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

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.”

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry inaugurates Arab News Pakistan bureau

Updated 16 February 2019

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry inaugurates Arab News Pakistan bureau

  • New office will be hub for Asian operation of paper and builds on relationship with community and its digital generation
  • Arab News launched its online Pakistan edition in February last year as part of its global digital expansion plans

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan Minister of Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry has officially inaugurated Arab News Pakistan bureau in the country’s capital.

Chaudhry was the chief guest at the occasion and several prominent Pakistani media personalities and Arab News staff also attended the launch ceremony.

Standing side by side with Arab News Editor-in-Chief Faisal J. Abbas, who is in Pakistan as part of the media delegation accompanying the royal visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Arab News Asia Bureau Chief Baker Atyani, Chaudhry cut a ceremonial ribbon to open the office.

“I am very happy for two reasons: The perception was building that the newspapers were not coming (to Pakistan), so once an international publication like Arab News (has come here) it certainly gives us a huge boost.”

Chaudhry described how the relationship between the nations was becoming stronger, particularly with the growth of Pakistan’s voice in the Middle East.

‘Secondly, I think this is an era where Pakistan is playing a very important role in the Middle East and to have such a major Middle Eastern publication coming to Pakistan itself shows the kind of importance Pakistan has of the Middle East and vice versa, we are very happy to have you here.’

Editor-in-Chief Faisal J. Abbas thanked the Pakistani information minister for his presence at the inauguration and for the efforts of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to help facilitate the newspaper’s operations in Islamabad. 

“The inauguration of our Islamabad bureau a year after the launch of our local digital edition is an indicator of our commitment to Pakistan and our determination to help create a better understanding of Saudi Arabia and the region,” said Abbas. 

“Ever since its establishment in 1975, Arab News has had a special relationship with the massive and incredibly loyal Pakistani community in Saudi Arabia. Today we inaugurate this bureau in Islamabad to ensure a continued connection with the community and establish a relationship with a new more digital and highly connected generation,” he added. 

Asia Bureau Chief Baker Atyani said that the new office would be a hub not only for the Arab News Pakistan edition but also for the entire Asian operation of the paper. “We currently have reporters across Pakistan as well as nine other Asian countries and with the help, hard work and dedication of our team at the Islamabad bureau we hope not only to better manage our operation but to grow further in Asia as well.” 

Arab News launched its online Pakistan edition in February last year as part of its global digital expansion plans. The project is the first of many new international editions planned by the Riyadh-based newspaper. 

Arab News is part of the regional publishing giant Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG).