Officials blame WhatsApp for spike in mob killings, but Indians say vicious party politics are at fault

Mobile phone kiosk in Bangalore, India. Photo by Victor Grigas, retouched by Wikimedia Foundation. CC BY-SA 3.0

After a spate of more than 20 mob lynchings driven by rumors spread on social media, the Indian government on July 20 threatened to punish WhatsApp for its inability to control fake news.

India's Ministry of Information and Technology issued an official statement describing WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, as an “abettor” in these crimes.

Information and Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad chided WhatsApp and told a news daily: “They cannot evade responsibly and accountability for the messages, particularly those which are leading to killings.”

This may be a first step towards the Indian government taking legal action against the Silicon Valley company. But would legal action against Facebook actually help put an end to the killings?

Many Indians say that party politics and political manipulation, when combined with a technology like WhatsApp, are the real source of the problem. Sufyan Sadiq summarized the dynamics on Facebook:

WhatsApp is a big black hole of fake news in India that's used by the mischief mongering right-wing groups more often associated with BJP that ends up in someone's killing carried out by a lynch mob. This app is still evolving as a principal KillerApp in India…

Thus far, WhatsApp has responded to criticism by purchasing full-page advertisements in Indian newspapers offering readers ways to spot fake news. The platform has also placed new limits on forwarding of messages and introduced a label for messages that are forwarded, in an apparent effort to signal to users that a message may not have been written by its sender.

Some Indians appreciated the forwarding measure, while others think WhatsApp could do much more. But many are asking why the government hasn't taken more responsibility for the lynchings, which represent a serious threat to public safety.

India's WhatsApp lynch mob crisis

Lynch mobs formed on social media have claimed the lives of at least 34 people in India since 2014. Here are cases documented thus far in July 2018:

July 1: A spate of doctored videos spread on WhatsApp led to the mob lynching of five men in Maharashtra state, who were wrongly targeted for being kidnappers. The lynch mob subsequently threatened to set fire to police officers in an effort to confirm the victims’ deaths.

July 2: Four men were attacked in Maharashtra's Malegaon district as rumors spread about a child abducting nexus. A timely intervention from officials saved their lives.

July 8: Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath were lynched by a mob in Northeast India's Assam on June 8, 2018, over viral rumors spread via Facebook, WhatsApp and eventually word-of-the-mouth.

July 13: A mob of 200 attacked five friends, wrongly believing they were child kidnappers, in the southern state of Karnataka. The mob killed Mohammad Azam, a UK-educated IT professional and seriously injured two others. The mob also attacked police officials who sought to intervene.

July 21: Rakbar Khan, who was wrongly suspected of illegally transporting cows, was killed by a mob in Rajasthan that beat him with sticks.

July 25: Four men were assaulted by a mob in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh for ferrying a bovine carcass. Police intervention spared their lives.

It is difficult to determine precisely how many people have been victims of mob violence. A Wikipedia chronicle of WhatsApp-related mob violence produces 56 results on this page. Independent data journalism website IndiaSpend claims that there have been 89 incidents of lynching since 2014, affecting 290 victims and killing 34. Minority Muslims, who account for 14 percent of India's population, have been the victims of 56 percent of these crimes.

What led to this public safety crisis? It's more than just WhatsApp.

The rise of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in India in 2014, which practices a unique brand of hard-line Hindu nationalism, has coincided with an increase in Islamophobia and a series of proposed (and some enacted) laws banning or limiting the consumption of beef, as the cow is a sacred animal in Hindu tradition.

Rajasthan and New Delhi have seen the murders of 50-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq who was killed for procuring beef, followed by Umar Mohammad, Rakbar Khan and dairy owner Pehlu Khan, all documented by Global Voices. Some of these incidents have been committed despite the victims possessing permits.

Like those mentioned earlier, these murders appear to have been sparked by online misinformation campaigns that often carry a strong Islamophobic bent. These appear to come from various sources, including state-sanctioned IT cells.

Dhruv Rathee, a vlogger from India, interviewed a former IT cell member for the right-wing BJP on how multiple pages on Facebook and numerous WhatsApp groups have spread fake news and misinformation campaigns to gain electoral leverage:

Writing for The Tribune of India, Aditi Tandon called mob lynching a “political tool” and said that law enforcement has become “part and parcel” of the attacks:

The violence we have seen over the past four years follows a trend. Mob lynching is a political tool being used to polarise society. Law enforcement has also become part and parcel of the attacks. Police officers who act fairly are transferred. The idea is to create a fear psychosis by unleashing the mobs on a certain community.

There are ongoing efforts to push back against these campaigns by de-bunking videos that have been falsely labeled or doctored. For years, fact-checking websites such as AltNews, SMHoaxSlayer, and BOOM have been verifying fake news to create awareness. BOOM found that one of the videos that triggered lynching of five men in Maharashtra's Dhule region was from Syria — a video of children who died of a nerve gas attack five years ago was being used to spread paranoia amongst the masses. While their efforts are critical, the scale of the problem well outweighs their capacity.

Many Indians say that the government and law enforcement agencies must take greater responsibility for the crisis, but this may be difficult to engineer, with the BJP in power.

In an opinion piece for Bloomberg, business writer Mihir Sharma points out that lynch mobs in India are not new — while WhatsApp has contributed to the problem, he says, it is not the source. He points instead to a lack of policing and political will:

It’s particularly odd that the government is demanding “accountability and responsibility” from a phone app when some ruling party politicians are busy spreading divisive fake news. How can the government ask WhatsApp to control mobs when those convicted of lynching Muslims have been greeted, garlanded and fed sweets by some of the most progressive and cosmopolitan members of Modi’s council of ministers?

The Supreme Court weighs in

One government branch that has spoken out on the issue is India's Supreme Court, which recently recommended the government enact new laws to prevent lynching and mob violence. The SC bench headed by justice Dipak Mishra asked the Indian parliament to deal with lynching as a special and separate offense and “a recurrent pattern of violence which cannot be allowed to become the new normal.” He said:

A special law in this field would instill a sense of fear of law amongst the people who involve themselves in such kinds of activities. There can be no trace of doubt that fear of law and veneration for the command of law constitute the foundation of a civilized society.

Following this, the Indian government on July 23 2018, has set up two panels to understand the need for a new law to prevent lynching.

The report will be submitted to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who leads the very government that has fostered this culture of intolerance.

While Mark Zuckerberg and other technology platform founders should experiment with new ways to curb fake news and rumor-mongering on their platforms, the Indian government needs to do much more to protect public safety for all Indians. Ensuring mob justice is punished and the rule of law is enforced will save the lives of many minority communities including Muslims, Dalits, and minority tribal groups.

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