence is fast losing out to this growing technology-driven serial killer!
Interestingly, the latest black spot was the lynching of five in Maharashtra’s Dhule district which underscored villagers inflamed by fake warnings of child-trafficking rings on WhatsApp resorted to vigilante justice beating to death innocent unknown people who were merely passing through.
Worse, States which had hired “rumour busters,” to travel from village to village equipped with loudspeakers, warning of the dangers of fake news in their endeavour to control violence, were lynched too.
Resulting in an anguished Supreme Court terming lynching, “a crime unacceptable in a civilised society and no one could take law into their hands” , it put the onus on States for failing to check incidents. Adding, they need to frame guidelines to prevent such occurrences and pay compensation. The Court was hearing pleas seeking directions to formulate guidelines to curb cow vigilantism.
Thereby, exposing how ineffective local intelligence is in alerting the police about tensions or an impending attack, their slow response, ill-preparedness vis-à-vis arms and personnel and low impact of their awareness measures. Killing, yet another signpost of an increasingly enfeebled system, symptomatic of the complete lawlessness that has gripped the country.
A new cult establishing an order of hatred and rage. Of an eerie stillness filling the senses with the smell of death, mayhem and brutal carnage held hostage by rampant goondagardi wherein we continue to remain captive to errant elements of society. Think. The lynchings could have been prevented, if timely intervention had been made.
True, mob mayhem is not new and happening with State approval wherein the ruling political class uses it as one of its political instruments – sometimes as a direct tool to influence their constituency to garner political benefits and sometimes conveniently ignores to protect their support base for keeping political power intact.
Recall, in the last three years all hell broke loose in Dadri, UP, when a Muslim was lynched to death post a rumour that his family had eaten and stored beef in their refrigerator. Then came Una Gujarat where four Dalits were killed by gau rakshaks for skinning a cow, dairy farmer Pehlu Khan in Alwar for smuggling cows and young Juniad in Faridabad, Haryana over a communal slur. Leading to an endless spiral of vicious verbal bashing and counter-wallops on cow slaughter and beef eating.
Raising a moot point: Do we still have rule of law? Why are we so blasé’ about mob violence? Why do hooligans always get the better of us? When did we become a morally corrupt society that does such things? Were we always like this or is this something new? If yesterday, people were killed by cow vigilantes and beef ban, today we are lynching a person on hearsay, tomorrow, society might demand that we carry our identity papers always. What next?
Unfortunately, with over one billion active mobile phone connections and WhatsApp having more than 200 million users in the country, the Government seems at a loss on how to quell the violence triggered by news fake or real and hearsay, whereby local authorities are left to tackle these as best they can, issuing warnings and employing low-tech methods such as hiring street performers to visit villages to spread public awareness.
It’s simply not enough for the Government to assert we are doing are best, really? Besides, it has found a scapegoat in WhatsApp asking it to “immediately contain the spread of such messages through the application of appropriate technology.” Thereby, highlighting its misguided approach and lack of understanding of how modern messaging tools works.
Alongside, the Government has failed to adequately address the larger issues at play which are to blame for these horrific killings. Mob killings are a law and order problem but the root cause of this are three-fold: One, caste and creed identity. Two, no act of mob violence is punished in court. Even where the State is present, it is unable or unwilling to challenge the mob. Three, law enforcers become participants in the violence as the rule of law is weak. Example, mob violence to impose beef ban.
Paradoxically, as the 2019 general election looms and WhatsApp expands its outreach Parties are signing up thousands of “WhatsApp warriors” – who, in some cases, are spreading incendiary content themselves. But simultaneously, the Government and Parties need to launch a campaign to encourage people to question the veracity of information they receive via social media and messaging platforms.
Additionally, police forces need to identify vulnerable areas, initiate effective measures, be better equipped to respond to crimes connected to the spread of misinformation and need to engage more deeply with communities for creating awareness, earn their trust, prevent vigilantism and mob riots and address citizens’ fears about issues like kidnappers on the loose.
In blaming WhatsApp for this lynching spree, it’s clear that the Government is trying to shirk its responsibilities towards its citizens. It’s also missing a key opportunity to connect with people and better understand the growing problem of misinformation, and how it could be tackled at the local and national level.
Hopefully, it’ll look for innovative ways to use technology or collaborate with tech firms to reach its people and counter the effects of virally spread lies. Now if only the Government can find the will to step up to this challenge.
As it stands, Governments around the world are considering laws and controls against fake news in the wake of Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election and the rise of hate speech. Such reactions have raised free-speech concerns. But the spread of fake news has been particularly pernicious in India, where legions of new, inexperienced smartphone users send billions of messages a day on its largest market.
On its part, WhatsApp has introduced a function that allows administrators of groups to control which members can post messages, and the company is testing a plan to label which messages are forwards. Time alone will tell if this is able to quell rumour mongering and lynching.
Clearly, lynching marks a dangerous political trend of mob violence, if this trend goes unchecked society will get dangerously fragmented. Thus, the recent incidents make it imperative that we rethink how we want to shape New India. Mob lynching should have no place in society.
The time has come for the Government to tackle larger issues which are making people paranoid and vulnerable to the viral spread of lies. It needs to guard against the lynching menace else the day is not far when the mob could well mean just Indian society. Nothing justifies violence or the call to commit violence in direct contravention of the law.
The way forward is to desist from fake news and acerbic speeches. Hate crimes don’t pay. Time now to invest in citizens and India and undergo a DNA test! — INFA