Centre for Internet & Society

Nilotpal Basu and Abhijeet Nath, an audio engineer and digital artiste, were beaten to death in Assam's Karbi Anglong last week based on rumours that they were kidnappers.

The article was published in the Times of India on June 18, 2018. Pranesh Prakash was quoted. Inputs from Kim Arora.

A manipulated WhatsApp video is said to be the source of the panic. While it is just the medium and not the reason behind the killings, WhatsApp, with its 250-million users in India, allows rumours to travel farther than ever before. "In many non-urban areas, such WhatsApp videos are the first form in which people encounter the internet on their phones. They don't always go online and verify them," says Jency Jacob, who runs the fact checking outlet Boom. This gullibility can't be explained just by class or education, he says. "Technology makes it easy to believe what you want to believe and spread it," says Jacob.

The spread of internet gives wings to rumours in pockets where kidnappings are a real fear. The states where lynchings have been reported are also among those with high figures for child abductions. Technology has helped rumours travel greater distances with greater impunity, says Pranesh Prakash, fellow at Centre for Internet and Society, recalling that child abduction rumours led to a lynching in Tamil Nadu in 2015 too, but this time, "such rumours have spread all over South India". And as the Karbi Anglong killings show, to Assam as well.

WhatsApp being an encrypted platform, police cannot trace the source of the rumourmongering. WhatsApp did not respond to TOI's queries on tracing origins of hate messages, but a spokesperson shared a statement saying they "block automated messages" and are educating people about spotting fake news and hoaxes.

In many cases, law enforcement has failed at a more basic level. Child abduction is a disturbing rumour, designed to provoke an emotional reaction, but other anxieties are at work too. "Rumours tend to escalate when there is a lack of official information, and clearly many feel what happens to them and their children does not get attention at higher levels," says sociologist Dipankar Gupta. It also points to a collapse in the state's credibility, he says. So, Gupta says, "there is no seeking of justice, only reprisal."