Perhaps it’s the curse of social media. A persistent rumour warning of child-lifters went viral across WhatsApp groups in Jharkhand, leading to lynching of seven people by village mobs over the past week in two separate incidents. When some media outlets gave the incidents a communal twist following reports that four of those lynched Thursday were Muslims, violent protests erupted across the state, leading to the imposition of prohibitory orders.
Muslims were being ‘hunted’ across India, tweeted a senior journalist, demanding that the Centre ‘wake up’ to this reality. Though the tweet was deleted later following threats of legal and police action, the damage had been done. And the reality is that it wasn’t the Centre, but the state administration that was caught napping. The alarm bells should have gone off when the first lynching of two suspected child-lifters took place more than week ago. In fact, some tribal leaders said they had alerted the police about these rumours, but these were ignored.
The fact that social media can spark social unrest was brought into focus in 2012 in Bengaluru, when rumours of mobs roughing up people from the Northeast sparked a frantic exodus. Most of those fleeing said while they had not been targeted, there ‘was an atmosphere of fear’ and they felt unsafe in the city following reports of such violence against them. Again, Northeast media magnified the threat, further adding to the scare-mongering being promoted over social media.
Repeated reassurances from the Bengaluru police and senior bureaucrats failed to stem the exodus. The administration in Jharkhand obviously didn’t learn from Bengaluru, and woke up too late. But there’s lesson here not just for the local governments, lawmakers and the media, but for all of us who have reacted strongly to unconfirmed reports on social media. Unless we learn to exercise due diligence, another Jharkhand or Bengaluru is just waiting to happen.