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
0

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.”


Arabic cinema wins over movie-goers

Updated 17 September 2018
0

Arabic cinema wins over movie-goers

  • Oscar-nominated Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al-Mansour premiered her short film set in Riyadh, ‘The Wedding Singer’s Daughter,’ at the Venice Film Festival
  • Earlier in the year Ziad Doueiri was the first Lebanese film director to be nominated for an Oscar with his film ‘The Insult’

LONDON: Arabic cinema has increasingly captured the imagination of movie-lovers around the world this year, with Arab film-makers winning award nominations and securing high-profile screenings at major film festivals.
This month the Oscar-nominated Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al-Mansour premiered her short film set in Riyadh, “The Wedding Singer’s Daughter,” at the Venice Film Festival. Al-Mansour previously wrote and directed the film “Wadjda,” which was the first foreign-language Oscar entry from Saudi Arabia in 2014.
Earlier in the year Ziad Doueiri was the first Lebanese film director to be nominated for an Oscar with his film “The Insult.”
“Arab cinema’s profile has been on the rise. There are several different Arab movies being shown at Venice (film festival) this year,” said Joseph Fahim, an Egyptian film critic and the curator of this year’s London-based Safar Film Festival, which runs on Sept. 13-18.
Daniel Gorman, the director of London’s biannual Shubbak festival, which showcases mainly contemporary Arabic culture, art and film, said he that has seen the appeal of Arabic film grow in the UK.
“There is a huge interest and appetite for creative work coming from across the Arab world and there is strong interest in the UK to hear the voices of people from across the region, in an area that is generally represented in headlines in newspapers. Film is an excellent way of doing that,” he said.
Festivals have played a vital role in boosting awareness of Arab film, he said.
“(They) are able to bring new audiences to new work as they bring this concentrated moment of activity. A festival tends to have a bit more reach in terms of media coverage and audience awareness.
“(It) brings people along to something which they might not go to as a one-off screening,” Gorman said, explaining how the Shubbak festival also works with local schools and community groups to increase access to Arabic film and art.
This year’s Safar film festival — which is in its fourth year and organized by the Arab British Center — has focused on the theme of literature and film in the Arab world.
Fahim has created a program that includes movies dating back to the 1960s that have been buried deep in their respective country’s archives, as well as new films that have not been screened in London yet.
One of the films included is the Tunisian “In the Land of Tararanni,” originally released in 1973 and based on a collection of short stories by Ali Dougai.
It was one of the more tricky recordings to track down, said Nadia El-Sebai, executive director at the Arab British Center.
“There are films in this program that audiences will have no idea how many people it took to get that film,” she said, explaining the lengthy negotiations with ministries of culture, national archives and old friends and contacts to track down the much sought-after recordings.
There were other movies they had to give up on ever finding, including those lost in Syria or Iraq, or old versions of films that have not yet been digitised by national archives, she said.
More recent festival entries include this year’s Egyptian film “Poisonous Roses,” adapted from a 1990s cult novel, as well as the European premiere of the work of an Iraqi filmmaker — “Stories of Passers Through” — which traces the stories of Iraqis exiled from their country during the Saddam Hussein regime.
The literary theme of this year’s festival was chosen as a reaction to the growing popularity of contemporary Arab cinema, with the event’s organizers wanting to delve into the history of Arabic film.
“We are delighted by the increasing access to Arabic cinema. There are more films plugged into the London film festival this year. We have other other festivals — the Shubbak festival (in London), and the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival,” said El-Sebai.
“For this year’s edition we thought we would like to take the opportunity to go a little deeper into the history and heritage of Arabic cinema, and the industry,” she said.
“Safar is taking place just before London Film Festival (LFF), which was another motivation for us to look at something a bit different as we are definitely going to see really amazing contemporary films at the London Film Festival,” she said.
The LFF — which begins on Oct. 10 — is set to feature work by Syrian filmmaker Soudade Kaadan as well as the Saudi Arabian director Mahmoud Sabbagh’s latest dark comedy “Amra and the Second Marriage,” among other Arab productions.
Fahim was also keen to use the Safar event as a way of bringing audiences’ attention to a broader range of Arabic movies, highlighting the heritage of the film industry.
“It is reminding people that Arab cinema did not spring out today — there is a long history,” he said, adding that he wanted to question audience expectations.
“There have been a flood of amazing images from Arab cinema being displayed at festivals and most critics had no idea what they were. The more I spoke to people, the more I realized that there is a certain expectation of what Arab movies should be,” he said.
“We wanted to challenge what people expect from Arab cinema … I am tired of seeing Lawrence of Arabia a gazillion times on the big screen,” he said.
He said the selected films in the festival will hopefully challenge preconceptions. He referred to the inclusion of the 1964 Egyptian film — “The Search” — based on the writer Naguib Mahfouz’s novel. “It is a crime noir. It is essentially an existential noir and I don’t think many people will expect to see that,” he said.
Arabic cinema, however, needs to be better promoted, he said, noting a dearth of adequate film critics.
“At the big festivals it sometimes feels like Arab cinema is the bottom priority for critics,” he said.
“We need more perceptive writing. I could name you on one hand the film critics who know their stuff. That needs to change. Maybe we need to have more different voices. Film criticism is still being dominated by white male writers — although it has been developing — but that is still the norm,” he said.