Sun, Jun 24, 2018 - Page 7 News List

In India, fake news proves deadly

Deep-seated trust in friends and family makes rural Indians more likely to take forwarded rumors and graphic warnings at face value — with sometimes dramatic consequences

By Iain Marlow  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Constance Chou

Local musicians are already singing about the evils of fake news when police superintendent Rema Rajeshwari’s convoy rolls up to the dusty village square in one of India’s poorest communities.

“Don’t believe these things,” a performer cries out to the crowd.

In a dark blue cap and stiff khaki uniform, Rajeshwari climbs onto a makeshift stage in front of hundreds of villagers. She is there in an attempt stop the spread of bogus WhatsApp messages in her district that warn of child kidnappers and roving murderers.

Across India, social media rumors have caused villagers to patrol in anxious groups on the lookout for anyone they do not recognize. Such mobs have already killed numerous people.

Last month and this month alone, at least six people have died in WhatsApp-related mob attacks in eastern Assam, western Maharashtra and southern Tamil Nadu. There is also simmering tensions over Hindu vigilante groups who have targeted and killed Muslims.

“You see these messages, these photos and videos, but you don’t check if they’re real or fake, you just forward them,” Rajeshwari tells them. “Don’t spread these messages. And when strangers come to your village, don’t take the law into your hands. Don’t kill them.”

With an election due next year, some worry that a surge of fake, politicized messages could lead to more violence, stoking broader Hindu-Muslim tensions and sparking religious riots.

The stakes are already high — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is facing declining support, while opposition parties are planning to combine forces to take him on.

Rajeshwari said she saw a spike in messages around recent state elections in the neighboring state of Karnataka and fears more ahead of national polls.

However, Rajeshwari’s education campaign appears to be working. There have been no fake news-related deaths in more than 400 villages under her control in the southern state of Telangana. At a time when governments around the world are grappling with fake news, Rajeshwari’s efforts offer a local antidote to a global phenomenon.

While US President Donald Trump and others use the term “fake news” to discredit negative stories, false messages are sowing chaos in India’s villages through Facebook Inc’s WhatsApp messaging service, which has more users in India than in any other country.

Some use the messaging service to spread “harmful misinformation,” WhatsApp spokesman Carl Woog said, but added that the company is trying to make that more difficult ahead of India’s next election.

“We’re working to give people more control over group discussions and are constantly evolving our tools to block unwanted automated content,” said Woog, who is based in San Francisco. “In the run-up to next year’s elections we will step up our education efforts so that people know about our safety features and how to spot fake news and hoaxes.”

VIOLENT CONSEQUENCES

These bogus messages can be particularly dangerous in India, said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

“This is a country where the tendency of nefarious actors to use social media to exploit deeply held societal prejudices increases the likelihood of violent outcomes,” Kugelman said. “The possibility of politicians trying to smear their opponents via WhatsApp rumors could lead to all types of nastiness and raises the specter of political violence.”

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