WhatsApp University is what netizens call it. The dubious information received and shared via the messaging service floods many an inbox daily. While Twitter and Facebook, the other social media giants, allow (even poorly) for potentially incendiary material to be reported or questioned, that is not possible on WhatsApp. How dangerous this can be was seen last week in Tamil Nadu, when at least two people in the state were beaten to death by mobs believing them to be child lifters.
In one incident, a 65-year-old woman died in mob violence while four were seriously hurt. In another, a man believed to have been homeless and mentally ill was beaten and hanged to death. This sudden violence was due to the spread of rumours about child lifters on the prowl. Some messages that went viral specifically mentioned that the rumoured offenders were from North India. In some areas, residents started observing night vigils to protect their kids.
These incidents revealed not only the power of social media in spreading panic—as seen in incidents in the past—but also a failure of law enforcement to gauge the level of fear and panic within a community before it was too late. In some parts, residents claimed word-of-mouth rumours of children being kidnapped preceded the WhatsApp messages amplifying the same. Since the killings, police have been more proactive in reaching out to communities, urging them not to resort to violence and attempting to allay their fears about kidnappings. States have frequently failed to understand the impact of information spread on social media till it is too late. If they sense such a spread of rumours, they often shut down mobile or internet connectivity. But ‘fake news’ can only be countered with real news. For that it is important that law enforcement has the public’s trust and is engaged with them in ways so as to sense and proactively address their fears before it is too late. On both these fronts, TN police have fallen short of late.