Death By WhatsApp: One Message and 24 Murders

News18.com

The fatal messages were both in text and in audio. They were in Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, Hindi, Assamese and Gujarati among others.

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The Snowball Effect

No one had any idea where the messages originated from or who was the original sender. But when it comes to the safety of one’s children, these questions become irrelevant.

Maybe, if someone had stopped to ask these questions, this fake WhatsApp message wouldn’t have led to 22 murders in one year. These 22 ‘outsiders’ were lynched by mobs on the mere suspicion of being the non-existent ‘child lifters’.

Phony as a three-dollar bill, the message spread like forest fire from Jharkhand to Tamil Nadu and Assam to Gujarat. In each state, it preyed on the raging ‘local versus outsider’ sentiment. It started doing the rounds of southern states around the time when political discourse was hijacked by the ‘North versus South’ debate.

It might be easy now to scoff at those who believed and further shared the fake message, but hindsight is always a perfect 20/20.

In fact, according to a research by the University of Warwick, 40% of fake news cannot be spotted by average educated adults. Even if they do feel something is amiss, only 45% adults can place their finger on what exposes the news as fake.

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In the last four years, social media usage in the country has gone up by 150% with an 83% increase in smartphone ownership. Such proliferation and the availability of competitive data plans have ensured digital intrusion in areas where people have had no exposure to the concept of fake news or digital privacy.

Caveat emptor does not apply in this case, says Sunil Abraham, the Executive Director of Bangalore-based research organisation Centre for Internet and Society.

A Timeline of Deaths


Jharkhand | May 2017

The fake message on ‘child lifters’ added fuel to fire in Jharkhand, which has been plagues by child abductions and kidnappings for years. Young girls from the state have been known to be abducted and forced into modern-day slavery in other states.

Villagers, who had never heard of the concept of fake news, bought into the rumours. And since a photo can say a 1,000 fake words as well, graphic images freely available on the internet were used alongside the message. The propaganda did the trick and aroused murderous rage among the local tribal population.

At least nine people were killed in separate incidents over as many days in Singhbhum district. Angry mobs beat and hacked the victims to death, assuming they were saving their young ones from ‘child lifting’ gangs that were rumoured to be abducting children for organ trade.

The death toll would have been higher had protest marches against the fake news and the killings not been held in cities like Jamshedpur. While these protests did not get the police to act against hate mongers on social media, the uproar publicised the fact that the message was a fake one.

Over the next few days, alleged ‘child lifters’ were caught in other villages, but were duly handed over to the police.

The disinformation campaign died a natural death in Jharkhand, but moved to a new hunting ground.

Tamil Nadu | May 2018

More than 2,000 km from Jharkhand, the message landed in Tamil Nadu with an additional detail — be wary of ‘North India people’. It warned of a gang of 400 ‘North Indians’ out to lure children for organ trade. These people, the message added, may try to gain entry into homes on the pretext of being repair men or hawkers. Again, the images of mutilated bodies did the trick.

No one stopped to think whether a ‘gang of 400 outsiders’ could travel undetected. No one called the 100 helpline to confirm the rumour with the police. The mere ‘police-arrived-at-the-scene’ was enough to convince people of its authenticity.

A man in Thiruvalluvar, north of Chennai, became the state’s first victim of the fake news. A mob beat him mercilessly and hung him from a bridge in Pulicat on May 10.

The second lynching came in less than 24 hours. This time the victim was an elderly woman identified as Rukmani in the temple town of Thiruvannamalai. She was returning from a temple visit with her relatives when they stopped their car at a village. Rukmani was handing out ‘foreign chocolates’ to local children when word spread that a woman was ‘luring’ kids with sweets.

“The mob didn’t even give her a chance to be heard. Giving out chocolates to children doesn’t make you a child trafficker. I’m scared to even step out after this incident,” says a relative who was in the car with Rukmani and was grievously injured.

Police officials rounded up at least 30 people and charged them with murder.

Another person was killed under similar circumstances in Salem. The state witnessed seven more such attacks.

Andhra Pradesh and Telangana | May 2018

The mob madness spread to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana next, again preying on anti-migrant sentiment. The first attack was reported mid-May when 12 people were suspected to be members of ‘Parthi’ gang, a group notorious for dacoity in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

A couple of days later, a mob beat up two beggars in Vishakhapatnam, killing one of them.

