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The consequences of the smartphone boom are written in blood

When the mobile telephone revolution swept India --- a country where landline phones had been hard to obtain --- there were whoops of joys. Mobile telephony, said the experts, would transform India.

And indeed it has. At present there are 730 million mobile phone users in India. Of this number, at least 340 million have smartphones with internet and video.

 
 
The growth of mobile phones has outstripped nearly everything else. A 2016 study found that 88 per cent of all of India’s households had mobile phones. (The figure is probably higher now.) In contrast, about 60 per cent of all households have access to basic sanitation. (The government’s figure --- much disputed --- is slightly higher at 65 per cent.) And only around 64 per cent of all households own a TV set.

 

   The smartphone revolution has changed the way in which Indians receive information. In 2014, the election campaign of the BJP focussed on internet-based social media with dramatic success. And now, WhatsApp is a primary source of information for millions of Indians --- with worrying consequences.

 

   The most dangerous of these consequences has been the rise in the lynching of innocent people because of fake news and rumours disseminated on WhatsApp. On July 6, the Indian army had to be called in to disperse a large mob that was trying to lynch three men in Mahur in India’s eastern state of Assam. The police had to rescue three others from a nearby village.

 

   The lynch mobs were incensed by false news carried on WhatsApp about childlifters. In June, two men were beaten to death in another Assam town after similar rumours about childlifters had spread on social media.

 

   Over the last two months, at least 20 people have been lynched to death following false stories posted on WhatsApp about childlifters. These stories differ from mere rumours because they are well-crafted and made to look like genuine news.

 

   A week ago, five men were beaten to death in the Western state of Maharashtra after a video about the slaughter of children to harvest their organs was circulated on WhatsApp. The video used pictures from a nerve gas attack in Syria and claimed that these were local children who had been kidnapped and killed.

 

"The police say they are powerless because once a WhatsApp message has been forwarded several times, it is virtually impossible to trace it back to the original sender."

   While Indians are used to rumours, the WhatsApp stories have a particularly potent impact because they reach people who have come to regard their smartphone as a primary source of information and do not necessarily read newspapers or watch much news TV. As far as they are concerned, if a video is forwarded to them on WhatsApp, then it must be true.

 

   The Indian Express, which has been investigating the lynchings, has found that they all follow a pattern. They occur in areas where no previous case of childlifting has been ever been suspected. The victims are usually strangers who are passing through the area. The anger is nearly always spread through fake stories on social media. The police are usually outnumbered or ineffectual. When victims seek refuge in police camps, the camps themselves are stormed. And on one occasion, the mob dragged victims out of a police jeep.

 

   If the anger is sudden and spontaneous, the fake stories are not. Clearly somebody with money and a level of skill is putting together these fake videos. In many cases, the footage used is from all over the world. It is edited, manipulated and then spliced together to suggest that it is of recent local origin.

 

   So far, at least, the authorities say they don’t know who is making these videos or what their motives are. Some motivations though are not hard to decipher. The celebrated Urdu editor, Shahid Siddiqui, says that part of the agenda is to turn Hindus against Muslims. “They use fake or distorted footage from elsewhere to suggest that Muslims are murderers or rapists of Hindu women and then forward them through social media. These videos reach villagers and poor people with no access to any other information and they start believing that Muslims are monsters.”

 

   After the lynchings in Maharashtra, the state government reached out to WhatsApp which said it was horrified. The police say they are powerless because once a WhatsApp message has been forwarded several times, it is virtually impossible to trace it back to the original sender. WhatsApp has responded by suggesting that it will design tools to distinguish forwards from simple replies. Some experts have suggested that all social media accounts should be linked to Aadhar, India’s Unique Identification System, so that the police can track down each person who posts fake news. But foreign servers are frequently used by those who use WhatsApp to spread lies so this may have limited impact.

 

   It is not clear whether anything will come of all these moves. But India’s political parties are stepping up their WhatsApp budgets in the run-up in the next year’s General Election. They recognise that the service offers the best way to reach less-educated voters who are inexperienced enough to not know how to tell the difference between news and fake news and between truth and lies.

 

   And there is now less national rejoicing about the smartphone boom. Its dangers and consequences are written in blood.

 


 

Posted On: 14 Jul 2018 11:30 AM
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