It's an unfortunate time when real news gets buried in an avalanche of false information and hoaxes spreading like wildfire in India and creating rifts between castes, communities, castes and religions.
The hysteria generated on social media, especially among locals, has recently led to mobs killing six people in Assam, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.
Tackling one of the biggest hurdles before Indian law enforcement agencies is Rema Rajeshwari, Superintendent of Police of Jogulamba Gadwal district in Telangana, Bloomberg reported.
Whatsapp Rumours, Her Biggest Nemesis
Rajeshwari joined the Indian Police Service in 2009 and was later deployed to Andhra Pradesh in 2014 when the state split in two to create Telangana.
Gadwal, a district two hours away from the capital Hyderabad, is the site of a history of political violence and also happens to be her residence. The local literacy rate stands at a dismal 50 percent, roughly 25 percent below the nationwide average.
Adding to her woes is an understaffed police force. More than 200 million Indians use WhatsApp, sending 13.7 billion messages per day, says Neha Dharia, a social media analyst, to Bloomberg. Taking her cue from statistics, the proliferation of fake news via social media poses an even more serious challenge for Rajeshwari.
Due to the circulation of morbid videos and hysteria generated by these rumours on WhatsApp, villagers in SP Rajeshwari’s district often form vigilante patrol groups, harassing outsiders, Bloomberg reported.
Simmering tensions between Hindus and Muslims over Whatsapp rumours create an insurmountable worry.
"This region has always been sensitive," she tells Bloomberg. "That’s why we’re so worried about WhatsApp. Any trigger could set it off."
The Modus Operandi
Undaunted by such challenges, Rajeshwari has been at the helm of conducting a massive awareness campaign across the district to stop the menace of fake news, but more so to fulfill the dire need to “educate our officers first.”
On her arrival in March, Rajeshwari called for training sessions for more than 500 officers. She first directed constables to inspect villages and enlighten villagers on social issues like child marriage, the report added.
Before she kickstarted her extensive outreach campaign against the spread of fake news, she was apprised of the fact that locals used drummers to debunk fake news.
"We told the villagers –see, look at the people who are in these videos, they don’t even look like Indians. Some of the videos are from South America, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar." - SP Rama Rajeshwari said
SP Rajeshwari’s Efforts are Paying Rich Dividends
Bloomberg cited that the I&B ministry has recently released a tender for a company to analyse Indians’ social media posts and detect fake news.
However, its is the SP’s efforts at towards outreach and maintenance of a dedicated district-level IT cell that are seemingly paying rich dividends.
Reports indicate that there have been no fake news-related killings across 400 villages under her jurisdiction. Other states of Punjab, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are considering replicating her campaign.
Moreover, sarpanches have added police personnel into their local WhatsApp groups, allowing them to monitor messages, and look out for rumours that could incite violence.
"Our village-level police officers will be in touch with sarpanches and different communities through WhatsApp, in coordination with our dedicated IT cell. Any suspicious messages will be immediately debunked with facts through this network" - SP Rajeshwari told The News Minute
A villager narrated how a fake news blunder caught hold of him. His name and photo popped up on a village WhatsApp group, depicting him as a child kidnapper, The News Minute reported. Fearing for his life, he reached out to local cop, and a teenager from another village was arrested for spreading fake news.
‘Don’t Take the Law Into Your Own Hands’
Swinging into action, the SP in her khaki uniform, is used to taking centrestage infront of a gathering of hundreds of villagers.
“You see these messages, these photos and videos, but you don’t check if they’re real or fake, you just forward them,” Rema tells villagers, reports Bloomberg.
“Don’t spread these messages. And when strangers come to your village, don’t take the law into your hands. Don’t kill them," she added.
Rajeshwari told Bloomberg that she saw a recent surge in messages around recent state elections in the neighboring state of Karnataka.
Despite recent successes, the challenges before SP Rajeshwari are towering, especially with the Lok Sabha elections due next year.
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