The lynching of a woman in central India because it was rumored that she was part of a gang kidnapping kids has forced WhatsApp to place a limit on forwarding messages.
It comes on the back of a public relations nightmare for the Facebook-owned messaging service after the Indian government recently accused WhatsApp message forwarding of fueling the deadly rumors.
Lynch mobs in India have killed 21 people in the last two months over unfounded allegations forwarded on WhatsApp, AFP reports.
WhatsApp has announced restrictions on the ability of users in India to forward content, as the latest attempt to curb mob violence sparked by rumors spread through the hugely popular app.
In India, the limit on forwarding is five chats at once. For WhatsApp users outside India, the limit on forwarding will be 20.
India, a nation of 1.25 billion people, is no stranger to mob violence, with well-documented cases of crowds turning on victims for every manner of transgression, real or imagined.
But the spread of smartphones — there are more than a billion in India and data is cheap — to even the most remote corners of the huge nation has enabled rumors to be shared at lightning speed.
Victims have included homeless people, a transgender woman, two picnic goers, an elderly woman handing out chocolates to children and a 27-year-old software engineer.
The rumor blamed for many of the recent incidents emerged over a year ago in eastern India, claiming strangers were sedating and abducting children. Seven people were killed there in two attacks in as many days.
In February 2018, the rumors resurfaced 1,000 miles away in western India, and reached the south by May. It was often accompanied by a grainy video purporting to show men on motorbikes stealing kids.
The footage was in fact from a Pakistani public safety film.
Other images supposedly showed dead Indian children with their organs stolen. In reality, the pictures were of Syrians killed in a gas attack.
India is WhatsApp’s biggest market with more than 200 million users. In rural communities, it is often the primary way people access the internet.
The latest lynching came days after India’s highest court called for immediate steps to be taken to control deadly mob violence across the country.
WhatsApp said that in India, it will also remove the quick forward button next to media messages on its app.
“We believe that these changes — which we’ll continue to evaluate — will help keep WhatsApp the way it was designed to be: a private messaging app,” the company said in a blog post on its website.
Fighting fake rumors
WhatsApp put out a full back-page ad in India intended to counter fake information.Getty Images
The Indian government announced Monday that it was setting up two committees to recommend appropriate ways to deal with the growing mob violence.
Previously, authorities have rounded up suspects and formed patrols, driving from village to village to quash the rumors.
Authorities in some states shut down internet access in a desperate effort to stop the hoax from spreading.
But the campaigns had limited effect. In one instance, an official “rumor buster” was himself beaten to death.
India’s Supreme Court told the government this week to make a new law to rein in “mobocracy.”
Earlier this month, the Indian government turned its fire on WhatsApp, calling for Facebook to take “immediate action.”
WhatsApp said it was “horrified” by the lynchings, and announced new features to help users identify messages that have been forwarded.
The Facebook-owned firm also ran full-page advertisements in Indian newspapers offering tips on how to separate fact from fiction.
Last week, the government again let loose, this time threatening legal action. WhatsApp announced its restrictions the next day.
At least 14 people were arrested in Madhya Pradesh state’s Singrauli district following last weekend’s killing of the woman, who was about 25, senior police officer Riyaz Iqbal said.
Iqbal said residents informed police Saturday that a woman’s body was lying in a forested area.
It’s believed the woman was taken on Friday night by a mob that dragged her to a village community center while punching and kicking her and hitting her with sticks.
Iqbal said the woman was seen roaming around neighboring villages a few days earlier amid wild rumors that members of child kidnapping gangs were active in the area.
The officer said the woman had not yet been identified. “She was not able to properly communicate with the mob and in all probability appears to have been mentally unsound,” he said.