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.
Illustration: Constance Chou
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.”
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.”
In Rajeshwari’s district, gruesome videos and photos spread on cheap smartphones have created mass hysteria, prompting villagers to form stick-wielding patrols to harass strangers.
Against these odds, her war against fake news seems impossible to win — more than 200 million Indians use WhatsApp to send 13.7 billion messages each day, said Neha Dharia, a consultant in Bangalore.
If any part of India is vulnerable, it is the 5,000 square kilometers of Rajeshwari’s district in Telangana’s Palamuru region. The local literacy rate hovers around 50 percent, about 25 percent below the national average, and the area has a history of political violence.
That’s why Yadaiah Jetti, a 22-year-old shepherd, was terrified when he received a WhatsApp message with a photograph labeling him a child kidnapper who should be killed.
“When I saw it on my mobile, I felt so afraid,” he said.
The message quickly spread across group chats in his village of Manajipet, nestled among the rocky hills of India’s Deccan plateau. However, Rajeshwari’s campaign had already penetrated the remote settlement. He approached an officer assigned to liaise with the village and a local minor was charged.
“I feel safe here now,” Jetti said as night closes in on his village. “But I still won’t travel.”
In 2009, Rajeshwari joined the Indian Police Service, which is on par with India’s elite foreign and administrative services. She was deployed to Andhra Pradesh and was here when the state split in two to create Telangana in 2014.
Now aged 39, she lives in a government house that doubles as her office in the town of Gadwal, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the state capital of Hyderabad.
When she arrived in March, Rajeshwari assigned villages to constables who are responsible for visiting at least once a week to speak with locals about social issues, such as child marriage. On one visit, a policeman found villagers who normally sleep outside in the summer huddling inside, petrified by videos warning of child kidnappers.
Rajeshwari worried that WhatsApp rumors had the potential to spark violent riots if Hindus clashed with Muslims, she said.
“This region has always been sensitive,” she said. “That’s why we’re so worried about WhatsApp. Any trigger could set it off.”
Rajeshwari ordered training sessions for more than 500 officers.
“We had to educate our officers first, before sending them out into the community to educate the people,” she said.
She also spoke to hundreds of village leaders. They deployed drummers to sing about fake news before her team began their work.
“We told the villagers — see, look at the people who are in these videos, they don’t even look like Indians,” she said. “Some of the videos are from South America, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar.”
Local leaders have added her officers into local WhatsApp groups so that the police could monitor messages flowing across the encrypted service.
The proliferation of cheap smartphones has spread WhatsApp to millions who cannot read, let alone analyze videos.
Local SIM card salesmen help villagers install WhatsApp and Facebook, Dharia said.
“They are now exposed to much more information from more sources and they take it with the same degree of trust as TV and newspapers,” Dharia said, adding that WhatsApp messages are sent from people that villagers know.
“It comes from your friends and family. In India, there’s a very strong cultural instinct to trust your friends and family. And that cultural instinct has sort of spread to the tech world,” she said.
In the village of Balgera, Thirumalesh Boya, a 21-year-old construction worker, held up his battered US$44 smartphone to show a bogus message featuring the image of a policeman.
“High Alert Please Share As Much As Possible,” it said, before warning of murderous gangs.
Boya said he forwarded the message, before learning better from the police.
“We’re not sharing them anymore because we know they’re fake,” he said.
The government has been slow to act, although the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting recently released a tender for a company to analyze Indians’ social media posts and detect fake news.
Rajeshwari’s efforts have prompted calls from officers in other states, such as Punjab, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, who are hoping to replicate her campaign.
Still, it is hard to ignore the frightening messages entirely.
“After police said these weren’t real videos, I realized they were fake,” shoe salesman Mohammed Mahaboob, 24, said. “But still, there is fear in my heart.”
For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China’s “century of humiliation” is the gift that keeps on giving. Beijing returns again and again to the theme of Western imperialism, oppression and exploitation to keep stoking the embers of grievance and resentment against the West, and especially the US. However, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that in 1949 announced it had “stood up” soon made clear what that would mean for Chinese and the world — and it was not an agenda that would engender pride among ordinary Chinese, or peace of mind in the international community. At home, Mao Zedong (毛澤東) launched
The restructuring of supply chains, particularly in the semiconductor industry, was an essential part of discussions last week between Taiwan and a US delegation led by US Undersecretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment Keith Krach. It took precedent over the highly anticipated subject of bilateral trade partnerships, and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) founder Morris Chang’s (張忠謀) appearance on Friday at a dinner hosted by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) for Krach was a subtle indicator of this. Chang was in photographs posted by Tsai on Facebook after the dinner, but no details about their discussions were disclosed. With
To say that this year has been eventful for China and the rest of the world would be something of an understatement. First, the US-China trade dispute, already simmering for two years, reached a boiling point as Washington tightened the noose around China’s economy. Second, China unleashed the COVID-19 pandemic on the world, wreaking havoc on an unimaginable scale and turning the People’s Republic of China into a common target of international scorn. Faced with a mounting crisis at home, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) rashly decided to ratchet up military tensions with neighboring countries in a misguided attempt to divert the
Toward the end of former president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) final term in office, there was much talk about his legacy. Ma himself would likely prefer history books to enshrine his achievements in reducing cross-strait tensions. He might see his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in Singapore in 2015 as the high point. However, given his statements in the past few months, he might be remembered more for contributing to the breakup of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). We are still talking about Ma and his legacy because it is inextricably tied to the so-called “1992 consensus” as the bedrock of his