What do we do with social media which instead of being a force for good has very often tended to become a medium for evil, pure evil? The lynching of five people in Dhule district of Maharashtra on Sunday has come on the back of many such incidents of mob violence in several parts of the country. In all such incidents of gruesome killings of innocents on false pretexts, the authorities were generally rendered helpless. There is very little they could have done to prevent the rumour-monger from setting off a chain of events sitting in the privacy of his home and punching a few words on the keyboard of his smart phone.
Monitoring private conversations/messages is illegal. In any case, even if they wanted to, it is hard to police the social media. The ubiquitous smart phone has also become a source of great menace, jeopardising the lives of innocents and even triggering widespread riots and violence. The lynching of the five people in the tribal hamlet of Rainpada in Sakri talkua occurred on the suspicion that they were child-abductors. The local police said that the villagers attending a weekly market got enraged when one of the five victims alighting from a bus was seen talking to a little girl. Suspecting him to be the child kidnappers, the social media posts had warned them about, they pounced on him and the four others who alighted from the bus and killed them on the spot. Inquiries later revealed that all five were nomads who had come to the Sunday market to beg for alms.
A police party which reached the spot from the district headquarters after over an hour, too, was attacked, with the people protesting that little was done to check the activities of child-lifters. Apparently, social media posts had spread rumours that gangs of child kidnappers were active in the area who forced children to beg in big towns or used them for organ harvesting. Last month, two persons were lynched in Vajipur taluka of Aurangabad district of the State on suspicion of their being robbers. Eight people were arrested for these murders. In Sunday’s incident, the police had registered a case of murder and rioting and named twelve in the FIR while it was investigating the role of several others. Yet, social media menace is universal.
A few weeks ago, two educated youths exploring the flora and fauna of a verdant place in Assam were waylaid and thrashed to death by an angry mob which suspected them to be part of a gang of child-lifters. In Assam itself a few weeks earlier, a post on a social media platform by a jealous trader about a fellow trader selling beef had led to rioting in which the shop falsely accused of selling beef was burnt down. Such incidents of mob violence sparked off by false rumours on social media have been reported from all parts of the country. Ironically, a young person hired by the authorities in Tripura to quell rumours on social media about child abductors was himself lunched by a mob.
Unfortunately, there is no immediate remedy against the spreading of false rumours as long as the cell phone is handily available to all comers regardless of their mental state, education and sense of social and moral responsibility. The strength of the most commonly used internet platform, WhatsApp, lies in its secrecy, its encryption. Everyone seems to be on WhatsApp as part of one group or the other. It is hard to imagine that short of directing the telecom service providers to deny internet services to people lacking a school-leaving certificate, if anything can be done to check the violent abuse of social media. Social awareness and civic sense does not come easy to a large number of people, especially when they happen to be seeped in utter ignorance and remain cut off from the mainstream. However, as a first step all telecom service providers in conjunction with the district police and civil authorities should undertake a vigorous campaign to warn people against rumour-mongering and fake news and prescribe severe punishment for offenders.