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Fake WhatsApp Message of Child Kidnaps Causing Mob Violence in Madhya Pradesh

Fake WhatsApp Message of Child Kidnaps Causing Mob Violence in Madhya Pradesh

The incident yet again raises questions of intentional misinformation-led communal propaganda, spread virally by misusing the power of free instant communication tools.

On Sunday, July 28, a woman in her 40s was thrashed by a mob in Sagar district, Madhya Pradesh, under suspicion of being a child kidnapper. Upon questioning, the police could find no connection that links her to a child nabbing gang. On the contrary, the lady is reported to be suffering from mental instability. While this itself is sad, what is more concerning is the root cause that can be traced to this act of mob violence -- a forwarded message on WhatsApp.

Over the past few days, the district of Sagar, Madhya Pradesh has seen a WhatsApp message being forwarded virally. While News18 could not independently verify the message itself as of publishing, reports indicate that the contents of the message are alleging that a Rohingya Muslim gang has entered the district, and is kidnapping children. As a result, well-meaning people are scurrying to spread the message out as far and wide as possible, to warn family members of these supposed child abductors.

The issue, though, is that the entire premise is fake. An IANS report from earlier today has quoted Anil Sanghi and Sunil Pandey, both superintendent of police in districts Sagar and Khargone of Madhya Pradesh, who have revealed that no such gangs have entered any of the districts of Madhya Pradesh, and the contents of this forwarded message is a classic case of misinformation-led propaganda. The same was echoed by Kailash Makwana, additional director general of MP Police's intelligence wing, who appealed to residents to stop spreading the message, and to not believe in these rumours.

Also read: Death by WhatsApp: When One Message Led to 24 Murders

It all seems even more compounded when one takes into account yet another mob violence act on Monday, July 29, when yet another woman who was suspected of being a child kidnapper was beaten up in district Tikamgarh, Madhya Pradesh. It is the back-to-back mob violence act that has led to the issue surfacing to the fore, and it is important to have a conversation about it right away. Given the sensitive premise of the message's content, and the lack of verifiable sources of such information, it is understandable why common people chose to believe in such a message.

The problem, though, lies with designing tools that could prevent the spread of such targeted communal propaganda, which can escalate to unprecedented levels of violence if not checked at the onset. Despite the police having issued statements for the public to stay calm, the issue of propaganda on readily available internet platforms such as WhatsApp remain intact. In fact, it almost seems like an action replay of last year, when a similar message alleging child trafficking and kidnapping gangs in town led to mob lynching of 30 individuals. Despite an intermediary push prior to the 2019 general elections for checking fake news, misinformation and propaganda, the issue seeps through underneath, and as is evident, very much present in our society.

On its part, WhatsApp has been attempting to design tools that may help individuals verify a piece of information before forwarding to others. However, any measure taken so far have evidently failed to be entirely successful, given that yet again, the issue of mob violence has risen in line with misinformation and propaganda being shared on WhatsApp.