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What is the result of Internet rumors: the history of the Indian village, where the crowd killed five people for suspicion of kidnapping children

Many residents of the village received information only in WhatsApp and believed in false information about “hunters for children’s bodies.”

A resident of India with a newspaper in which the rules for combating disinformation in WhatsApp are posted. Getty Photos

Around 2016-2017, in the small village of Rheinpad in the Indian state of Maharashtra, the Internet appeared, and soon many young people downloaded to WhatsApp smartphones. One of the most popular applications of India quickly became the main source for messaging and rumors for the settlement. Therefore, when rumors of “hunters for children’s bodies” spread there, the people of the Rheinpads seriously believed it.

In July 2018, this disinformation led to the local attack and beaten to death five travelers who came to the village to the fair. They were suspected of attempting to kidnap children. The beginning of the police investigation provoked the escape of many residents from the village, which came to desolation. Meanwhile, the WhatsApp management and the Indian government are trying to decide how to prevent such tragedies. A complicated history of the relationship between Rainbow and the Internet was told by BuzzFeed.

The arrival of the Internet in the Raindad

Without a conductor to get to a small and remote from the capital, Rainpad is very difficult. The village is located about 25 kilometers east of the town of Pimpalner on the western edge of Dhulia – one of the most undeveloped districts of India. For years, the inhabitants of the Rheinpad led the simplest way of life, engaged in livestock farming, farming and corn sales for wholesalers.

Only in recent years, the young generation began to gradually leave for the city of Surat, about 160 kilometers in search of work and prospects. The average salary in the district of Dhulia is $ 100 (about seven thousand rubles), $ 30 less than in the country. Most of the inhabitants of the region can not afford electricity, so it illegally connects to power lines. Only 63% of people in the county know how to read and write – this is one of the lowest rates in India.

However, the lack of education does not prevent the villagers from buying smartphones for communication – they do not know what the terms “www”, “internet” or “data” mean, mainly using the phone to view and transfer clips. In this field, WhatsApp plays in India, both Gmail and YouTube. The fast and cheap 4G-Internet came to the far corners of the country around the end of 2016 due to the internal war of operators for customers.

A room in which the inhabitants of the Rheinpads killed five people. Photos of Hindustan Times

Since then, hundreds of young people gather in the hills around the Rainpads and nearby settlements to use the Internet in the evenings (on the hills the signal is much better than on the plains). Local share pictures in Instagram, send each other movies, music, porn or messages in WhatsApp – the service serves as the main source of fresh news and rumors for the village. “Many of us who have gone to study or work, are at least a few group chat rooms in our settlement,” says a native of the village of Dhulia, Sandeep Wadhwe.

As explained by the young man, at first messages of doubtful content involuntarily spread by the status members of the community, and gradually they get to ordinary inhabitants. “In my village no one is watching TV. All the news they receive from WhatsApp, so they do not know what to believe, “- continues Vadhve. The researcher of the peculiarities of disinformation René DiResta supplements that people tend to trust the words of friends or relatives, even if their statements are not confirmed by facts.

Often, most smartphone owners in remote regions of India have obsolete versions of WhatsApp, in which there are no new ways to combat misinformation.

For the first time, Internet rumors about kidnappers appeared in the Rainpad in May 2018. In one of the commercials that have spread over the chats of local residents, a woman in a burqa grabs a child by the hand and leads away. In another recording, against the background of a photograph of the mutilated children, the voice of an unknown man is heard, telling about “hunters for children’s bodies.” The video ends with a call to distribute this video in all possible chat rooms in WhatsApp: “Anyone who does not do this is not allowed to call himself the son of his mother.”

However, the background photo in the video illustrated not the children allegedly abducted by the unknown. In fact, the shot showed young victims of a chemical attack in Syria, but the residents of the Rheinpad did not know this and did not think about verifying the statements. Two months before lynching, a member of the Sakharam Pawar village council heard about some “kidnappers”, but from relatives and children, since he does not use a smartphone. He did not finish school until the fourth grade and can not read.

Residents also heard rumors in the neighboring settlement of the Rheinpad. Frightened, they did not go out to work in the field and kept their eyes on the children. They were forbidden to go to school or sent to distant relatives who could regularly monitor them. This atmosphere soon covered other villages too, so when on July 1, 2018 five strangers entered the Rainpad, the villagers could no longer cope with fear and stress.

Lynching Day

Five strangers arrived from a nomadic tribe in the northern part of Maharashtra – they wanted to participate in the weekly fair in Rheypad and go further. On the way to the village, the men met a nine-year-old girl and offered her cookies. According to the police, this was noticed by a 22-year-old boy, stopped strangers and demanded an explanation. Soon a group of local people joined the conversation.

It is not known exactly how the verbal skirmish turned into a fight: when the member of the Sahram Pavar’s council arrived, the travelers were already lying in their own blood. They were beaten by about 40 people, using improvised objects or fists. Several attackers recorded the process on the phone.

Carefully, the video contains scenes of violence

Pavar and several people tried to stop the crowd, hiding the wounded in the council building. They locked the door and barricaded the windows with boards, hoping to hold out until the police arrived from the nearest post, 16 kilometers from the village. The crowd broke into the office faster: the local broke the door and windows, shouting something about the kidnapped children. Someone suggested that the accused be burnt, but it ended differently – villagers beat strangers with bricks and chairs.

