The Dark Underbelly of Social Media

Mob lynchings, fuelled by online rumours, are only a small part of the ever-increasing role played by social media in Indian society and politics.

The number of lynchings, triggered by rumours circulating on social media, has taken on alarming proportions in India. Rumours have played their part in historical events. The role of rumours in the run-up to the French Revolution is well documented. So too is the role of rumours in the 1857 uprising in British India. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, rumours largely spread by word of mouth. However, now modern technology is aiding the spread of rumours, leading to unexpected and often brutal outcomes. In nearly all the incidents of mob violence over the past year, the rumours, usually of child lifting, were circulated on WhatsApp. It is not a coincidence that India is WhatsApp’s biggest market worldwide, with more than 200 million users.

A common strand in the mob violence has been the perpetrators, usually unemployed and poor, located in rural or semi-rural India. Neither rural India nor the poor are usually associated with heavy internet usage. However, according to a report published by the Internet and Mobile Association of India, the number of internet users is growing across India. While there are an estimated 295 million internet users in urban India, the corresponding number for rural India is also substantial at 186 million. Although internet penetration is still much lower in rural India at 20% of the population, compared to 65% in urban India, it’s in rural and mofussil India that the internet has become the primary source of news and information.

The preferred device for using the internet is the cell phone, which is ubiquitous in both urban and rural India. The number of cellphone subscriptions exploded from 34 million in 2004 to over 1.1 billion in 2017. Accessing the internet on cellphones is a global trend with a study predicting that in 2018, mobile devices will account for 73% of time spent using the internet.

While in all the incidents, rumours of child lifting went viral in a matter of minutes or even seconds, the police were ill-equipped to deal with the situation. It is well known that the ratio of policemen to the population in India is one of the lowest in the world. The police are also not geared to deal with crime triggered by social media. Moreover, rumours circulated on WhatsApp are particularly difficult to track since everything on the platform is encrypted from end to end at the device level.

While the information technology ministry has asked WhatsApp to take immediate action against the spread of misinformation, the company has expressed its inability to tackle the problem on its own. However, it has put in place some measures to curb the spread of false information. The company has said that it will limit how many times messages can be forwarded in India. Groups on WhatsApp can have a maximum of 256 people. Many of the messages that are believed to have triggered violence were forwarded to multiple groups, which had more than 100 members each. Under the new rules, a single person would be able to forward one message only five times. These steps are, however, unlikely to curb the spread of false information.

The Indian Supreme Court has also stepped in while hearing a batch of petitions related to vigilantism by groups professing to protect cows. The court is, however, not restricting itself to cow vigilantism alone. On July 18, it said that the “horrendous acts of mobocracy cannot be permitted to inundate the law of land”. Indeed, there has been a rise in mob violence, particularly cow vigilantism, since the BJP government took over in 2014.

The court has not only passed a series of measures to check mob violence but also recommended that parliament create a special law to deal with such offences. Among the measures the court has directed to be put in place is a nodal officer in each district to take steps to prevent mob violence; to “curb and stop dissemination of irresponsible and explosive messages, videos and other material on various social media platforms”; and to set up fast-track courts to hear cases related to lynching and mob violence.

Mob lynchings, fuelled by online rumours, are only a small part of the ever-increasing role played by social media in Indian society and politics. While the nature and impact of social media in India is complex and often empowering, the mob lynchings represent the dark underbelly of internet technology. The Indian state is not equipped to deal with the spread of misinformation and fake news on social media. Social media companies are loath to take steps on the grounds that it will compromise their business model and freedom of speech.

Episodes of barbarity and violence caused by false information on social media are not unique to India. Online rumours have sparked deadly violence and riots in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. The state, the technology companies and informed social media users need to collaborate to find a solution. As of now, this seems a tall order in what is being described as a ‘post-truth’ world. In the short term, the deadly cocktail of technology, rumours and users of social media, who are unable or unwilling to distinguish fact from fiction, is likely to continue to spawn violence.

Ronojoy Sen is with the National University of Singapore.