Fake videos provoke rough justice in India

The increasing use of social media to spread unverified or false rumors is leading to mob lynchings
Fake videos provoke rough justice in India

Indian transgender activists hold a candlelit vigil to mark Transgender Day of Remembrance in Hyderabad in November 2015. The event is held worldwide to remember transgenders who have been victims of violence. (Photo by Noah Seelam/AFP)

A transgender person was killed and two others were injured in India's Hyderabad city in what is believed to be the latest in a series of mob lynchings linked to fake videos about child traffickers and robbers.

Two more mob killings in the second half of May were also attributed to a widely circulated video and a message claiming that a notorious kidnapping and burglary gang was prowling the city, which is the capital of southern Telangana state.

Fact-checking groups have confirmed that the video was more than a year old but had been resurfacing periodically.

The latest incident took place at night on May 26 when a mob attacked the two transgender people, and others, rumored to be child-traffickers. Following the attack, police took them to hospital but one died on the way.

Police on May 29 arrested 14 people in connection with the attack, including two local reporters, for allegedly circulating fake news.

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Police later tweeted asking people not to share such bogus reports.

"It is all fake," said the tweet.

Many fake messages are spread via social media, mainly WhatsApp.

The growing net

India has been dealing with an increasing number of incidents of fake messages and news — leading to attacks, communal clashes and mob lynchings — as more Indians connect to the internet and become active on social media.

The availability of cheap mobile phones and affordable internet means more than 300 million Indians now have an internet connection.

Cases of mob lynchings connected with fake news have been reported across India.

In May 2017, in the eastern state of Jharkhand, seven people were lynched in two separate incidents after unverified messages about child kidnappers sparked communal tensions. The dead included innocent cattle herders who were attacked as suspected kidnappers.

In January 2018, following the rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl in Jammu and Kashmir state, emotions were fueled when a video of the girl purportedly singing went viral. Later, fact-checking groups proved that the video was fake and had been made a year earlier.

"It is clear that people use social media to create communal tension and hatred," said Govindraj Ethiraj, founder of FactChecker.in, India's first dedicated initiative to check data and information available on public platforms. "It is often a political game."

He said the spread of misinformation could be intentional or unintentional, but the outcome was often detrimental in either case.

Political sponsorship

India's ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), and affiliated organizations, have been accused by political rivals of using fake content to gain electoral advantage. BJP accuses these critics of doing likewise.

In April, Facebook partnered with Boom, a local fact-checking team, in an attempt to prevent the spread of fake news in the lead-up to a state election in southern Karnataka state.

In the days leading to the 2014 general election in India, a doctored photo of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi sweeping with a broom was widely circulated. The fake image boosted Modi's narrative of having humble beginnings.

Although fact-checking groups intervene to counter fake contents, the sheer volume of fake content, spread through encrypted services such as WhatsApp, poses a major challenge.

"Fake news is a global issue but only in India is it leading to violence," said Ethiraj, who added that blaming social media alone was futile.

"The real issue is the break-down of law and order. It is a deeper societal problem."

Ethiraj believes authorities should react to the problem with the seriousness of bracing for a natural calamity.

He welcomed the awareness of Hyderabad police as demonstrated by their response to the recent lynching incidents. 

Poor are the victims

The victims of fake news are almost always the poor, observed Father Alwyn Prakash D'Souza, head of the human rights and training unit at the Jesuit-run India Social Institute in Bengaluru.

"It is the marginal communities, especially Dalits and minority religious groups, who are affected the most," he said.

He noted that villagers could be easily influenced by messages they received as people tended to believe what they read.

Most often fake news falsely quoted officials or was presented as something that had appeared in international media outlets, Father D'Souza said.

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