“I think they were exactly influenced by what they saw in WhatsApp. It can not be denied that the application played a role, ” says a former Dhulia police spokesman named Ramkumar. Pavar agrees with the police – he grew up in the village and had never faced such a level of violence.

On suspicion of murder, 28 people aged between 20 and 25 were detained. All of them used smartphones, the overwhelming number of attackers do not work or only earn extra money, and 15 of them never went to school.

WhatsApp against misinformation

More than 200 million people a month – this is the statistics of using WhatsApp in India. This is the largest market for the owner of the application – Facebook, and the service is popular among both young and older generations. However, such indicators have a dark side – from May to September 2018 in India recorded 16 cases of lynching, which led to the death of 29 people. According to law enforcement agencies, in all incidents of the attackers incited disinformation in WhatsApp. Due to the features of messenger encryption, it is impossible to track original distributors of false information.

Two days after the lynching of five people, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology of India said – rumors and disinformation in the country’s most popular messenger cause concern. The next day, representatives of WhatsApp responded to the agency, calling the incident “a terrible case of violence” and clarified that in the fight against false information, the application needs government assistance.

The application manual limited the ability for Indian users to send messages to up to five people, and also launched an information campaign in the country. In more than 30 newspapers in India, a methodology has appeared that lists ways to catch misinformation in WhatsApp. Under pressure from local media and police, the WhatsApp development director Chris Daniels arrived in August after taking a large-scale reshuffle on Facebook in May 2018.

Chris Daniels. Getty Photos

The top manager met with several politicians and discussed a plan to contain the wave of misinformation in the messenger, but, like the rest of the service, did not visit the Rainpack. Defenders WhatsApp sure that you can not blame the application for what its users are doing. Just as a telephone operator can not be accused of being secretly used by terrorists.

Indian-American businessman and executive director of technology company SlideShare Rashmi Sinha (Rashmi Sinha) believes that the problem is different. WhatsApp was created and sharpened under the American consumer, so its distribution to other countries with a different culture can lead to sad consequences. As BuzzFeed notes, it is likely that soon the service management will present a manager who will solve the problem of disinformation in India on the spot.

Despite this, the authorities expect a greater return: they asked WhatsApp tools to find the original distributors of misinforming rollers to hold them accountable for lynching. Service management declined, explaining this by the rules on the protection of personal data of users.

In August, Reuters, referring to the documents provided, said that the Indian authorities had asked Internet providers to “find ways to block Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram and other mobile applications.” The source of journalists in the Department of Telecommunications clarified that the purpose of the appeal is to find a way to block services during “emergency situations”. It is not known what kind of events this concerns.

Mark Zuckerberg did not publicly comment on the tragedy in the Rheinpad. Facebook representatives did not answer the question whether he was aware of what had happened, but clarified that the head of the company was “concerned with violence” and participated in discussions on this topic.

Deserted village

While the WhatsApp management is looking for a way to solve the problem of spreading misinformation in the service, the Indian authorities are trying to take control of the situation by their own methods. Two hours after lynching in the Rheinpad, two police officers entered the studio of the local news channel AE Vision and demanded that the text announcement be immediately launched. It reported that rumors about kidnappers of children in WhatsApp are invented, and anyone who disseminates this information is threatened with arrest and punishment.

The message was broadcast the next 48 hours, being in the corner of the screen, and it was seen by at least 100 thousand spectators throughout the district. The day after the tragedy, the police also blocked access to the Internet for 24 hours to interrupt the distribution of the lynching record. This is by no means all ways by which law enforcement services try to contain a wave of disinformation.

The explanatory leaflets are distributed throughout the region, thematic programs are shown on TV, and almost every police station has its own channel in WhatsApp for communication with local police.

Police road banner in Marathi language at the entrance to the Rheinpad, informing people about the July lynching event. Photos BuzzFeed

Indian activists also launched a campaign to combat disinformation in the messenger. For about ten years, a public organization has been working in Dhule County, which educates and educates people in poor areas. After the tragedy in the Rheinpad, she switched to increasing Internet education in the region. Volunteers play on the squares performances, in which they explain the principles of misinformation in WhatsApp and its harm in an understandable and simple language.

As for the Rainfall, after the arrest of the suspects, the village was emptied. Many of the alleged participants in lynching have fled, fearing police harassment, and are hiding. In the settlement, mostly children, women and elderly people remained. The doors to most houses are closed, and their owners are nowhere to be seen.

The council building, in which the inhabitants of the Rheinpads killed five people. Photos BuzzFeed

According to the elderly resident of Rainpada, with the departure of young people, there is no one else to monitor the food and water taps that supply the village with water. Some elderly people can not move without help, and with the departure of young relatives they simply lie on the bed and can not get up.

Local farmer Daulat Babul, earning $ 70 a month (about 4,900,000 rubles), was forced to hire a group of visiting workers to help out on the field, each of which costs a man almost two dollars a day. He is not able to cope alone because of old age. Granny never heard of WhatsApp and did not use the phone, believing that it was too old for that. The man believes that after the tragedy, the Rainpads have little chance of getting back to normal.

I’m ashamed to leave the Rainpack after what happened. Wherever we go, people ask: “Are not you ashamed that you live in this village? Do you have no heart? How could you do what you did? “( Babul did not participate in lynching – note  ). […]

I’m not sure that the village will be restored after the incident. But I’m already an old man. I’m thinking of building a small house on the hills and living away from it all in peace and quiet.

Daulat Babul,
a resident of the Indian village of Rheinpad
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