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’.
Much sexual and political violence since 2014 has been filmed in a celebratory manner on phone cameras and circulated via WhatsApp 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. 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.
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