'WhatsApp Lynching' Is A Smokescreen – We Need Better Laws To Deal With Mob Violence

Any regulation which governs communication platforms like WhatsApp must be through a law, involving a legal process which is publicly accountable and ensures that any regulation is necessary and proportionate, instead of through vague and ambiguous executive action.

Recent instances of mob violence across the country indicate a severe crisis in our policing and law and order systems. The government’s response, in laying the blame for this kind of violence squarely on social media, neglects the systemic policing crises in our states and risks providing greater justifications for broad state censorship.

Media reports of the recent incidents have focused on the spread of viral rumours through WhatsApp, which, at over 200 million users, is by far the largest online communication platform in India. This has led to hasty reproaches being made by the Ministry of Information and Technology against WhatsApp, directing that it “must take immediate action to … ensure that their platform is not used for such malafide activities” and that “the platform cannot evade accountability and responsibility” for such messages.

Making the platform responsible for content by its users is disingenuous and disregards both the technical limitations of the platform as well as the risks surveillance and censorship in allowing vague norms to govern communications over a major network. WhatsApp, which provides end-to-end encryption for safeguarding the privacy of a user’s messages, is technically unable to monitor the content of messages on its service. Forcing it to do so may require it to limit its encryption abilities and could enable broad surveillance by Facebook (WhatsApp’s parent company), as well as by government agencies. Control over messages also means that the network becomes subject to state and private censorship.

Undoubtedly, the new media has played its part in fanning tensions and insecurities within communities, by enabling the rapid spread of misinformation and propaganda. Unfortunately, the government has constantly resorted to control this by using blunt methods including shutting down the Internet for entire cities or states, jeopardising civil liberties and the right of citizens to access to information and communication. The lack of a clear law has also emboldened executive actions like that of a J&K District Magistrate requiring all WhatsApp group administrators to ‘register’ with the police. This speaks to the absence of a clear policy and a legal framework to address the regulation of platforms in a hyperconnected world.

Any regulation which governs communication platforms like WhatsApp must be through a law, involving a legal process which is publicly accountable and ensures that any regulation is necessary and proportionate, instead of through vague and ambiguous executive action. Specific efforts against disinformation could include tracking and discouraging sources of disinformation from becoming ‘viral’, encouraging credible news sources and improving media literacy. Without taking real efforts to combat disinformation and involving the media, technology platforms and civil society, reproaches to WhatsApp are unlikely to solve anything.

The chimera of mob spontaneity

While the blame for violence is conveniently shifted to WhatsApp and the internet, the systemic failures of our criminal justice and policing institutions continue. While fake news may be fanning fires, the embers of mob violence have been burning from far before the internet and require a deeper examination. Ranging from communal and caste violence in the name of ‘cow protection’, to targeting women as ‘witches’ – mob violence has been rampant across the country throughout our recorded history, including those reportedly caused by rumours of ‘child lifting’.

Mob violence is conveniently explained away by governments and media alike as ‘spontaneous eruptions’ of anger within crowds, stemming from incitements like morphed photos or fake propaganda. This myth of ‘spontaneous violence’ has been proven to be an outdated method of considering social unrest. Many studies on communal violence in India have indicated that so-called ‘spontaneous’ riots are actually the result of deliberate attempts to polarise or victimise communities, a method that political scientist Paul Brass calls ‘institutionalised riot systems’. These systems are usually exploited for political, social and electoral gains. Undoubtedly, closer looks at the recent instances will also reveal deeper causes of the insecurities and tensions between communities leading to such violent acts.

A useful typology of social unrest by the OECD considers it as a spectrum from dissatisfaction, to organisation, mobilisation and finally to actions of political violence like riots. At each stage, there is the potential for de-escalation of this violence. However, without such de-escalation, every form of social unrest has the potential for violent outburst. Understanding and preventing mob violence requires us to understand and respond to each stage of the escalation and the causes underpinning them. However, our criminal justice system seeks largely to respond to the acts of violence itself, while leaving the causal factors unchecked.

The crisis in our policing system compounds the failure of the criminal justice system. Besides being severely understaffed and starved of critical resources, the police force is structurally unsuited to serve and protect citizens. The structure of policing, in a continuation of its colonial legacy, remains subservient to political control. Political interference at every stage from investigation to prosecution ensures that the police is accountable not to the citizenry, but to the powerful political class who is in a position to reprimand them.

No law, no order

Mob violence will not dissipate overnight. Countering this systematic failure of the criminal justice and policing system will require an overhaul of our legal systems and policy objectives. To begin with, police reforms calling for greater independence need to be implemented – reforms that have been urged since the National Police Commission submitted its first reports in the 1970’s have been ignored for decades. Specifically, the nexus between state governments and the police needs to be dismantled by shifting police supervision to a more independent body.

Mechanisms like the proposed Police Complaints Authorities need to be introduced to ensure that the police force is also accountable for its failures to follow the law. In order to improve police intelligence and recognise and quell social unrest at its roots, initiatives like community policing and violence observatories, which can be established to systematically study the causes of violence in risk-prone areas, should be given impetus. These matters need to be at the forefront of public conversation and political demands, and state governments must be held to account for the failures to implement these reforms.

Finally, liability and accountability for mob violence must not end at the actual participants in the violence. Those found responsible for spreading dissatisfaction and organising or mobilising against specific communities must also be brought to book. These are the actors most responsible for ensuring a climate of fear and hate.

The time for empty rhetoric is long past us. In an atmosphere of constant tension and distrust, there is a constant lurking danger of social unrest escalating into violent behaviour, unless specific interventions are urgently made.

Divij Joshi is a research fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, Bengaluru.