Rumour-mongers beware: Cops are joining WhatsApp groups to curb dangerous lies
Police officers have been instructed to join as many WhatsApp groups as they can and proactively work to counter myths and rumours
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em till you can, seems to be the new mantra being adopted by several Maharashtra Police units, including Mumbai, to curb rumour-mongering on social media that spills into real-life crimes. After the latest such incident saw a mob lynch five people, mistaken for child kidnappers, the units have been informally instructed to join as many WhatsApp groups as possible to nip such rumours in the bud and, if need be, identify culprits involved in spreading them.
Rumour mongering on various social media platforms, especially WhatsApp, has been a big headache for various units of the state police in the last few months. As per senior officials in the state police, in the last one-and-a-half month, 14 incidents of social media triggered violence have injured 18 people in Aurangabad, Nandurbar, Dhule, Jalgaon, Nashik, Beed, Parbhani, Nanded, Gondia and Chandrapur.
Hits and misses
The latest and possibly the most brutal incident, occurred on July 1 in Dhule district, where five people were lynched by a mob over suspicion that they were part of a gang of "child lifters". This rumour had been going around social media several days prior to the incident. Cops have arrested 23 people in the case so far.
Meanwhile on July 1, cops were able to avert one such incident in Malegaon town in Nashik district, where a beggar couple was allegedly attacked by a mob on rumours that they are part of a gang of child-lifters, by rescuing the couple in the nick of time. Following these incidents, various units of the state police, including Mumbai police, have now informally asked their staff to join as many WhatsApp groups as possible to try and stop the spread of baseless rumours. This instruction has been given on an individual unit level; there is no formal order, officials said.
A senior official of the state police said they have two options to curb this nuisance. One was to stop internet usage, which was done in Nashik in October 2016, when cops ordered suspension of mobile internet and bulk messaging services for two days to maintain peace and check the spread of rumours after an alleged rape attempt of a five-year-old.
However, this approach is impractical, as it affects normal life and business. So, they've decided to go with the second approach instead, which is to limit the damage by being proactive on various social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, where the police already have a very strong presence to counter mischief mongers.
For WhatsApp, however, till the time a proper solution comes out, cops, including top-ranking officials, have been asked to join groups to help stop such rumours and if need be, identify culprits spreading them. Though it is not physically possible to be present in all groups, cops can at least stop rumours from spreading by being in as many as possible, the official said.
On July 2, Director General of Police Datta Padsalgikar, had also appealed against believing such rumours saying, "On receipt of such rumours, people should contact the local police for verification and after verification, the police should take necessary action. It is also advised that no one should forward the received messages/rumours on WhatsApp or other social media without verification."
On July 1, five people belonging to a nomadic tribe were lynched by a mob in Dhule district on the suspicion of being a part of a gang of 'child-lifters' — a rumour that was allegedly being circulated on social media for several days prior to the incident. Apart from this, over the past one-and-a-half month, incidents of social-media fuelled lynching have been reported from Aurangabad, Nandurbar, Dhule, Jalgaon, Nashik, Beed, Parbhani, Nanded, Latur, Gondia and Chandrapur districts.
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