On WhatsApp, Rumours, and Lynchings

There are two kinds of problems with rumour spread over WhatsApp: one is disinformation and the other is incitement to violence. Why the rumours leading to the lynchings are more appropriately treated as incitement to violence is explained here. The significance of WhatsApp in this context, and whether the changes made by WhatsApp in reaction to the public criticism and government pressure are likely to put a stop to the lynchings are also examined.

Technology offers new, lightning-fast paths for rumours to travel. It lends new meaning to that old chestnut: “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting its shoes on.” India is no stranger to the rumour. Techno­logy may have changed how rumour travels, but rumour is an old phenomenon. Rumour’s relationship to violence has already been explored by Indian scholars in the context of the violence against Sikhs in 1984 (Das 1998). The literature on this relationship continues to be relevant even though rumour now travels in new vehicles. In short, the idea that rumour can trigger violence is older than WhatsApp, and digital communication. The question we should ask is not whether WhatsApp causes violence, but whether (and how far) WhatsApp may have exacerbated the proliferation of lynchings in India.

In the last decade, India has seen multiple rounds of communal violence in which rumour and information technology played a role. This is clear if one notes that the “North-eastern exodus” in 2012, the violence in Muzaffarnagar in 2013, and the lynchings from 2014 onwards, were all attributed to digital technology. The “North-eastern exodus” was said to be caused by text messages circulating rumours of upcoming violence against people of north-eastern origin. It resulted in the first documented government shutdown of communication, in this case, texting. Next, the Muzaffarnagar violence was attributed to Facebook. In 2014, the lynching of Mohsin Shaikh by a mob was also attributed to the social media (Narrain 2017). It should, therefore, come as no surprise that, in 2018, WhatsApp is held responsible for lynchings across India. The big change in 2018 is that WhatsApp is modifying its practices in response to pressure from the Indian government.

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Updated On : 11th Feb, 2019

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