India’s social media disinformation problem is spilling out on to the streets, as the world’s largest market for Facebook and WhatsApp - with a combined user base of 500 million - struggles to keep a lid on the spread of fake news.
Yet it is these very platforms that were first used to circulate falsehoods which are now being mobilised to administer an antidote.
On February 14, India witnessed the deadliest-ever attack on its armed forces when 44 paramilitary police officers were killed after a suicide bomber crashed a car laden with explosives into a military convoy.
The attack, which also left 70 injured, occurred in Indian-administered Kashmir – the region at the heart of a seven-decade old feud with neighbouring Pakistan.
It evoked widespread anger in India, with many calling for retaliatory action against the rival country for providing refuge to the terror group known as Jaish-e-Mohammed that claimed responsibility for the attack. This anger soon opened the floodgates of disinformation, rumours and warmongering on India’s social media platforms.
Memes, morphed images and doctored videos began appearing on Indian WhatsApp streams soon after the attack. These ranged from conspiracy theories alleging the involvement of opposition political parties, to those stoking hatred against Kashmiris and others calling for nuclear strikes against Pakistan. A 2017 photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s main political rival, Congress party president Rahul Gandhi, was altered to show him with the suicide bomber.
Messages emblazoned with the names and contact details of prominent Modi government critics, exhorting people to call them and demand that they support the country’s armed forces, went viral.
Screenshots and videos, often unverified, showing people in Kashmir supposedly celebrating the terror attack and expressing joy at the killings were circulated. As if in response, messages quoting retired military personnel asking “true nationalists” to boycott Kashmir also began to spread. Tathagata Roy, a former leader of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and current governor of the northeastern state of Meghalaya, called for a boycott of “everything Kashmiri”.
A leading Indian fact-checking website, Boom Live, said that within five days of the attack, it had investigated 25 pieces of “ fake news” on social media.
For Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group, the situation is proof of the lack of preparedness among the authorities in India for dealing with disinformation on social media.
“This has shown the complete absence of any institutional framework in India which can deal with these issues and demand accountability towards not just the platforms but towards principal political actors,” he said.
Hurriedly stepping into this vacuum has been the Central Reserve Police Force, from whose ranks the officers killed on February 14 came. In the days after the attack it took the unprecedented step of swiftly establishing a special team dedicated to fact-checking social media disinformation surrounding the suicide bombing.
Egged on by social media posts, angry mobs across the country led by right-wing Hindu groups have been protesting against Kashmiris in their midst. Many people from the region have been assaulted or threatened. In one case, the homes of Kashmiri students were surrounded.
Some educational institutes have even expelled their Kashmiri students, while others have vowed to never allow any to enrol again. In tourist destinations like Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, hotels have started denying rooms to Kashmiris. Government critics have been suspended from their jobs and become the target of incessant nuisance calls, abusive messages and rape threats. Media investigations have revealed that many of these campaigns of abuse were organised through WhatsApp and Facebook groups.
In response to the growing animosity, a number of civil society groups have come out in support of India’s Kashmiri population - often using the selfsame social media platforms that were employed to spread messages of hate.
Hashtags such as #UnHateNow and #SOSKashmir, which aim to draw attention to the problem and spur the authorities into action, began trending. Some groups like Khalsa Aid and the Jammu and Kashmir Student Organisation - and a number of individuals - began offering shelter to Kashmiris who had been threatened with violence.
Political activist Shehla Rashid, who is herself Kashmiri, was one of the first to attempt to coordinate this growing social media movement.
“Until then, we were all individually trying to seek help for each call that we received. This was leading to duplication of efforts and a waste of time.”
So Rashid did what more than 200 million Indians do every day - she turned to WhatsApp and created a group for like-minded activists, stranded Kashmiris, journalists and government officials, which helped organise relief efforts.
“The timely interventions were very crucial because these people were facing mobs at that point in time,” she said, adding that the group managed to intervene on at least 25 occasions and are currently tracking an equal number of cases.
All this does not bode well for India. Since January 2017, more than 30 people have been killed based on rumours circulated through WhatsApp, according to an analysis by data journalists at IndiaSpend. In the next two months, as the country heads to the polls, social media - and WhatsApp especially - will feature high on the agenda of political parties as a campaigning tool. The BJP has already announced plans to create some 900,000 WhatsApp groups across the country, while its main rival Congress, though slow to make moves on social media, is fast playing catch-up.
But Gupta, of the Internet Freedom Foundation, warns that a lack of regulations means such heightened use of social media is risky.
“[The] risks are immense that the polls will be influenced by social media. Past experience has demonstrated that, often, the difference between the winner and runner-up is as [little] as 2-4 per cent,” he said.
Indian politicians are already calling the upcoming polls the country’s first “WhatsApp elections”, but only time will tell what effect the app will have on results come election season.