The proliferation of social media in India’s cities, small towns, and rural hinterlands is posing one of the biggest challenges before law enforcement today.
Rumours spread on social media platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook have generated hysteria in local communities, resulting in panic, which further leads to collective mob action. In the past two months, these mobs have killed six people in Assam, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.
Rumours spread on these social media platforms, especially a heavily encrypted WhatsApp, usually range from the presence of potential murderers or child kidnappers within a particular community, smear campaigns against certain politicians and news of a specific religious community suffering persecution assisted with graphic images and videos.
These rumours represent the growing and dangerous proliferation of fake news.
“You see these messages, these photos and videos, but you don’t check if they’re real or fake, you just forward them,” Rema Rajeshwari, Superintendent of Police, tells villagers in Jogulamba Gadwal district of Telangana, reports Bloomberg. “Don’t spread these messages. And when strangers come to your village, don’t take the law into your hands. Don’t kill them.”
Due to the hysteria generated by these rumours spread on WhatsApp, villagers in SP Rajeshwari’s district in Telangana’s Palamuru region have formed vigilante patrol groups, harassing outsiders.
For a police force so understaffed, the proliferation of fake news via social media poses a serious challenge. More than 200 million Indians use WhatsApp, sending 13.7 billion messages per day, says Neha Dharia, a social media analyst, to Bloomberg.
Making matters harder for Rajeshwari is that her district, which is spread over 5000 square km, is among the least literate. The literacy rate in her district is at an abysmal 50%, which is 25% less than the national average. On top of that statistic, the district has a history of gruesome political violence.
Despite these uphill challenges, SP Rajeshwari’s efforts at extensive community outreach and maintenance of a dedicated district-level IT cell are seemingly paying rich dividends. Reports indicate that there have been no fake news-related killings across 400 villages under her jurisdiction.
When she began her tenure in March, she first conducted training sessions for 500 officers and constables on various social issues like child marriage, safe driving, gender sensitivity, and other pernicious superstitions embedded within local communities.
After a brief training stint, she assigned villages to constables, who not only visit the village once a week spreading awareness on these issues, but also build networks with local leaders. SP Rajeshwari herself spoke to a range of local community leaders, especially village sarpanches on a variety of issues. What these local networks did is also help the police nip WhatsApp rumours in the bud.
Before she kick-started an extensive community outreach campaign against the spread of fake news, local troupes performed in these villages, singing, preaching or enacting skits about the dangers of fake news.
“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.”
Thanks to her efforts, sarpanches have added police personnel into their local WhatsApp groups, allowing them to monitor messages, and look out for rumours that could incite violence.
“Our village-level police officers will be in touch with sarpanches and different communities through WhatsApp, in coordination with our dedicated IT cell. Any suspicious messages will be immediately debunked with facts through this network,” she told a Chennai-based news website.
On villager spoke of how his name and a photo popped up on a village WhatsApp group, depicting him as a child kidnapper. Fearing for his life, he reached out to local cop assigned to his village, and finally, a teenager from another village was nabbed for spreading fake news.
Despite her initial success, the challenges before SP Rajeshwari are immense, especially with the general elections coming up next year. “People 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 tells Bloomberg.
“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.”
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)