What We Talk About When We Talk About Fake News

Early last year in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, WhatsApp users received posts warning of the impending arrival of a gang of child-abducting criminals. Soon thereafter, a mob convened and dragged an elderly woman, Rukmani, along with her family members, out of their car on suspicion of being the kidnappers. The mob stripped their bodies and struck them with blunt objects time and time again; when the dust settled, Rukmani, 65 years old, was dead.

Facebook’s connection to ethnic violence in Myanmar has received a lot of media attention, but we often forget that Facebook also owns WhatsApp, which has had its own complicated relationship with ethnic violence ‒ most tragically, in India. With over 200 million monthly active users, WhatsApp dominates the Indian market. The platform not only allows pairs of individuals to communicate one-on-one; it also facilitates conversations among groups of dozens or even hundreds of people. Without question, WhatsApp has been an incredibly useful platform for bringing together friend groups, organizing community events, and keeping Indians connected with their family abroad.

But those very strengths may implicate WhatsApp in a devastating wave of mob lynchings, facilitated by its platform, that claimed up to 40 lives in 2018 alone. As demonstrated by horrible events like the lynching in Tamil Nadu, WhatsApp can help incite violence through the ability to seamlessly forward messages from one of its users’ groups to another, allowing one piece of news to reach hundreds of people within hours. This all occurs in a completely private setting, since WhatsApp is protected with end-to-end encryption and is unable to monitor the messages flowing through it. In July 2018, the platform did institute substantive changes: A user can now forward a message just five times, and the button that allowed instant sharing of messages from one group to another was removed. Since these changes were implemented, the amount of lynchings organized on WhatsApp have dropped precipitously. So was WhatsApp responsible for these lynchings?

Well, somewhat. While these lynchings are barbaric, they are not senseless. There is a clear and perverse logic underlying the mob’s behavior, and exploring the why of these events, beyond simplifications like “mob mentality” and “fake news,” brings into question our very assumptions about social media’s role in inciting violence. As The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal points out, WhatsApp does not inherently inspire mob violence, but rather that there are deeper cultural and historical forces that make a society susceptible to sectarian mob lynchings. Putting WhatsApp at the center of the narrative commits a grave oversight by ignoring the cultural and historical context around which the lynchings take place, thus absolving the Indian government and civil society of all blame. To understand that context, we need to understand India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi.

Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi rose to power in the 2014 elections, when the ruling Indian National Congress (INC) party, plagued by corruption and scandals, was overwhelmingly defeated by Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that he heads. Decades earlier, Modi began his political career as an organizer for the RSS, a conservative paramilitary organization whose early leaders drew inspiration from Hitler and Mussolini. Through an efficient work ethic and excellent organization, Modi became the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat in 2001. Although his tenure as Chief Minister saw rapid economic growth, it also saw the 2002 Gujarat Pogrom, in which thousands of Muslims were systematically butchered. Modi has been absolved of responsibility for the pogrom and he has never apologized for the event.

Many view Modi’s political success and the 2002 Pogroms as part of a wider uptick in Hindu nationalism that has gripped India over the preceding decades. In the final decades of the 20th century, Hindu nationalist groups like the BJP exploded in popularity, appealing to a Hindu majority that felt ignored by the INC, which had dominated Indian politics since the nation’s independence in 1947. In 1990, a BJP leader organized a mass movement to demolish a Mughal-era Muslim Mosque that was allegedly built on the site of a Hindu Temple marking the birthplace of a Hindu deity. A rally in December of 1992 devolved into violence as thousands stormed the Masjid and destroyed it brick by brick. The destruction of the Masjid lead to more communal rioting and was the impetus for the act of violence that sparked the 2002 pogroms. According to Sugata Bose, Harvard Professor of History and member of the Lok Sabha (the lower house of India’s bicameral Parliament), parties like the BJP gain their appeal by “demonizing the Muslim minority” in order to “conjure up a unified Hindu political constituency.”

Conversations about the Indian WhatsApp lynchings lose this context of suspicion and the state’s failure to prevent violence. While serious attention must be given to curbing this novel mechanism for spreading fear, we must interrogate where the fear is originating from in the first place and how that fear manifests in vigilante lynchings. “WhatsApp actually should take into consideration the context in which it is operating in any society or country. And if there is a larger atmosphere of bigotry or prejudice along religious lines, WhatsApp ought to make sure that false information and hate speech is not circulated on that platform,” said Bose. It seems as though that process of consideration is finally occuring. Last August, India’s IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and WhatsApp CEO Chris Daniels agreed to a series of concrete steps to alleviate the spread of misinformation on the platform and begin a public awareness campaign to stem that spread.

“An even bigger responsibility rests with those who are in government in India, top-ranking political leaders. It is often said that there are only fringe elements who are resorting to this kind of violence, but the problem is that there has not been prompt and unambiguous condemnation of this kind of spreading of the poison of religious hatred by top-ranking political leaders, including the Prime Minister. Someone who is so vocal on social media, on Twitter for example, on all kinds of other subjects does not immediately respond to a terrible incident and condemn it outright. If that happened, I think we would actually see much less of these awful killings,” said Bose.

If a society is acutely susceptible to the spread of fake news, one must ask how to deal with not only the vector of spread, but also the disease itself. Since the BJP’s successful 2014 elections, India has seen a huge uptick in killings of low-caste Hindus and Muslims over the protection of cattle. Meanwhile, the halls of the Lok Sabha ring with majoritarian rhetoric like never before. During the writing of this article, the BJP eagerly reaffirmed an alliance with the Shiv Sena, a far-right party local to Maharastra that has been a driving force for communal violence for decades. “Of course one has to hold Facebook, Twitter, and also WhatsApp to high standards of corporate responsibility, but I wouldn’t want the focus to be shifted away from what are deep-seated social political problems, and only blame technology for some of the bad things that have happened or will happen in the future, in a hotly contested general election,” says Bose.

The case of India’s WhatsApp lynchings demonstrates the necessity of interrogating the forces that prime a society to react to fake news and lies with violence. The WhatsApp saga raises deep questions about technology’s potential to exacerbate our society’s worst qualities. In their conversations about fake news, commentators, social scientists, and activists absolutely need to hold big tech responsible. But at the same time, we cannot afford to lose sight of the other actors that are motivating its spread, especially as India races towards its general elections in April and May of this year. A cosmetic fix is not going to address a systemic problem. Any conversation regarding fake news that does not include the broader cultural and historical context of the society in question is not only ineffectual but irresponsible.

Authors

Raj Gambir
Writer for the Harvard Technology Review.
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