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India’s fake news epidemic is killing people, and Modi’s government has no plan to stop it

“The bigger responsibility lies not with social media companies but with the state that is facilitating this environment of hate and impunity.”

by David Gilbert and Zeenat Saberin
Jul 17 2018, 2:41pm

NEW DELHI — Sukanta Chakraborty was hired in June by the Information and Culture department of the Indian state of Tripura to teach Indians how to spot fake news on apps like WhatsApp. He was dead before July.

With a loudspeaker in hand, the 33-year-old travelled from village to village in the north eastern Indian state of Tripura state in his new job as a “rumor buster,” trying to warn people against the dangers of believing the salacious rumors about child abductors, organ thieves, or cow killers that they were reading on their cell phones.

"Don't believe in fake news about child abductions. Don't take law into your own hands," Chakraborty shouted, as he travelled from village to village.

One recent fake news rumor Chakraborty was hired to debunk included a video claiming to show a gang of men kidnapping children in order to harvest their organs and that residents needed to be on the lookout for strangers in their neighborhood. The video turned out to be an edited version of a Pakistani child safety video.

But villagers were on edge after the brutal murder of an 11-year-old boy in the western part of the state, and willing to believe whatever they read.

On June 28, Chakraborty entered the tiny village of Kalacherra, less than 15 miles from the border with Bangladesh, to help defuse the situation. That’s when the mob, fearing him to be the mythic child abductor he was hired to dispel, turned on him.

They beat him to death with stones and sticks. The two policemen who attempted to intervene didn’t fare much better — both were hospitalized from injuries suffered in the mob violence.

On the same day in the same state, while Chakraborty was being beaten to death, a hawker and a woman were also killed because people believed they were child abductors based on WhatsApp rumors.

So-called fake news has been blamed for stirring outrage in the U.S., distrust throughout Britain and parts of Europe, and ethnic violence in Myanmar. But in India, it’s killing people. Mob lynchings fueled by fear-mongering rumors on WhatsApp have surged across the subcontinent in recent months, sparking hysteria and violence, baffling police, and leaving a trail of 18 dead since the beginning of May, with dozens more seriously injured.

Yet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has largely remained silent about the problem, and analysts say there’s a reason for that: Much of the fake news now spreading like wildfire has been promoted, if not created, by some of Modi’s most fervent supporters.

“You have to understand, we are battling a technological machinery of fake news.”

“While the media in India and elsewhere have focused on WhatsApp deaths, we have to realize that this is only a specific way in which fake news is being spread by right-wing Hindu supremacists, many of them closely linked to the ruling BJP and its parent body, the openly fascist RSS,” Amrit Wilson, a writer and activist, told VICE News.

WhatsApp told VICE News it has offered to meet with the Indian government over the issue, but a source at the company with knowledge of its dealings said they have yet to receive a response.

In the absence of a greater national response from the capital, local police forces are resorting to low-tech solutions like passing out flyers, using loudspeakers, and even hiring musicians to educate people about the dangers of fake news.

“You have to understand, we are battling a technological machinery of fake news,” Jal Singh Meena, a police chief in Tripura where Chakraborty was killed, told VICE News. “I tour the interior districts of the area I am in charge of. Wherever I see groups of 10-15 people, I talk to them about fake news. Local police officials, while on their duty vigils, are constantly telling the people about this menace from social media rumors.”

Meena’s hardly unique in this regard. VICE News spoke to multiple police chiefs in rural villages and major cities, and all of them expressed feeling overwhelmed and under-resourced to cope with the current crisis.

Some police chiefs are even desperately turning to ancient practices and rituals to fight the increasingly fatal phenomenon.

In Telangana State, Rema Rajeshwari, who serves as district police chief, was struggling after initial efforts to educate 400 villages under her control hit a brick wall. So she turned to the dappus, an ancient drum used mostly in Hindu religious music.

The police chief trained drummers to use them as a way to gain trust and reach villagers most prone to believing fake news.

“I head one of the 34 most backward districts in the country. People are very poor and most are illiterate,” Rema told VICE News. “They don't have any means to verify the authenticity of these fake news that they are subjected to."

But drums, loudspeakers, and leaflets can do little to tackle a problem born on a platform with 200 million registered users. Especially when many of those toxic messages are believed to be coming from allies to the country’s prime minister and his ruling party, the BJP.

India’s Troll Factory

Just as the Kremlin has been linked to the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, analysts in India say there is reason to believe that Modi’s BJP party is behind much of the fear-based fake news being pushed on WhatsApp and other social media platforms. Modi’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.

Recently, the main opposition party hit out at Modi for “aiding and abetting” the spate of lynching links to rumors spread via WhatsApp.

“When the state gives the ‘License to Kill' with impunity and abdicates its solemn responsibility to uphold the ‘Rule of Law,' resulting in vigilantism, death, and merciless killings of innocent lives, then each one of us should castigate it, decry it, and question it,” Abhishek Singhvi, spokesperson for the National Congress Party, told reporters.

