Chat platform, Whatsapp has become a useful tool to connect with people and a powerful tool to spread information. However the speed of which news is spread makes it harder to detect what news is real and which are fake.
The issue has proven to be particularly destructive in Madhya Pradesh district, India, where two innocent men were savagely beaten by villagers on suspicion that they were going to murder people and sell their body parts.
The news started from a Whatsapp text that read 500 people disguised as beggars were roaming around to kill people to harvest their organs and urged recipients to forward on to friends and family. However, the police said that the message was fake.
According to Reuters, police officers who joined several Whatsapp groups found the three men circulating the message and were arrested.
The incident occurred only weeks after a WhatsApp text which warned people of the arrival of 400 child traffickers at the southern Indian technology hub of Bengaluru.
The fake news caused a mob to lynch a 26-year old man, who was a migrant construction worker from another Indian state, on suspicions that he was a kidnapper.
So far this year, false messages about child abductors on WhatsApp have helped trigger mass beatings of more than a dozen people in India.
With 200 million users in India, Whatsapp’s biggest market in the world, false news and videos are easily disseminated.
In 2017, at least 111 people were killed and 2384 injured in 822 communal incidents in the country, according to the federal home affairs ministry. It is unclear whether any of these news incidents were triggered by fake news messages.
Whatsapp recently announced that they are to get researchers to study its fake news epidemic and it is considering changes to the service. For example, there is now a public beta test that is labels any forwarded message.
A deluge of hoax news incidents, several with fatal consequences, may also boost the Indian government’s attempts to get social networks to share more user data so that police can track down those spreading rumours.
The move has raised concerns among privacy advocates who fear the authorities will use such access against activists and political opponents, and not just against those spreading malicious information.
India’s ministry of Information and Broadcasting has also recently floated a tender for a firm to scrutinize social media posts of Indian users and identify fake news.