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How The Spread Of Fake Stories In India Has Led To Violence


Here in the U.S., online misinformation or fake news has been blamed for influencing elections, stirring up divisions and confusing people. But in India, it's driving people to murder. NPR's Lauren Frayer traveled to a part of India where fake stories spread on messaging apps have led to violence.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: This is one of the many viral videos that have stirred up mobs across India this summer. This one shows a child's mutilated body. It's unclear where or when it's from or whether it's doctored. But a voice implores people to share this on the messaging service WhatsApp and stay vigilant. The kidnappers are on the loose. Iram Sabah, a mother of two, doesn't know if this video is fake or real.

IRAM SABAH: (Through interpreter) When my children go outside to play, I'm really scared. These rumors have been spreading. I don't let them walk to school alone anymore.

FRAYER: Iram lives in Malegaon, a mid-sized town in northern Maharashtra that's famous for its textile industry. One night earlier this month around 11 p.m., she heard a commotion. Her husband, Shaikh Wasim Shaikh Karim, went to investigate.

SHAIKH WASIM SHAIKH KARIM: (Through interpreter) I saw a mob beating five people. The crowd was getting bigger and bigger. They filled up the road in front of my house. They even attacked police vehicles.

FRAYER: The five victims included a couple and their toddler. They'd wandered into town to beg. Locals feared they were the kidnappers all these WhatsApp messages had warned of and attacked them.

KARIM: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: Shaikh Karim explains how he pulled the victims to safety inside his home as the mob shattered his windows with stones. Police finally intervened and extracted them. Not everyone has been as lucky. Across India, about 20 people have been killed this way in recent months. So police have launched a nationwide anti-fake news campaign.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing in foreign language).

FRAYER: At a rural school, girls sing to welcome the police. Officers huddle in a cinderblock classroom showing them one such fake video on a tablet computer. Hundreds of villagers have gathered outside. Police Chief Harssh Poddar warns them to be skeptical.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: (Foreign language spoken).

HARSSH PODDAR: We made an appeal to the families that they should not be fooled by false rumors and false pieces of news on the Internet. They must use their own minds. They must use their own sense of discretion.

FRAYER: As part of this campaign, traffic cops are handing out flyers. Poddar has come face to face with such mobs and is trying to get to the root of why people behave this way.

PODDAR: One of the things about mob psychology is that people think that they are masked, and people think that they cannot be identified, and they think that they can indulge in activities that they wouldn't otherwise.

FRAYER: In that way, mobs on the street are like trolls on the Internet, taking advantage of anonymity. Poddar has used CCTV to identify attackers. He's threatening jail time to anyone who even forwards such incendiary messages. The Indian government has asked WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, to block such messages. And the company has responded with a new feature, which labels content that has been forwarded.

PODDAR: Right now, the most important point is to tell people that WhatsApp is not a news source. It's a newspaper. It's not a news journal.

FRAYER: Pankaj Jain runs the Hoax Slayer website, debunking fake news online - mermaid sightings, ghost cars and, increasingly in India, kidnapping videos. He's traced some of the most incendiary footage to an unrelated incident in Guatemala, not here. With smartphones and Internet getting cheaper and more ubiquitous in India, Jain says online rumors are multiplying. Plus...

PANKAJ JAIN: Whenever the election comes, the fake news starts spreading a lot. So obviously it's going to increase by 2019.

FRAYER: 2019 - next year - when India holds its general elections. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, in Malegaon, India.

(SOUNDBITE OF OK IKUMI'S "HEIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.
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