Facebook’s struggles to track and effectively curb fake news are amplified on WhatsApp, where messages are encrypted so that even WhatsApp can’t see their content. While it is one of the app’s biggest selling points, the added layer of security makes it almost impossible for the company to track and remove fake news. In India, where many users are illiterate and don’t have access to the wider internet, this means WhatsApp rumors spread like wildfire.

Fake news has been an issue in India for many decades, dating back to the 1980s when cassette recordings of fake gunfire, screams, and chants of “Allah-ho-Akbar” were played through speakers to stir up anti-Muslim hatred. In the internet era, rumors about Pepsi making Kurkure (Indian Cheetos) out of plastic were spread widely, while the makers of a popular mango drink had to give guided tours of their facilities after a rumor went viral online saying its drink contained HIV-positive blood.

But the advent of WhatsApp, combined with increased access to the internet, means rumors and fake news in India spread to all parts of the country with a speed never before seen.

Troll armies like those used by Modi’s BJP have taken advantage of the platform’s closed messaging to push divisive, ethnically charged content with the desire to stoke fear and discord.

When the body of 11-year-old Purna Biswas was found near his home of Mohanpur in West Tripura last month, no one knew why he had been killed. Hours later, Ratan Lal Nath, a local BJP politician, appeared at the boy’s home and falsely claimed that his kidney had been cut from his body by organ traffickers. A day later, the police had arrested the two murderers who revealed Biswas’ death was related to a family land dispute.

This was hardly the first time BJP attempted to use dangerous social media rumors for its political gain; it has been at the bedrock of the party’s staggering success in recent years.

In her book, “I am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army,” journalist Swati Chaturvedi explains how the party orchestrates online campaigns to intimidate perceived government critics through a network of trolls on Twitter and Facebook. And she cites multiple people who worked inside the BJP’s social media machine to make her case.

“There are people who see themselves as dedicated warriors.”

They’re not alone. Chaturvedi’s findings were backed by another former BJP cyber-volunteer, Sadhavi Khosla, who left the party in 2015 because of the constant barrage of misogyny, Islamophobia, and hatred she was asked to disseminate online. And Prodyut Bora, one of the masterminds of the BJP’s early technology and social media strategy, recently offered a similar outlook. He described his creation as “Frankenstein’s monster,” and said that it had morphed from its original aim of better connecting with the party’s supporters. “I mean, occasionally, it’s just painful to watch what they have done with it,” he told HuffPost India last month.

Right-wing publication Postcard News — dubbed “a mega factory of fake news” — hit the headlines in March when its founder, Mahesh Vikram Hegde, was arrested for spreading false information about a Jain monk being assaulted by a Muslim youth. The monk was in fact injured in a minor road accident, and police said Hegde was fully aware of this fact when he made his claim.

Despite trying to incite religious conflict between two communities — or perhaps because of it — Hedge and Postcard News received robust support from the BJP’s social media network. Within hours, the #ReleaseMaheshHegde hashtag was trending on Twitter. As of this week, prominent BJP politicians were still promoting stories from Postcard News.

This network is an example of what Harsh Taneja, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, describes as the “hierarchical tree-like structure” of the BJP’s social media machine.

The highly structured nature of the network allows national messages to flow down to every district in the country, and conversely for a local volunteer to flag something up to the national conversation, Taneja explained.

“It is very well-structured, it is well-funded, and they have a lot of volunteers," Rohit Chopra, a media studies professor at Santa Clara University, told VICE News of the BJP social media machine. "There are people who see themselves as dedicated warriors.”

While the rumors on WhatsApp warn of child abductors and cow killers, the messages often also come tinged with anti-Muslim or anti-Christian sentiment, and fit into the wider policy of Hindu nationalism that Modi’s government has been accused of promoting above all.

"While there is no evidence of it being organized, there are all the symptoms of it being organized," said Pratik Sinha, who runs the fact-checking website AltNews.com. He cited the fact that every time an election approaches, the level of fake news he has to deal with increases.

Government silence

For all the deaths, the government has said very little. A month after it held a meeting vaguely designed to discuss measures to fight malicious content appearing on social media, it suddenly issued a stinging rebuke of the messaging app, telling WhatsApp senior management “that necessary remedial measures should be taken.”

WhatsApp responded by offering to meet with government officials to discuss the problem. Despite its efforts, the company has still not had any direct contact with the Indian government, a source familiar with the issue at WhatsApp told VICE News.

This week the company took matters into its own hands, launching an ad campaign in India designed to educate people about how to spot fake news and bogus warnings. It also launched a feature that indicates when a message has been forwarded, versus written by a friend or relative.

The company is also offering $50,000 grants to social scientists who want to investigate possible solutions for the spread of misinformation on its platform.

The source at WhatsApp, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told VICE News that people within the company are especially worried about the scale of disinformation being spread on its platform in the run-up to next year’s elections and this week’s efforts are a way of starting to address those concerns.

But after trekking across the country to meet families of victims of these mob lynchings in recent months, activist Harsh Mander believes it’s the state that is ultimately responsible to stop the violence, not Silicon Valley.

“Most mob violence is spurred by rumors, but this was true even before we were connected by the internet,” Mander told VICE News. “The bigger responsibility lies not with social media companies but with the state that is facilitating this environment of hate and impunity.”