Another horrific attack unfolded in Hyderabad where a transgender was stoned to death by a mob of 200. The victim had travelled from Mahabubnagar district with three others to seek alms in the holy month of Ramzan.

Soon, the fake news reached other districts. A man visiting a relative in Nizamabad was killed when he failed to give a mob ‘satisfactory’ explanation of his presence there.

A murder in Yadadri district of Telangana, an attack on nine people in Vikarabad district and an assault on a woman at the Guntur railway station followed within days.

Karnataka | May 2018

The mob mentality fuelled by the fake news campaign reached Karnataka, where the ‘local versus outsider’ debate had reached fever pitch during election campaigning.

WhatsApp users in Bengaluru, India’s Silicon Valley, started receiving warnings on ‘child lifters’ in Kannada.

“Don’t leave your kids unattended..if you find such traffickers, tie them up and call the cops (sic),” one such message advised.

‘Mob-ocracy’ struck again. The first victim in the state was 26-year-old Kalu Ram, who had come from Rajasthan in search for work. He was tied with a rope and dragged through the streets of

A 26-year-old construction labourer from Rajasthan, identified as Kalu Ram, who had come to look for work was tied with a rope, dragged through the streets of Chamarajpet in west Bengaluru. Beaten with bats and other household ‘weapons’, Kalu Ram succumbed to his injuries.

According to Additional Commissioner (West) BK Singh, India saw ‘mass madness’ 20 years ago as well with the ‘Ganesha drinking milk’ rumour, but WhatsApp has taken it to dangerous new heights.

“This hapless man was walking alone. Two persons standing there saw him and started following him to a shop just 100 metres away. Suddenly, a crowd gathered. People brought whatever they could find in their homes — cricket bats, stumps, ropes etc,” Singh says.

“Once a crowd becomes a mob, you cannot control it. Many of them may be meek persons individually, but they are taken in by the presence of the mob. The mob thinks that if they act collectively, police won’t act and they can get away easily,” Singh adds.

Around 20 people were arrested based on CCTV footage and videos taken by bystanders, who did nothing to help the hapless victim. One of the main accused is 26-year-old Anbu, who has other criminal cases pending against him. Four women and a minor were among those in custody. All of them face murder charges now.

The spread of the fake news in Tamil Nadu may also have led to the violence.

Pension Mohalla in Bakshi Garden where the attack took place has a dominant Tamil population. Some of them could have been aware of the rumours before it made its way to Bengaluru. When the WhatsApp messages started doing the Silicon Valley’s rounds, it may have been perceived as a confirmation of the fake news.

Assam | June 2018

The latest casualty of the fake news was reported in Assam, again a state which deals with anti-migrant sentiment.

On June 8, two youths from Guwahati were battered to death in Karbi Anglong district on suspicion of being child lifters. Police said Abhijit Nath and Nilutpal Das were on their way to the Kanthe Langshu picnic spot when their vehicle was attacked by a group of men at Panjuri Kachari village, 16 km from Dokmoka town.

Eyewitnesses said the two boys were brutally beaten with bamboo poles and wood, and tortured to death by a mob of ‘inebriated’ villagers.

“It happened when some locals informed a group of villagers about two men travelling in a black car with an abducted child. These few villagers were drinking in the roadside dhaba and immediately called upon more people to trace the car and catch them. The mob stopped the car and surrounded the two boys inside. The village elders tried to stop them from beating the boys, but they would not listen,” said a local shopkeeper.

This incident was yet again preceded by paranoia fuelled by WhatsApp forwards. The messages warned people of 'sopadhora' (child lifters) being on the prowl. Many in Karbi Anglong, one of the most backward areas of the country, took those messages as gospel.

“We have arrested 35 people so far. Some of them are directly involved in the attack, while one has been arrested for posting objectionable content on social media, inciting communal violence soon after the incident took place. There’s no substance to the rumour of ‘sopadhora’ (child lifters) in the area. But it had created a fear psychosis among people here,” says Agarwal.

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CHAPTER 1

The Propaganda Machine

WhatsApp has unfortunately become a fertile breeding ground for parasites that prey on fear. At present, it has 200 million active users. These users are potential victims of fake news given the complex form of anonymity that WhatsApp offers. It is mainly to arrest the fake news propaganda that the first step in violence-hit areas is to suspend internet services.

