I assumed the post of District Police Chief of Jogulamba Gadwal, a rural district in the central Indian state of Telangana, in the summer of 2018. Shortly after, during a routine review meeting with village police officers, I heard a report of villagers sleeping indoors in the evenings — something utterly unfathomable in the sweltering March heat. My curiosity piqued, I dispatched officers throughout the district to investigate. What my officers reported was something my many years of police experience had not prepared me for: the villagers were choosing the suffocating heat but relative security of their homes over the comfort of their outdoor courtyards because they had been terrified by a video they had seen on WhatsApp.
All throughout Jogulamba Gadwal, villagers with access to cell phones had received images, audio recordings, and videos alleging that Parthis—a long-stigmatized tribal group that had been declared a criminal entity by the British administrators in 1871—were wantonly prowling the district and committing acts of unspeakable violence. A gory video that went viral depicted a man being ripped apart and his organs pulled out by a group of four assailants, presumably Parthis. These images were later demonstrated to be fabricated, but they worked alongside rumors of child-lifting gangs to spur public anxiety and action: villagers formed community patrols and went on the lookout for strangers. Anyone who was not recognized was restrained, questioned, and, very frequently, beaten.
This led entire households to opt to sleep indoors. Indeed, the situation became so fraught with anxiety that even the homeless and beggars found ways to remove themselves from the streets and out of the roving sight of paranoid village patrollers. Twenty-three times in the span of three months, my office received reports of villagers forming stick-wielding mobs and attacking strangers. In the meantime, a doctored educational video from Karachi, Pakistan found its way to the villages, fueling child-lifting rumors and leading to further spates of violence.
The seeds of the violence my officers and I observed were planted in innocuous enough soil: the marrow-deep trust the villagers had in their friends, family, and community made them accept social media-forwarded rumors and graphic warnings at face value. Worse, because the information came from trusted sources, the villagers were likely to forward the malicious content to their own trusting friends and families. This trend is in line with a narrative becoming all too familiar across India: thirty-three people were killed in sixty-nine mob attacks since January 2017 due to rumors of child-lifting.1 India is home to more than 462 million internet users, and the ability of social media to penetrate even the most rural communities has outstripped education about safe social media use. My experiences are neither unique nor aberrant, and suggest that, left to their own devices, people in rural regions with access to social media platforms will not regulate themselves sufficiently to safeguard the public interest.
The biggest challenge before us was to trace the origin of these potentially violent videos. We lacked the capability to directly counter hyper-realistic artificial intelligence-generated deep fake media, so we turned to direct engagement with and education of our digitally-illiterate people instead.2 I called for an emergency training session for my team of police officers. They were taught the basics about fake news, misinformation, and how to identify low-credibility content on social media. Our office subsequently mapped areas where social media-instigated panic was intense and violent, and then my newly-trained officers went door to door in over 400 villages and tribal hamlets to interact with the locals.3 Our idea was to give the citizens a strong sense of safety, teach them self-regulation while using social media, and create awareness about the legal consequences of taking the law into their own hands.
In our efforts to find a local antidote to a global issue, we roped in town-criers, locally known as dappu artists, and trained them to convey our message to the residents of their communities. We also formed police cultural troupes, composed of cops who could sing and dance, who would circulate throughout the villages to perform folk songs written in the local dialect about the pitfalls of social media rumors. These village-based folk events were by far the single most effective intervention implemented by our office.
Through all of this, we were fighting a battle both on the ground and online. A small group of tech-savvy cops monitored the local social media space for low-credibility content, malicious messages, and gory videos. When we detected suspicious content, we contacted the pertinent group administrators and advised them to remove it. Some of our village police officers obtained the consent of village headmen and group administrators to add themselves to local WhatsApp groups and continued to implore the members of these digital communities to not forward fake messages and deep fake videos.
We called this blended model of local traditions and technological early warning ‘focused deterrence.’ This required us to go beyond our core mandate, traditional training, and fundamental call of duty—every police officer spent a few hours a day reaching out to communities to warn them about the threat and to take them into confidence about every measure we were taking to fight the fake news menace. We paired this engagement with swift legal action on violators and a flexible application of manpower to places that seemed most at risk, such as communities with a history of political faction-related violence or a comparatively high youth population. I am convinced that our efforts averted further lynchings fueled by social media rumors.4
There is no denying the fact that misinformation and disinformation are fast becoming a security threat in India. WhatsApp has become the largest digital platform for spreading hatred and fake news, and cognitive laziness operates insidiously in tandem with existing social trust structures to allow malicious content to spread virally.5 Fear-mongering gets clicks. My own sense is that there is a consistent and deliberate attempt on social media platforms to undermine people’s sense of security through the propagation of fake news and rumors, but the persistent problem is that it is extremely difficult for local law enforcement to understand either who is responsible for initiating this malicious content, or what their motives are. The results are clear, however: they are fueling a heightened sense of online socio-political and religious activism in India, and these in turn are fueling sectarian tensions.
