WhatsApp project thumbnail

WhatsApp Vigilantes

An exploration of citizen reception and construction of WhatsApp messages’ triggering mob violence in India

The project intends to come up with a typology of digital misinformation in India that will be helpful to regulators, technology companies, civic campaigners, those interested in media literacy and political education.

In India, levels of violence against innocent civilians by vigilante mobs has grown significantly since 2014. This violence has often been sparked by a direct lie, a rumour, a chain of propaganda or misinformation, spread via online or mobile phone social media applications. The use of WhatsApp and other messaging applications to spread false information, misinformation, disinformation, hate speech and misogynist, communal or racist propaganda is a pressing issue. 

The study aims to provide ways of reducing violence and hate speech, while retaining the most positive aspects of messaging apps. Examples of the research questions the study will address include: what are the typical features of WhatsApp messages in India that lead to violence and the formation of lynch mobs? What sets of ideas, events and group loyalties do individuals and groups cite when discussing their own role in the spread of disinformation, misinformation and propaganda, through WhatsApp and other online sources in India?

The project intends to come up with a typology of digital misinformation in India that will be helpful to regulators, technology companies, civic campaigners, those interested in media literacy and political education – especially directed at those who wish to eliminate political and ethnic violence and build vibrant, accountable, democratic and communicative processes and structures.

The final report is available to read here. 


We live in an era that is increasingly organised by digital misinformation, and we are now witnessing how this misinformation is not only violating privacy rights (for instance, Facebook) but also authorising particular forms of violence. In order to understand and assess the interventions that platforms and individuals can make to reduce the socio-political ill effects of digital misinformation, it is important to get a sense of the everyday political and media experiences of message recipients and to log the social and political interactions that surround their ensuing responses. Our research is situated in India, and examines the ways in which WhatsApp’s affordances intersect a particularly fraught moment in Indian politics, to examine how users understand and imagine solutions to the spate of ‘WhatsApp lynchings’[1].

Much sexual and political violence since 2014 has been filmed in a celebratory manner on phone cameras and circulated via WhatsApp[2] and this mediation, rather than discouraging such violence has played a role in legitimising violence as an effective political tool. Many of the dead have been Muslims or Dalits; most have been poor. In the past 12 months, a separate but equally alarming phenomenon has arisen. Across the country, there have been more than 40 dead and hundreds more critically injured in incidents of mob violence in more than 11 states of India. These incidents have been sparked by rumours that strangers are actually child kidnappers and kidney thieves.

Under public pressure to maintain law and order (typical of both religious chauvinism and ‘stranger’ hysteria), there have been reactive and contradictory developments. The Supreme Court of India ordered the government to come up with new legislation specifically designed to prevent cow-related lynchings of minorities[3]. On the other hand, the Indian government has ordered WhatsApp to take steps to prevent the spread of rumours – such as the ones involving kidney and child theft. WhatsApp for its part has committed placing a cap on the number of people to whom messages can be forwarded in a group and making it a little bit more difficult to share messages. It is clear that despite these steps misinformation is circulating and lynch mobs collecting. Any messaging shared on Facebook or WhatsApp cannot be considered in a vacuum. The intertextuality of media and political discourse with new technologies and social media messages – which is deliberately used by those wishing to spread rumours with deadly consequences – plays a leading role in sustaining violence. Given this background, there is a clear and urgent need to undertake research on the scale, scope, and nature of violence that is spreading rapidly in India. Further, it becomes crucial to carefully investigate the role and responsibility of social media platforms like WhatsApp. 

[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-44709103

[2] Singh, H (2017), Chilling Murder in Rajasthan on Video. Man Hacks Labourer, Burns Him. NDTV News. https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/chilling-murder-in-rajasthans-rajsamand-on-video-man-hacks-labourer-burns-him-1784669

[3] Tripathi, R (2018). Pushed by Supreme Court, Centre forms GoM, Secretary panel to frame law against lynching. New Delhi. The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/india/centre-sets-up-four-member-panel-to-suggest-laws-against-lynching-mob-violence-5271940/


  • Qualitative interviews with stakeholders who work for WhatsApp and for other tech and mobile phone companies in India, and in regulation of the telecommunications sector, as well as in law and policing connected to the recent ‘WhatsApp lynchings’.
  • Focus groups with WhatsApp users in four geographically different states across India to establish patterns and overlaps in terms of when messages are passed on, when they are deleted and when they raise concern or alarm.
  • The categorisation of messages linked to different domains of personal and public information, as well as propaganda, disinformation, misinformation, stereotyping, hate speech, and ‘fake news’.
  • And a typology built from a large number of visual and written WhatsApp messages

The research report is expected to be published by August 2019.

LSE Participants


Dr. Shakuntala Banaji
Principle Investigator

Dr. Banajiis an Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE, where she also serves as Director of Graduate Studies and Programme Director for the MSc Media, Communication and Development. She has published extensively on young people, children and media in India and Europe, as well as on gender, ethnicity and cinema, news consumption, social class and digital media. Her current research addresses the intersection between socio-political contexts, new media, citizen identities and participation.


Ramnath Bhat

Ramnath Bhat MSc,is co-founder of Media and Arts Collective MARAA and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE, research new media and internet infrastructure in India.


Funding for this project is gratefully received from WhatsApp.