Sadip Roy

How Digital India Is WhatsApping Mob Violence and Lynching

We are not a country of beggars and elephants and snakecharmers.

This is a new India of Whatsapp and smartphones and That’s the Digital India Narendra Modi sold, to a starstruck Silicon Valley just the other day.

Mr Modi told an inspiring story about an India where farmers in Maharashtra are on a Whatsapp group to share agricultural tips and techniques.

Days later barbaric violence erupted in Dadri village, not too far from Delhi. A mob, apparently fired up by announcements of cow slaughter made at the local temple, barged into the house of the Muslim ironsmith, convinced that he had beef in his refrigerator. Soon the iron smith was dead, his son in hospital and #DadriLynching was the latest hashtag of shame on Twitter.

It sounds medieval but this too was powered by Whatsapp and social media.

The villagers of Bisada, writes Betwa Sharma in Huffington Post, have pictures of meat and bones, clinching proof in their minds that Mohammad Akhlaq’s family slaughtered a cow. “The photos have spread like wildfire across the village, and almost everyone has images on their own phones,” writes Sharma. Pictures circulated via Whatsapp.

Vandana Rana, the sister of Vishal Rana who has been named in the police FIR as being part of the lynch mob, tells Supriya Sharma of Scroll that she often gets messages and videos on the subject of cow slaughter. “The videos are from Kashmir, from Muzzafarnagar, basically from Mohammedan areas, where cows are being killed," she says. She gets the images via Whatsapp.

Whatsapp is just technology. It’s neither good nor bad. It just depends on how we use it - to share farming tips or get blood boiling. The government is not unaware of its power for rumourmongering. At the height of the Hardik Patel reservation agitation in Gujarat, there was a clampdown on social media, such as Whatsapp and Facebook.

But the larger and more troubling issue outlives the ban. There is a whole alternate media universe that has been spawned via social media where rumours, Photoshopped pictures and canards go viral faster than a news story can. This is a global phenomenon. A decade old picture of two Hmong children comforting each other in north Vietnam has been peddled on the Internet as “two Burmese orphans”, "victims of the Nepal earthquake" and even the Syrian civil war.

In India we have seen again and again, the deadly consequences of this alternate media underworld. In 2013, a Whatsapp video of two boys being beaten, fanned the Muzaffarnagar riots. By the time it was determined the video was at least two years old, filmed perhaps in Afghanistan or Pakistan, it was too late. It had served its deadly purpose. “"We did not imagine so many people would have access to the net on their mobile phones and WhatsApp,” a police offer admitted to Indian Express. Is the uber-connected digital India Mr Modi plans going to be as swift to burst these bubbles as a politician is about using Section 66A against someone forwarding a cartoon?

When Mr Modi tells the Silicon Valley technorati about how Twitter has turned everyone into a reporter, he misses a very important caveat. It is a “reporter” who is in the end unaccountable, whose “report” does not have to stand the scrutiny of a newsroom and an editor.

News trader. Presstitute. Paid media -- All these epithets are used routine and with relish, not just by trolls but even by ministers. In the civic elections in Bengal this weekend, a female journalist was threatened with gangrape allegedly by Trinamool goons and others were beaten up for daring to take pictures of outsiders at polling booths. It might suit a political party to take potshots at the media, and sometimes those potshots might even be deserved, but the more we vilify media as a whole, the more we ensure that conspiracy theories and Photoshopped pictures thrive. Their oxygen is this distrust of mainstream media.
It should give us pause that ordinary people accept something blindly because they “saw it on the Internet” while they dismiss everything they don't like in the papers or on television as "paid news". As Shashi Tharoor writes in India Shastra, a friend’s father says once he did not believe anything if it was not in the Times of India. Now he does not believe anything if it is in the Times of India.

The quip always elicits a chuckle. But the consequences of that, and media has indeed played its own part in its degradation, are devastating for all of us. “Even if one felt that Hinduism was under threat, that media was engaged in a conspiracy against the current regime” it should have been easy, writes Santosh Desai in The Times of India, to say “‘you cannot get together in a mob and stone a man to death because of what he eats. It is wrong’.”

But that did not happen. In an anguished piece after visiting Basehara village, NDTV’s senior executive editor Ravish Kumar asks “How is it that I didn't find a single person who looked ashamed or had even a shred of remorse? Why was no one distraught that thousands of people from the village could have been transformed into a killer mob?”

The answer could lie in what they are reading and watching. Why do they believe their phones and not his channel? Why is Whatsapp the paper of record? In our haste to determine via forensics what the Akhlaq family was eating, we forget to check what the mob that attacked them was being fed.

This is where the silence of Narendra Modi becomes damning. He cannot be responsible for every Whatsapp rumour. But he has the bully pulpit to do his best to puncture its bubble. And every day he tweets about Safaigiri awards, the World Billiards championship and Sushma Swaraj’s UN speech but not Dadri, the bubble grows bigger. Every time he vilifies media, the bubble grows stronger.

Until one day it gains enough power to leap outside the virtual reality of a mobile phone and go into a man’s house, ransack his refrigerator and beat him to a pulp with a sewing machine.

“The pace at which people are taking to digital technology defies our stereotypes of age, education, language or income,” Modi had said proudly at a gathering of Silicon Valley CEOs.

He was right. Dadri, Muzaffarnagar,Vadodara proved it. Chillingly so. And it will happen again.