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Whatsapp is the hub of fake news and rumours

By Soumadip Dey

WhatsApp, which is often referred to as 'the dark heart of social media', is the birthplace of most rumours and false narratives these days. From a simple messaging service provider, the application has evolved to become an information sharing platform among a billion people.

While it is unquestionably true that false news and rumours have also been spread through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media outlets, unlike other platforms where such stories can be tracked and traced back to the accounts they originated from, it is impossible to know how many rumours or false stories are circulating on WhatsApp at any given time. The private and closed nature of WhatsApp, along with its encryption at both ends, makes it almost impossible to track down any the origin of any particular post or to get a clear idea about its reach. This is a source of concern for law enforcement as well as for those of us fighting the war against false news.

Here are some recent false stories based on rumours or hoaxes that have been circulated via WhatsApp:

The Child Abductors Hoax:

A number of WhatsApp messages were spread through different groups warning people of child abductors. The message, with slightly different narratives, was spread ostensibly to warn people about child traffickers who are operating from different parts of the country, or who have reached certain states to abduct children.

While the picture shows three men, the audio clip warns the listeners that they are going to abduct children from different parts of India and everyone should beware. The speaker urges people to contact the police if the people in the picture are spotted anywhere near homes or schools. It also asks people to share the post as much as possible.

Similar messages have been doing the rounds in various parts of India. These messages got so many shares and concomitant credibility, it led to two lynchings in the southern state of Tamil Nadu that were reported by the mainstream media.

Two people were killed in Tamil Nadu when a mob attacked them on suspicion of being child abductors. The family was visiting a temple when they were assaulted, chased, and attacked by a mob of two hundred people. This was all sparked by these WhatsApp forwards.

Two people were killed in Tamil Nadu when a mob attacked them on suspicion of being child abductors. The family was visiting a temple when they were assaulted, chased, and attacked by a mob of two hundred people. This was all sparked by these WhatsApp forwards.

Arrests have been made by the police for circulating such rumours, and according to media reports, strict action will be taken against people who spread such messages. But for the people killed, these measures come too little and far too late. Metafact received the messages cited above a few days after the arrests and lynching took place.

Similar incidents have also occurred in Jharkhand, where at least six people were lynched on suspicion of being child traffickers. According to Vinay Purty, a tribal filmmaker, the villagers in these areas are new to media and smartphones, taking what they see at face value and then reacting with genuine, if misplaced, emotion and anger.

BBC Karnataka Survey Hoax:

The amount of political propaganda and hoaxes spread through WhatsApp groups is so substantial in India that the international media has covered it.

The New York Times reported:

"In the run-up to the May 12 vote in the state (Karnataka) — the results of which are set to be announced on Tuesday — the B.J.P. and Congress parties claimed to have set up at least 50,000 WhatsApp groups between them to spread their messages. At the same time, many others — their identities are unknown — distributed videos, audio clips, posts and false articles designed specifically to rile up the area's Hindu-Muslim fissures."

A Wall Street Journal article also highlighted how there is a surge in WhatsApp messages before the elections.

Our Metafact team recently debunked a false opinion poll that went viral on WhatsApp and then made its way to other social media. The opinion poll tried to give itself more credibility by including a BBC link. The message showed the BJP winning the Karnataka elections with a huge majority, and was shared in various right wing WhatsApp groups before making it to social media.

While the post predicted that the BJP would win 135 of 234 seats in Karnataka, the southern state has only 224 constituencies. The message was shared so extensively that the BBC had to come out with a clarification that they did not conduct the survey.

There is a spate of such false and rumour based messages with audio and video being circulated via WhatsApp, and given that WhatsApp cannot really be tracked, there are likely to be many more in the future.




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