Making WhatsApp the scapegoat

IN Opinion | 08/07/2018
There were no social media or messaging apps when the Nellie massacre occurred. Yet it happened. Media reporting is taking the easy way out,
Printscreen, The Hindustan Times


On 5th July 2018, when social messaging app WhatsApp responded to the letter by the Government of India (GOI) asking it to take necessary steps to curb the fake news and rumours,  almost all the major newspapers in country dedicated a paragraph or two to report on it. The previous day it was reported that the GOI had asked WhatsApp to take necessary steps to stop the spread of irresponsible and explosive messages due to which the nation had witnessed the mob lynching of innocent individuals in different parts of the country. In response, the messaging app announced its plans like fact-checking mechanism, partnership with GOI, monetary rewards for the research on the issue and enabling of features that would curb the proliferation of such rumours and fake news.

 But the question is, will this stop lynching and killing in the country?

The simple answer would be ‘no’ and this is because the WhatsApp might be a medium through which the message instigating the lynching may spread, but it is not the source of the anger and angst of individuals who participate in the lynching of a  fellow human being. Let us look at the killing of two individuals by mobs in Assam. 

On 9th June the news of the lynching and killing of two men who were in vacation and were travelling through Karbi Anglong district surfaced in the Indian media. National newspapers were quick to mention about the rumours about the ‘child lifters’ that resulted in the incident. Next day, The Times of India started its report with the line ‘In two more instances of people losing their lives due to fake news on social media, four people were lynched…… the last 24 hours following rumours that they were child lifters or thieves’. The large portion of the report was based on how the rumours proliferated through social media fuel such incidents. 

Similarly, The Hindu started its report with the lead ‘Less than a fortnight after rumours spread via WhatsApp triggered communal violence in Meghalaya capital Shillong, social media posts about child abductors led to the lynching of two young men on vacation in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district…’ 

Almost all the newspapers directly or indirectly blamed WhatsApp and the rumours transmitted through it for the incident. It needs to be clarified that the attempt here is not to completely exonerate the app. It is indeed being used by individuals to spread fake news and rumours which the members of the mob that lynched two men in Assam or anyone else anywhere else might have read, watched or heard. The point is that narrowing down the discourse of mob lynching to WhatsApp and the (mis)information circulating via it will lead us to nowhere.

 What the media failed to inform its readers was that the rumour of ‘child lifters or abductors’ is not a new phenomenon. To understand the existence of this particular rumour in Assam alone one needs to remember the Nellie massacre. On 18 February 1983, more than 1800 Muslim peasants, according to the  official count, mostly women, children and the old who could not escape,  were butchered in the villages near Nellie, 70kms from Guwahati in Assam. Makiko Kimura in her book The Nellie Massacre of 1983: Agency of Rioters mentions that the rumour about the kidnapping of girls by immigrants was one of the major reason behind the massacre. 

"Narrowing down the discourse of mob lynching to WhatsApp and the (mis)information circulating via it will lead us to nowhere. "

There were no social media or messaging applications when the Nellie massacre occurred. Still individuals believed in the rumour and got together and killed their fellow human beings. Those who participated in this violence did not need any messaging app to inform them about the ‘child abductors or rapist’.

Lask week’s investigation by The Indian Express published as part I and II sheds much needed light on the facts associated with the mob lynching. The paper investigated 15 cases from nine different states of mob lynching in last one year and brought out the facts that are being ignored by the Indian State and other news organisations. One of the important facts that the paper revealed was the distinct patters on the demographics of the mob, its nature of mobilisation, the profile of accused, the way rumours spread, the response of police and the legal process.

In all the cases the accused were unaware of the victims’ identities who were merely passing through the areas where they were lynched. Apart from three cases, lynching occurred in the deep interiors of the rural India where the existence of authentic source of information were almost absent. In addition, the accused were school or college dropout without jobs. While Express dug deeper, other media outlets were busy in finding a scapegoat which they ultimately did in the form of WhatsApp.

The fact is that lynching even in recent days has occurred without the involvement of any social sites or apps. Take for instance the lynching of Muslim youths in a Mathura-bound train which resulted in a minor losing his life. Hindustan Times, Times of India, The Hindu, The Indian Express all the major newspapers, including these four carried the reports of the incident. None had any mention about the usage of any app or sites and this is because there was no usage of such apps and sites. And this is just a single case among many others which proves that even without the message/data sharing apps or sites lynching and killing occurs in our society.

"People believe in such rumours because Indian society is being communalised and the representatives of the people irrespective of their political ideologies, have failed to address this issue "


One cannot disagree with the argument that the social messaging app and sites has allowed people to circulate the pictures and videos of lynching, instigating other to do the same. Measure need to be taken to stop such practices but calling WhatsApp or any other app “India’s new serial killer” like the  Times of India did will only divert from the questions that need to be asked: for instance, why do people believe in such rumours? And even if the (mis)information is believed why do they decides to take matters into their own hands? 

Put simply, people believe in such rumours because Indian society is being communalised and the representatives of the people irrespective of their political ideologies have failed to address this issue. This is the reason why people are killed for consuming food or for trading in animals.

Also, because the representatives have failed to address the issue, common people, including those involved in killings has been losing confidence in the State and its apparatus. Rather than alerting the police about a potential ‘child lifter’ they end up ‘solving’ the ‘problems’ themselves.

The Dadri incident where 50-year-old man was killed on September 2015 in Busada village in Uttar Pradesh is the prime example of this. The man was lynched on the suspicion that he was consuming  beef. More surprising was the fact that the authorities sent the meat stored in his house for forensic test. Interestingly, the different test results came out and media just kept on reporting on it without asking serious questions. News18 on 9th October 2015 reported that it was mutton not beef whereas Hindustan Times and others on 1st June 2016 informed that another forensic test has found the meat to be that of beef, not mutton.

At this point one can say that more than the gruesome action of the killers, meat found in the victim’s fridge occupied the discourse in the media. Should a person be killed even if he had consumed the meat that his killers were accusing him of consuming? Is the question that the press could have asked but didn’t. By sending the meat found in the old man’s fridge the authorities justified the killings and press merely kept on reporting. Not surprisingly, as mentioned in a report by The Hindu  on 14th October 2017 the accused landed on a contractual jobs with NTPC Limited. The justice to the old man, like the justice to the other victims of lynching and killings remained a far cry.

The failure of state and its apparatus in protecting the citizens has resulted in the sense of impunity in the minds of the perpetrators of such violence which has resulted in the continuous occurrence of lynching and killings. 

Media on the other hand, chases the easy aspects of the issue because they do not want to waste time and resources investigating the incident or the issue on which they are reporting. Presently, WhatsApp has become that scapegoat which media was looking for but they need to realise that by doing so they are failing in their social responsibilities. 


Ugen Bhutia is Assistant Professor, Department of Journalism, SRM University, Amaravati- AP.



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