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What Internet rumors bring about: the story of an Indian village where a mob 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 organs.”

A resident of India with a newspaper in which the rules to combat misinformation in WhatsApp. Getty Photos

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

In July 2018, this misinformation led to local residents attacking and beating to death five travelers who came to the village to the fair. They were suspected of trying to kidnap children. The beginning of the police investigation provoked the escape of many residents from the village, which had fallen into disrepair. Meanwhile, the WhatsApp management and the Indian government are trying to decide how to prevent such tragedies. The BuzzFeed edition has told the difficult history of relations of the Rainpads with the Internet .

The arrival of the Internet in Rainpad

Without a guide to get to the small and remote from the capital Reynpad very difficult. The village is located about 25 kilometers east of the town of Pimpalner on the western edge of Dhuliya – one of the most undeveloped districts of India. For years, the inhabitants of Reinpad led the simplest way of life, engaging in animal husbandry, farming and selling corn to wholesalers.

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

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

The room in which the inhabitants of the Rainpads killed five people. Photo Hindustan Times

Since then, in the evenings, hundreds of young people have gathered in the hills around the Rainpads and neighboring settlements to use the Internet (on higher ground the signal is much better than on the plains). Locals share photos on Instagram, send each other movies, music, porn or WhatsApp messages – the service serves as the main source of fresh news and rumors for the village. “Many of us who have left to study or work are in at least a few group chats of our settlement,” says Sandeep Wadhwe, a native of the village of Dhuliya district.

As the young man explained, at first messages of dubious content are involuntarily distributed by status members of the community, and gradually they reach ordinary people. “In my village, no one is watching TV. They get all the news from WhatsApp, so they don’t know what to believe, ”continues Vadhwa. Renée DiResta, a scholar of disinformation features, adds that people tend to trust the words of friends or relatives, even if their statements are not supported by facts.

Often, most smartphone owners in distant regions of India have outdated versions of WhatsApp, in which there are no new ways to combat disinformation.

For the first time, Internet rumors about kidnappers appeared in Reinpad in May 2018. In one of the commercials that were distributed on the chats of local residents, a woman in a burqa grabs a child by the hand and leads her away. In another recording, against the background of a photograph of mutilated children, there is the voice of an unknown man telling about “hunters for children’s organs.” The video ends with a call to distribute this video in all possible WhatsApp chats: “Anyone who does not do this has no right to call himself the son of his mother.”

However, the background photo in the video did not illustrate the children allegedly abducted by unknown persons. In fact, the frame showed the young victims of chemical attack in Syria, but the residents of the Rainpads did not know this and did not think about checking the statements. Two months before the lynching, a member of the village council Saharam Pawar (Sakharam Pawar) heard about some “kidnappers of children”, but from relatives and children, since he did not use a smartphone. He only got to the fourth grade and cannot read.

In the nearby settlement of the Rainpads, residents also heard rumors. Frightened, they did not go out to work in the field and did not take their eyes off 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, so when on July 1, 2018 five strangers entered Reinpad, the villagers could not cope with fear and stress.

Lynching day

Five strangers came from a nomadic tribe in northern Maharashtra – they wanted to participate in the weekly fair in Rheinpad and go on. On the way to the village, the men met a nine-year-old girl and offered her cookies. According to the police, a 22-year-old youth noticed this, stopped the strangers and demanded an explanation. Soon the local group joined the conversation.

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

Watch out, the video contains scenes of violence.

Pawar and several people tried to stop the crowd by covering 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 locals broke down the door and windows, shouting something about the abducted children. Someone proposed to burn the accused, but it ended differently – the villagers beat strangers with bricks and chairs.

“I think they were exactly influenced by what they saw in whatsapp. There is no denying that the application has played its role, ” said a former Dkuliya district police spokesman named Ramkumar. Pawar agrees with the police – he grew up in a village and had never before encountered a similar 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 did not work or only earns money, and 15 of them never went to school.