The dark side of social media is its tendency to allow its users, very often under the cloak of anonymity, to trigger identity-defense mechanisms and unleash explosions of rage. In a country like India, pre-existing societal prejudices—such as those against the Parthis—interact with social media and a low level of public awareness of the threat to produce mob violence and extrajudicial killings. Fake news has the potential to incite rage and disrupt public peace and order, not only in a politically charged environment, but also frequently in peaceful communities. Many people are not particularly sophisticated social media users, being overly trusting of content forwarded by their friends and deficiently skeptical of content they themselves come across. Cognitive biases influence how we all selectively filter, process, and spread information, and the people most vulnerable to these biases are the uneducated and, paradoxically, the people who have the least reason to be suspicious of the individuals in their social trust networks.
From this public servant’s perspective, education and enforcement must go hand in hand. I welcome the proactive measures initiated by some digital platforms, but at the same time find them inadequate. These firms’ technologies are woven throughout the fabric of our daily lives. To pretend that their parent companies have no obligation to the public wellbeing is, at best, evasive. Specifically, I believe that these companies should aggressively promote the self-regulation of inflammatory content, prevent the spread of hatred, and muffle divisive messages.
At the macro level, we need a robust public agenda to deal with this issue by involving all stakeholders. Unfortunately, in India, there is undue focus on the integrity of political communication enabled by digital platforms, at the cost of overlooking the impact these platforms have on the daily lives of average citizens. There must be an earnest attempt on the part not only of firms, but also of end users and local community leaders on platform accountability and digital literacy. I decided to resort to more traditional modes of communication, such as the town-criers and local story-telling traditions, because the mobs were unintentionally exhibiting defensive aggression.6 These were, at the end of the day, honest citizens who were quite justifiably afraid for the safety of their children and other loved ones. Democracy is, essentially and fundamentally, about people. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that misinformation spread through social media undermines the integrity of liberal democracies.7 It is time to shift the spotlight from the cacophony of the digital revolution to strengthening the fundamentals. We cannot let technological advancement come at the cost of more human lives.
About the Author
1. Saldanha, Alison, Pranav Rajput, and Jay Hazare, “Child-Lifting Rumours: 33 Killed in 69 Mob Attacks Since Jan 2017. Before That Only 1 Attack in 2012,” India Spend, July 9, 2018, https://www.indiaspend.com/child-lifting-rumours-33-killed-in-69-mob-attacks-since-jan-2017-before-that-only-1-attack-in-2012-2012/.
2. Teja, Charan, “In This Whatsapp Obsessed Telangana Dist, Cops Teach Locals How to Tackle Fake News,” The News Minute, May 17, 2018, https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/whatsapp-obsessed-telangana-dist-cops-teach-locals-how-tackle-fake-news-81479.
3. Biswas, Soutik, “The Indian Policewoman who Stopped Whatsapp Mob Killings,” BBC News, September 25, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-45570274.
4. Marlow, Iain, “Fake News on Whatsapp Is Killing People in India,” Bloomberg, June 20, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-06-20/one-cop-s-fight-against-fake-news-is-saving-lives-in-india.
5. McLaughlin, Timothy, “How Whatsapp Fuels Fake News and Violence in India,” Wired, December 12, 2018, https://www.wired.com/story/how-whatsapp-fuels-fake-news-and-violence-in-india/.
6. Singh, Vishwaveer, “ In Telangana, an Ancient Storytelling Tradition is Helping the Police Fight Fake News on Whatsapp,” Scroll.In, January 5, 2019, https://scroll.in/magazine/903083/in-telangana-an-ancient-storytelling-tradition-is-helping-fighting-fake-news-on-whatsapp.
7. Paquet-Labelle, Ariane, “2018 Brazil Elections: The Dark Power of Social Media and the Threat to Journalism,” Journalism and Society at LSE, October 27, 2018, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/polis/2018/10/27/2018-brazil-elections-the-power-of-social-media-and-the-threat-to-journalism/.