In this case, too, the original culprits took cover in this anonymity and experts believe they may never be unmasked. While Facebook and other social media websites are under pressure to address the menace, an inter-personal software, such as WhatsApp, skirts the scanner.

“Those who are passing the rumours cannot be traced or haven’t been traced purely because they are on WhatsApp groups. My guess is that they would have started it (the rumours) on WhatsApp because it is difficult to trace. Once it starts, it (the message) makes its way to everywhere. Somebody gets it on WhatsApp, they put it on their Facebook profile or forward to other WhatsApp users. It goes across multiple platforms. It is not limited to one platform,” says Alt News co-founder Pratik Sinha.

Given its penetration, WhatsApp has emerged as a cheap medium to propagate hate.

Police officials investigating the murder of senior journalist and Left-leaning thinker Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru were surprised to find out that a key suspect was an ‘admin’ for hundreds of groups.

KT Naveen Kumar, a college dropout, floated his outfit ‘Hindu Yuva Sena’ in Mandya near Bengaluru three years ago. The Hindutva activist confessed to the police that he created several WhatsApp groups — Hindu Yuva Sena, Jago Hindu Maddur, Bajrang Maddur and Kaveri Boys among others — to propagate his ‘Save Hinduism’ agenda.

Once you create a WhatsApp group and add ‘participants’, you are free to make others the ‘admin’, who in turn can add scores of people to the group. There is no known cap to the number of participants in a WhatsApp group.

CHAPTER 2

Jharkhand

The fake message on ‘child lifters’ added fuel to fire in Jharkhand, which has been plagued by child abductions and kidnappings for years. Young girls from the state have been known to be abducted and forced into modern-day slavery in other states.

Villagers, who had never heard of the concept of fake news, bought into the rumours. And since a photo can say a 1,000 fake words as well, graphic images freely available on the internet were used alongside the message. The propaganda did the trick and aroused murderous rage among the local tribal population.

At least nine people were killed in separate incidents over as many days in Singhbhum district. Angry mobs beat and hacked the victims to death, assuming they were saving their young ones from ‘child lifting’ gangs that were rumoured to be abducting children for organ trade.

The death toll would have been higher had protest marches against the fake news and the killings not been held in cities like Jamshedpur. While these protests did not get the police to act against hate mongers on social media, the uproar publicised the fact that the message was a fake one.

Over the next few days, alleged ‘child lifters’ were caught in other villages, but were duly handed over to the police.

The disinformation campaign died a natural death in Jharkhand, but moved to a new hunting ground.

CHAPTER 3

Tamil Nadu

More than 2,000 km from Jharkhand, the message landed in Tamil Nadu with an additional detail — be wary of ‘North India people’. It warned of a gang of 400 ‘North Indians’ out to lure children for organ trade. These people, the message added, may try to gain entry inside homes on the pretext of being repair men or hawkers. Again, the images of mutilated bodies did the trick.

No one stopped to think whether a ‘gang of 400 outsiders’ could travel undetected. No one called the 100 helpline to confirm the rumour with the police. The mere ‘police-arrived-at-the-scene’ was enough to convince people of its authenticity.

A man in Thiruvalluvar, north of Chennai, became the state’s first victim of the fake news. A mob beat him mercilessly and hung him from a bridge in Pulicat on May 10.

The mob didn’t even give her a chance to be heard.

The second lynching came in less than 24 hours. This time the victim was an elderly woman identified as Rukmani in the temple town of Thiruvannamalai. She was returning from a temple visit with her relatives when they stopped their car at a village. Rukmani was handing out ‘foreign chocolates’ to local children when word spread that a woman was ‘luring’ kids with sweets.

“The mob didn’t even give her a chance to be heard. Giving out chocolates to children doesn’t make you a child trafficker. I’m scared to even step out after this incident,” says a relative who was in the car with Rukmani and was grievously injured.

Police officials rounded up at least 30 people and charged them with murder.

CHAPTER 4

Andhra Pradesh & Telangana

The mob madness spread to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana next, again preying on anti-migrant sentiment. The first attack was reported mid-May when 12 people were suspected to be members of ‘Parthi’ gang, a group notorious for dacoity in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

A couple of days later, a mob beat up two beggars in Vishakhapatnam, killing one of them.