Whatsapp against disinformation

More than 200 million people per month – these are the statistics of whatsapp usage in India. This is the largest market for the owner of the application – Facebook, and the service is popular among both the younger and older generations. However, these 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 the attackers were incited by misinformation in WhatsApp. Due to the encryption features of the messenger, it is impossible to track the original distributors of false information.

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

The application’s manual restricted the ability of Indian users to send a message to five people, and also launched an information campaign in the country. A handbook has appeared in more than 30 newspapers in India that lists ways to catch misinformation on WhatsApp. Under pressure from local media and police, WhatsApp Development Director Chris Daniels arrived in the country in August, taking office after a massive Facebook reshuffle in May 2018.

Chris Daniels. Getty Photos

The top manager met with several politicians and discussed a plan to contain a wave of misinformation in the messenger, but, like the rest of the service, did not visit Reinpad. WhatsApp advocates are confident that the application cannot be blamed for what its users are doing. Exactly the same as a telephone operator cannot be blamed for the fact that terrorists secretly use its services.

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

Despite this, the authorities are counting on a great return: they asked WhatsApp for tools to search for the original distributors of misinforming commercials in order to bring them to justice for self-prosecution. The management of the service refused, explaining that the rules on the protection of personal data of users.

In August, the Reuters publication, citing the documents provided, reported that the Indian authorities appealed to Internet service providers with a request 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 Reinpade. Facebook representatives did not answer the question whether he was aware of what happened, but clarified that the head of the company was “concerned about the violence” and participated in discussions on this topic.

Empty village

While the leadership of WhatsApp is looking for a way to solve the problem of the spread of misinformation in the service, the Indian authorities are trying to bring the situation under control with their own methods. Two hours after the mob in Rainpad, two policemen entered the local news channel AE Vision studio and demanded that the text notification be immediately launched. It was reported that the rumors about the abductors of children in WhatsApp are fictional, and anyone who spreads this information faces 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 viewers around the district. The next day after the tragedy, the police also blocked access to the Internet for 24 hours in order to interrupt the distribution of the lynching record. These are not all the ways in which law enforcement agencies try to contain a wave of misinformation.

Explanatory leaflets are distributed in the region, thematic programs are shown on TV, and almost every police station has its own WhatsApp channel to communicate with local ones.

A police road banner in the Marathi language at the entrance to Rainpad notifying people about the July case of mob violence. BuzzFeed Photos
Indian activists also launched a campaign to combat disinformation in the messenger. For about ten years, a public organization has been working in Dhule district, which has been engaged in educating and training people in poor areas. After the tragedy in Reinpad, she switched to increasing Internet education in the region. Volunteers play on the squares performances in which they explain to the audience the principles of whatsApp disinformation and its harm in understandable and simple language.

As for the Reinpads, after the arrest of the suspects the village was empty. Many of the alleged participants in the lynching fled, fearing persecution by the police, and are hiding. Mostly children, women and elderly people remained in the settlement. The doors to most houses are closed, and their owners are nowhere to be seen.

The council building in which residents of the Rhinepads killed five people. BuzzFeed Photos

According to an elderly resident of the Reinpads, with the departure of young people, there is no one else to follow the food and water supply taps that supply the village with water. Some older people cannot move without help, and with the care of their young relatives, they simply lie on the bed and cannot get up.

The local farmer Daulat Babul (Daulat Babul), who earns $ 70 a month (about 4900 rubles), was forced to hire a group of visiting workers to help the field, each of which costs the man nearly two dollars a day. He is not able to cope alone due to old age. Babul has never heard of WhatsApp and does not use the phone, believing that he is too old for that. The man believes that after the tragedy, the Rainpads have little chance of getting back to normal.

I am ashamed to leave the Rainpads after what happened. Wherever we go, people ask: “Are you not ashamed that you live in this village? Don’t you have a heart? How could you do what you did? ”( Babul did not participate in mob justice –  ). […]

Not sure that the village will recover from what happened. But I am already an old man. I am thinking about building a small house in the hills and living away from it all in peace and quiet.

Daulat Babul,
Indian village resident of Rainpad
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