Death by ‘fake news’: social media-fueled lynchings shock India

This photo taken on June 10, 2018 shows Indian protesters demanding the arrest and punishment of people involved in the killing of two men in Karbi Anglong district, during a protest in Guwahati, the capital city of India’s northeastern state of Assam. (AFP)
Updated 14 July 2018
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Death by ‘fake news’: social media-fueled lynchings shock India

  • Lynchings based on misjudgment or malicious information are not a new phenomenon in India
  • Close to half a billion Indians are online, most accessing the Internet via their smartphones

PANJURI KACHARI, India: The smartphone footage shows the two blood-soaked men pleading for their lives. Moments later they were dead, two more victims of lynchings sparked by rumors spread on Facebook and WhatsApp in India.
The two men were young and well-educated. Gregarious, dreadlocked musician Nilotpal Das, 29, and his businessman friend Abhijeet Nath, 30, were both from Guwahati, capital of the northeastern state of Assam.
On the fateful day last month when they were beaten to death by a crazed village mob wielding bamboo sticks, machetes, and rocks, the friends were driving back from a day in the country, near a popular waterfall.
“He liked to listen to the sounds of nature to find inspiration for his music,” his grieving father Gopal Chandra Das, 68, told AFP at their home, the television table in the living room now a shrine to his son.
Viral rumors about kidnappers, spread through Facebook and WhatsApp, have led to the lynching deaths of some 20 people in the last two months in India, according to a tally from local media reports.
Indian authorities have scrambled to respond but awareness campaigns, public alerts and Internet blackouts have had limited success in deterring the spread of misinformation.
Instead, officials blamed WhatsApp for the “irresponsible and explosive messages” being shared by its 200 million Indian users — the company’s largest market.
WhatsApp said it was “horrified” by the violence and promised action. The social media giant took out full-page advertisements in Indian newspapers offering “easy tips” to sort fact from fiction on its platform.
“Together we can fight false information,” the slick adverts declared.

On their June 8 excursion, the two men were unaware that “fake news” on child traffickers had been spreading on social media in the area.
In the isolated, impoverished district of Karbi Anglong, Facebook and WhatsApp have become the new word of mouth, and messages on the platforms — however outlandish — are often taken as gospel.
Late in the day, the two men were sitting by a stream when a villager confronted them, causing an altercation. The young men left in their car in a hurry, but their antagonist warned the next village they were coming.
“He made a phone call. He said that child kidnappers were on the way, that they needed to be stopped,” said Gulshan Daolagupu, deputy division chief of Karbi Anglong.
The mob surrounded the car on the country road. Convinced they had caught the child kidnappers, they launched a savage attack, posting videos of the killings online.
The images shocked India.
An enquiry is under way to establish whether the suspect who instigated the attack, a 35-year-old taxi driver, genuinely believed he had caught the purported child kidnappers or whether he had ulterior motives. Some 50 people have been detained over the attack.
“Had social media not been there, had this been 2014 — Facebook was not there, smartphones were not cheap — this would not have happened,” said G.V. Siva Prasad, superintendent of police in Karbi Anglong district.
“The speed at which it goes, nobody can address it, it is almost the speed of light.”
One month after the incident, the village of Panjuri Kachari is almost deserted. Only a few women, children and elderly people remain. The men are behind bars or on the run.

Lynchings based on misjudgment or malicious information are not a new phenomenon in India. But the spread of smartphones and Internet access in the country’s poorest and most isolated areas has exacerbated the problem.
Close to half a billion Indians are online, most accessing the Internet via their smartphones. India was the fastest growing market for smartphones in 2017.
Internet penetration in rural areas, though low at 20 percent, is growing. The tumbling cost of handsets — many priced at well below $100 — coupled with cheap data plans is attracting many first-time users to the Internet.
For researcher Abdul Kalam Azad, the lynchings in Panjuri Kachari must be seen in the particular context of Assam state, which is a patchwork of ethnic tribes and has been routinely hit by intercommunal strife.
“Assam has been experiencing violence for a long time. In this situation of conflict, fake news become more dangerous, more violent and that’s evident now,” he told AFP.
The killing of Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath has resonated broadly among urban, well-educated Indians and played on perceptions that rural districts are backward-looking and lawless.
“Everyone could feel: ‘it could have been my son, it could have been me,’” said Ittisha Sarah, 25, a friend of the victims.
“That feeling is impacting people a lot. That it could have been anyone, so innocent, in that barbaric incident.”


The Independent and SRMG announce major international expansion deal

Updated 19 July 2018
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The Independent and SRMG announce major international expansion deal

  • Four new websites will be created under The Independent branding
  • The sites will be operated by the Saudi Research and Marketing Group

LONDON: The UK and US-based online publisher The Independent and the Middle East media house, Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG), have announced a new licensing deal that will see the creation of a series of new websites in four different languages.

The sites will offer news, insight and analysis on global affairs and local events, and will be published in Arabic, Urdu, Turkish and Persian.

In addition, each site will feature translated articles from independent.co.uk alongside content from teams of SRMG journalists based in London, Islamabad, Istanbul, and New York, as well as operations teams in Riyadh and Dubai.

The new sites – Independent Arabia, Independent Urdu, Independent Turkish, and Independent Persian – will be owned and operated by SRMG. And all editorial practices and output will conform to the standards, code of conduct and established ethos of The Independent.

The Independent – which started life as a national newspaper in the UK, has, over many decades, established a global reputation for respected independent coverage of the Middle East.

And now the brand has a recently strengthened its team. This new project is part of the strategic growth of the title, which has recently expanded its overseas reporting, with correspondents in Jerusalem, Delhi, Moscow and Istanbul.

Further roles in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington and Seattle are planned, as well as additional staff in the main London and New York newsrooms, enriching the title’s international footprint at a time when many news publishers around the world are cutting back.

Zach Leonard, Managing Director, Independent Digital News and Media, said: “The Independent is known and respected around the world for the quality of its journalism and the trust and authority it has earned through 31 years. As a fully digital publisher, our influence and reach have never been greater, with a loyal user and subscriber base and a total readership in excess of 100 million each month.

“This new chapter brings an opportunity to build on that heritage and increase our reach at a fascinating time of rapid change in the Middle East. We look forward to showcasing new ideas and provoking debate with new audiences across the region and beyond.”

The four new websites – independentarabia.com, independenturdu.com, independentturkish.com and independentpersian.com – will launch later this year. Social media accounts will be publicized as the services are launched. The Independent will continue to publish its own content, as it does now, in the English language.

By 2022, it is expected that two-thirds of the world’s population will be using smartphone technology. And much of this growth will take place outside of the more mature markets of the UK and Europe. For news publishers with a strong legacy and reputation for international reporting, this represents a huge opportunity.

Dr. Ghassan Alshibl, the Chairman of SRMG, said: “We deeply believe that SRMG, through this comprehensive partnership forged with The Independent, is growing the level of its international licensing businesses to a higher altitude. Our reach, with this multilingual project targeting hundreds of millions of readers around the world, will be farther, and our audiences will be enormously wider.

“As part of SRMG’s global business initiatives we began in 2006 with a number of the biggest publishers in the world, we have been demonstrating in all our partnerships, like today with IDNM, SRMG’s eagerness and commitment to grow and strengthen its content platforms to be distinctly competitive in the wider space of the global media industry based on the strong professional pillars of credibility, authenticity and knowledgeable authority of quality journalism.”