Another horrific attack unfolded in Hyderabad where a transgender was stoned to death by a mob of 200. The victim had travelled from Mahabubnagar district with three others to seek alms in the holy month of Ramzan.

Soon, the fake news reached other districts. A man visiting a relative in Nizamabad was killed when he failed to give ‘satisfactory’ explanation to the mob about his presence there.

A murder in Yadadri district of Telangana, an attack on nine people in Vikarabad district and an assault on a woman at the Guntur railway station followed within days.

CHAPTER 5

Karnataka

The mob mentality fuelled by the fake news campaign reached Karnataka, where the ‘local versus outsider’ debate had reached fever pitch during election campaigning.

WhatsApp users in Bengaluru, India’s Silicon Valley, started receiving warnings on ‘child lifters’ in Kannada.

“Don’t leave your kids unattended..if you find such traffickers, tie them up and call the cops (sic),” one such message advised. 04:24 PM

A 26-year-old construction labourer from Rajasthan, identified as Kalu Ram, who had come to look for work was tied with a rope, dragged through the streets of Chamarajpet in west Bengaluru. Beaten with bats and other household ‘weapons’, he succumbed to his injuries.

According to Additional Commissioner (West) BK Singh, India saw a similar kind of 'madness’ 20 years ago with the ‘Ganesha drinking milk’ rumour, but WhatsApp has taken it to a dangerous new height.

“This hapless man was walking alone. Two persons standing there saw him and started following him to a shop just 100 metres away. Suddenly, a crowd gathered. People brought whatever they could find in their homes — cricket bats, stumps, ropes etc,” Singh says.

“Once a crowd becomes a mob, you cannot control it. Many of them may be meek persons individually, but they are taken in by the presence of the mob. The mob thinks that if they act collectively, police won’t act and they can get away easily,” Singh adds.

People brought whatever they could find in their homes — cricket bats, stumps, ropes etc.

Around 20 people were arrested based on CCTV footage and videos taken by bystanders, who did nothing to help the hapless victim. One of the main accused is 26-year-old Anbu, who has other criminal cases pending against him. Four women and a minor were among those in custody. All of them face murder charges now.

The spread of the fake news in Tamil Nadu may also have led to the violence.

Pension Mohalla in Bakshi Garden where the attack took place has a dominant Tamil population. Some of them could have been aware of the rumours before it made its way to Bengaluru. When the WhatsApp messages started doing the Silicon Valley’s rounds, it may have been perceived as a confirmation of the fake news.

Another person was killed under similar circumstances in Salem. The state witnessed seven more such attacks.

CHAPTER 6

Assam

The latest casualty of the fake news was reported in Assam, again a state which deals with anti-migrant sentiment.

On June 8, two youths from Guwahati were battered to death in Karbi Anglong district on suspicion of being child lifters. Police said Abhijit Nath and Nilutpal Das were on their way to the Kanthe Langshu picnic spot when their vehicle was attacked by a group of men at Panjuri Kachari village, 16 km from Dokmoka town.

Eyewitnesses said the two boys were brutally beaten with bamboo poles and wood, and tortured to death by a mob of allegedly inebriated villagers.

“It happened when some locals informed a group of villagers about two men travelling in a black car with an abducted child. These few villagers were drinking in the roadside dhaba and immediately called upon more people to trace the car and catch them. The mob stopped the car and surrounded the two boys inside. The village elders tried to stop them from beating the boys, but they would not listen,” said a local shopkeeper.

The two boys were brutally beaten with bamboo poles and wood, and tortured to death by a mob of allegedly inebriated villagers.

This incident was yet again preceded by paranoia fuelled by WhatsApp forwards. The messages warned people of 'sopadhora' (child lifters) being on the prowl. Many in Karbi Anglong, one of the most backward areas of the country, took those messages as gospel.

“We have arrested 35 people so far. Some of them are directly involved in the attack, while one has been arrested for posting objectionable content on social media, inciting communal violence soon after the incident took place. There’s no substance to the rumour of ‘sopadhora’ (child lifters) in the area. But it had created a fear psychosis among people here,” says Agarwal.

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