WhatsApp, mobs and power in India

Free usage, anonymity have made WhatsApp the country's favourite way to spread outlandish stories

WhatsApp, mobs  and power in India
One evening last month, a WhatsApp message urged villagers in Jharkhand to watch out for a group of men wearing black clothes, prowling across villages, kidnapping children. The rumours travelled across a region that is home to India’s impoverished indigenous tribes living on subsistence agriculture and manual labour.

The villagers trusted the authenticity of the WhatsApp message, which included morbid photographs of mutilated children, and forwarded it energetically. That belief quickly morphed into panic, suspicion of outsiders and the lethal rage of a crowd seeking violent release.

On May 17, Sheikh Haleem, a 28-year-old businessman from Haldipokhar village in East Singhbhum, who ran a workshop that fixed old cars, set out to meet his brother-in-law in Shobhapur, a village about 10 miles away. He travelled in a small Tata Indica car with three of his business associates: 25-year-old Sheikh Sajjad, 26-year-old Sheikh Siraj and 35-year-old Sheikh Naeem.

A few miles into the journey, Haleem and his companions reached Gadu, a small tribal village. Overwhelmed by the child-kidnapper rumours, the villagers had set up a makeshift check post on the road. An SUV. ahead of Haleem’s car sped contemptuously through the check post. Villagers threw bricks at it. Haleem sped after the vehicle. Villagers sent out WhatsApp messages alleging that child kidnappers had fled toward Shobhapur village in a Tata Indica car.

Several hundred villagers had surrounded Haleem’s brother-in-law’s house by the morning. The mob set Haleem’s car on fire and threatened to burn down the house unless Haleem and his companions were handed over.

The mob grew to about 1,000 people by 6:30 am A small group of policemen tried to pacify them. Haleem’s brother, who came looking for him, couldn’t find him but saw Naeem on his knees, covered in blood, begging for mercy with joined hands.

The policemen watched until the mob was done and carried Naeem to a nearby hospital, where he died. Police found the broken and burned bodies of Sajjad and Siraj in a neighbouring village later in the day. Haleem’s corpse was found the day after.

Within hours of Naeem’s murder, three more men — the brothers Vikas and Gautam Varma, and their friend Gangesh Gupta — were killed by another mob agitated by rumours of child kidnappers. Two of them had been trying to buy some land to set up a business. “One event set off the other event,” RK Mallick, a senior police officer, said.

The allure of WhatsApp, the mobile messaging application owned by Facebook, is that it is free, simple to use and encrypted end-to-end. Researchers have found that 66% of the 180 million internet users in urban India and 85% of rural Indians regularly use the internet for access to social media. India has about 300 million smartphones now, a significant portion being very cheap and made in China. About 200 million of WhatsApp’s one billion users are in India, making it the app’s biggest market.

On New Year’s Eve, 14 billion messages were exchanged on WhatsApp in India, according to data released by the service. WhatsApp rolled out the video-calling feature for India in November 2016. Indians have made over 50 million minutes of video calls every day using since then, more calls than from any other country.

The gifts of free usage and anonymity have made WhatsApp the most popular tool to spread both outlandish stories and politically motivated rumours. On an ordinary Indian morning, messages on the app can include the rumour of a popular mango drink being laced with HIV positive blood, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s rating of Narendra Modi as the best prime minister in the world or Julian Assange describing him as an incorruptible leader.

WhatsApp forwards are deftly tailored toward target audiences. Last year, the Indian middle class debated for weeks whether new Rs 2,000 bills introduced by the government after demonetisation featured a chip that could be used to track the bills. There was no chip, but the rumour lived for a while.

Nationalist rage, often with sectarian overtones, dominates the world of India’s WhatsApp messages. One of the most popular WhatsApp hoaxes of this year featured the purported beheading of two Indian soldiers by Pakistani soldiers with a chain saw and a knife. India’s national song played in the background.

Pankaj Jain, who runs Hoax Slayer, a website that debunks fake viral stories on social media, found it to be a Mexican gang war murder video. “Almost 80% of the misinformation comes from right-wing groups and just spreads like wildfire,” Jain said.

Another popular WhatsApp message blamed the writer Arundhati Roy’s Christian heritage for her critical writings about Indian politics. The proof was believed to lie in Roy’s shrewd ploy to hide her Christian self by not using her full name: Suzanna Arundhati Roy.

Messenger of prejudice

During the three years of Modi’s government, there has been a distinct rise in majoritarian politics and an attendant increase in prejudice and violence against minorities and dissenters. WhatsApp has been turned into the primary messenger of prejudice, delivering relentless virtual fuel to keep the embers of modern hatreds alive.

There has been no national tabulation of the number of crimes in India after rumours spread through WhatsApp, but several major incidents have been reported across the country. An old video of a mob assault was circulated on WhatsApp as a major riot unfolded in Muzaffarnagar,  Uttar Pradesh in August 2013. More than 40 Hindus and Muslims were killed, several Muslim women were raped, and about 40,000 Muslims were forced out of their homes and lived in refugee camps in nearby towns and villages.

On June 4, 2014, a week after the inauguration of Narendra Modi as prime minister, Mohsin Sadiq Sheikh, a 24-year-old IT professional, was returning to his apartment in Pune.

He was beaten to death by members of a radical Hindu outfit, who went on a rampage after derogatory pictures of two of their icons — Shivaji and Bal Thackeray — were uploaded on social media and forwarded through WhatsApp. Sheikh’s killers didn’t know him, but his short beard made him visibly Muslim.

On September 28, 2015, WhatsApp played a role in spreading the rumour that Mohammad Akhlaq, an ironsmith in Bishara village in UP, had killed a cow and eaten beef. Pictures of the meat and body parts of animals were shared on WhatsApp, and a mob of his neighbours dragged Akhlaq from his house and lynched him on his street. Several similar cases have been reported throughout 2016 and 2017.

Why have India’s impoverished and powerless minorities become the subjects of virtual and real-life rage? “Small numbers represent a tiny obstacle between majority and totality or total purity,” sociologist Arjun Appadurai wrote in Fear of Small Numbers.

“In a sense, the smaller the number and the weaker the minority, the deeper the rage about its capacity to make a majority feel like a mere majority rather than like a whole and uncontested ethnos.” The mob is majoritarian, and it has WhatsApp.


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