How WhatsApp Leads Mobs to Murder in India

By Vindu Goel, Suhasini Raj and Priyadarshini Ravichandran

In India, false rumors about child kidnappers have gone viral on WhatsApp, prompting fearful mobs to kill two dozen innocent people since April.

One of the first to be killed was a 65-year-old woman named Rukmani.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, has a quarter billion users in India alone. Some of the false messages on the app describe gangs of kidnappers on the prowl. Others include videos showing people driving up and snatching children.

False information has flooded social media in recent years, inciting violence from Brazil to Sri Lanka. The messages in India have preyed on a universal fear: harm coming to a child. And the millions of poorly educated Indians coming online for the first time mean many are quick to believe what is on their phones.

The family became nervous and decided to turn back. By the time they got to the next village, a crowd was waiting for them. 

They were stripped naked and beaten with iron rods, wooden sticks, bare hands and feet. Videos of the attack were circulated widely online. 

The region’s top government official said the police had gone around for weeks before the attack warning people not to believe the false kidnapping rumors. But they were no match for WhatsApp. “We could not compete,” he said.

WhatsApp’s design makes it easy to spread false information. Many messages are shared in groups, and when they are forwarded, there is no indication of their origin. The kidnap warnings have often appeared to come from friends and family.

WhatsApp said it was horrified by the killings. 

Last week, it began labeling all forwarded messages. It also took out newspaper ads to educate people about misinformation and pledged to work more closely with police and independent fact-checkers.

Authorities across India have tried curbing the attacks. Besides warning people of the false rumors, they have arrested some who spread them. In a few places, they briefly shut down the internet. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court urged the government to use “an iron hand” against mob violence.

The police have arrested 46 people for the attack on Rukmani and her family and are pursuing 74 more. 

Venkatesan, 52, who had lived in Rukmani’s house since he was 15, still doesn’t understand why they were assaulted. “They just wanted to kill us,” he said.

The most recent mob attack was on Friday. A software engineer was killed and three companions were injured after giving chocolates to children outside a school.