Murder and mayhem caused by fake messages/videos on Whatsapp is a regular event. Last month in Pulicat, Tamil Nadu, a man was beaten to death because he was believed to be a child trafficker. And within 24 hours, a woman in Tiruvannamalai district in Tamil Nadu was lynched. (news article). One of the messages which incited the mob claimed that 400 people had come to Tamil Nadu to abduct children! And some months ago in Singhbhum, Jharkhand, 7 villagers were lynched. (news article).
It’s easy enough to understand the mindset of a person who manufactures these fake messages and enjoys watching the mayhem it creates. On Reddit once I came across an anonymous person who said he made up fake messages all the time, and that he was the author of a message which claimed that there was a tracking chip in the new 2000 rupee note. That message went viral, and was reported as truth by news channels. The mischief-maker in question said that this proved his “success” and made him a hero in his friends’ circle.
The motive may not always be just innocent (or evil) mischief. Spreading political and religious propaganda and creating law and order problems for political gain is one of the most common agendas.
The growth of WhatsApp has coincided with a wave of political and socio-religious activism in India. Political parties, and the ruling party BJP in particular, have been adept at using the messenger as a powerful campaigning tool. Many religious and civic groups that share the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda are also very active Whatsappers.
It is not just the ruling party which is spreading propaganda through Whatsapp. All political parties are guilty. The photograph on the left was forwarded to me recently – of an imaginary program lambasting our Prime Minister Modi. It even has a dead person speaking at it – Dileep Padgoankar! Though it was so obviously a fake message, people were merrily forwarding it as “proof” of Modi’s unpopularity!
It’s difficult to understand when normal people mindlessly forward such messages, at times not bothering to even read them, leave alone trying to find out whether they are authentic. Try convincing them to check out the veracity of a message before sending it! You will be accused of being a wet blanket. But where lies the fun in spreading rumours?
Awareness of fake news is growing all over the world. It is time this awareness hit India too. WhatsApp is not a news media. Even actual news media can carry fake news, but we should be doubly aware when it comes to WhatsApp forwards. Anyone can write them!
Here is an excerpt from an article in The Economist:
WhatsApp’s scale attracts all sorts of mischief-makers. In South Africa the service is often used to spread false allegations of civic corruption and hoax warnings of storms, fires and other natural disasters. In Brazil rumours about people travel quickly: a mob recently set upon a couple they suspected of being child traffickers based on chatter on WhatsApp (the couple escaped).
But it is in India where WhatsApp has had the most profound effect. It is now part of the country’s culture: many older people use it and drive younger ones crazy by forwarding messages indiscriminately—sometimes with tragic results.
Why not use Whatsapp for what it is actually meant for? Connecting with friends and relatives with personal messages?