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India: Violence-inciting fake news scourge tough to tackle

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
March 11, 2020

With tension still rife in riot-hit areas of Delhi, online rumors of violence have kept the public on edge. Unrest spurred by fake news, however, is not unusual in India — and experts say it is difficult to combat.

A symbolic photo of a phone screen displaying a WhatsApp logo
Image: picture-alliance/AA/A. Balikci

Messages warning of renewed mob violence hit social media recently as New Delhi reeled from the worst violence it has seen in over a decade, with riots that left at least 50 people dead and 300 injured.

Police went to the sites of reported conflict to conduct their own investigations and temporarily shut down multiple Delhi metro stations following the reports of street clashes and people shouting in trains.

"It was a long night, and we did everything possible to ensure there were no flare-ups based on this false information," said Delhi Police spokesman MS Randhawa.

Messaging apps used to provoke violence

The perpetuation of such rumors through social media is not a new phenomenon in India, and, over the past decade, India has seen multiple violent incidents triggered by online posts.

In 2012, during what became known as the "Northeastern exodus," thousands of people hailing from northeastern India boarded trains from Bangalore in southern India to Guwahati, following posts suggesting violent attacks on northeastern migrants.

In 2013, the Muzzaffarnagar riots in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which left over 60 dead and thousands displaced, were triggered by a fake video circulating on social media, which was rumored to depict a Muslim mob brutally murdering a Hindu youth.

The video, however, had been produced in a Gulf country.

In 2017, India also saw a wave of mob attacks and lynchings of innocent people spurred by online accusations of child abductions. At that time, people deemed to be "outsiders" were targeted by large mobs accusing them of kidnapping children, after warnings circulated on WhatsApp.

Fake news murders in India

"Technology offers new, lightning-fast paths on which rumors can travel. It lends new meaning to the old phrase 'A lie can travel halfway around the world, while the truth is putting its shoes on,'" said Chinmayi Arun, the founder of the Center for Communication Governance at Delhi's National Law University.

Political parties have not taken much action to mitigate the violence, he added.

"There is no political will to crack down. There are provisions within the Information Technology Act to come down heavily on and punish those who spread rumors and misinformation with the intention to create trouble," cybersecurity expert Pavan Duggal told DW.

Reacting to criticism that it hasn't done enough, the Delhi government has started advertising measures targeting fake news, hatemongering and inflammatory messages shared on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal also formed the new Committee on Peace and Harmony, which will work with a fact-checking body to check the authenticity of content.

"We will inform the people that if anyone shares fake news, hate speech, or rumors that can cause enmity between two communities, it will be treated as a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison," said party legislator Saurabh Bharadwaj.

Is there a way out?

The idea that India is fertile ground for fake news to take hold and spread is evidenced by the widespread usage of smartphones and the country's 480 million internet users. WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, has amassed more than 400 million users in India, reaffirming the application's wide reach in its largest market.

At least 50 people were killed recently in Delhi's worst sectarian violence in decades
At least 50 people were killed recently in Delhi's worst sectarian violence in decadesImage: Reuters/D. Siddiqui

Many experts are also skeptical of steps taken by the government to prevent the proliferation of fake information.

"We have to conclude that checking the flow of fake news, especially in its current predominant form of images and memes, is likely to be extremely challenging. It is not going to go away anytime soon," digital expert Sunil Prabhakar told DW.

Additionally, social media platforms have not taken any major steps to combat the issue, according to the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a nonprofit journalism school that specializes in fake news research.

"WhatsApp has taken piecemeal steps to try and limit the virality of misinformation on the platform, while Facebook has mostly deferred responsibility to its fact-checking partners," according to an article published by the institute.

Cyber expert Duggal believes that the solution can be found in the example that other countries have set forth. "We have to be like Singapore," Duggal said.

Singapore was one of the first countries to implement laws that would effectively make producing misinformation illegal. Under the law, people who post false information with "malicious intent" face hefty fines and a jail sentence of up to 10 years.

Critics say the law infringes on free speech and could be used to quash dissent.

Menace of misinformation

Despite assurances offered by social media platforms, the menace of misinformation continues to flourish through these services. During the last general election, in May 2019, WhatsApp made a series of changes, including labeling forwarded messages to inform users that they received something that hadn't originated from someone in their immediate contact list. It also tweaked the number of times that a user is allowed to forward a message. However, the problems still persist.

Limiting the flow of fake news, a problem that has proved to be a global menace, is not an easy task. One way to combat the scourge, experts say, is to make sure that all major players, including social platforms, media organizations, government and civil society, come together to tackle the problem, as it is as much a social problem as a technological one.