It was in mid-May that Jetti Yadaiah, a shepherd from Manajipet village of Khilla Ghanpur mandal in Telangana's Wanarpathy district, saw his own photos being circulated on WhatsApp.
"Initially, I didn't care much. The message was accompanied with photos of two more of my friends, Srinivas and Sontam Raju, along with a voice message," Yadaiah narrates, as he herds his sheep through a green field.
The voice message stated that the three people, including Yadaiah, were moving from one village to another in an attempt to kidnap children and later kill them. The message also called for people to immediately kill the men in the message, if seen, and to forward the â€˜warningâ€™ to at least 10 other people.
As the message began spreading, Yadaiah feared for his life. "Suddenly, I realised that the message had spread to local groups in my village itself. I made several calls and found out who put the messages. When I confronted him, he first denied that he did it, but later said that he did not assume that it would go so viral. When I asked him to say this publicly, he refused," Yadaiah says.
"When we confronted him again, he claimed that someone else had sent it from his phone and when we called that person, he abused us," he adds.
Both the accused in the case were minors, who later said that they did it as a 'joke'.
On May 26, Yadaiah approached the local police and filed a complaint, requesting necessary legal action against the accused for spreading fake messages and instigating people to kill him.
Based on the complaint, Khilla Ghanpur Sub-Inspector Vijay Kumar then registered a case under Section 504 (Intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace) of the Indian Penal Code and relevant sections of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1932 and Information Technology Act.
"As part of our job, we travel from one place to another to graze the sheep. Sometimes we even cross the Telangana-Andhra Pradesh border and come back. In such a time, if someone were to see us sleeping in the field and attacks us, who would be responsible? We havenâ€™t been leaving our village since the message has spread," Yadaiah says, "While I managed to get some friends and their acquaintances to delete the messages, I have no idea how far it has gone and how many people have seen it."
Cracking the case
Speaking to TNM, SI Vijay Kumar said that as soon as they filed a case, they began investigating.
"He (Yadaiah) showed us the message and said that two people from his own village had forwarded it. He also said that he was scared to go out because he might be attacked due to the fake rumours doing the rounds on social media," Vijay Kumar narrates.
"We summoned the two boys and asked them how many people they had sent the message to. They said they forwarded it to another five people. We deleted the messages at the source first. After this, we spread a message through the media that this was fake and asked people not to believe it," he adds.
The police then confiscated the phones of the two accused and produced them in front of the Juvenile Justice Board, which sent them to a juvenile home.
"We then visited the village and tracked most of the people who received the message and made them delete it as well. In this way, we managed to avert a major tragedy. We also stepped up our awareness programmes in all the villages which come under our jurisdiction," Vijay Kumar states.
"Our staff worked relentlessly and specifically worked with the youth and asked them not to spread such messages. Within one week, we were able to quell all fears and brought the situation under control. Thanks to preventive steps, we were able to act before any incident occurred, rather than reacting after an incident," he adds.
Tackling a larger problem
The local police could act swiftly, thanks to Rema Rajeshwari, Superintendent of Police of Jogulamba Gadwal district, who also holds additional charge of Wanarpathy district.
The IPS officer had noticed a spike in fake messages doing the rounds on WhatsApp early in April and successfully managed to avert a major crisis.
While one message referred to an interstate gang of thieves, another mentioned a gang that was kidnapping children. A third kind were communally sensitive messages written in Hindi.
Rajeshwari had assigned Village Police Officers (VPOs) to consistently visit a few villages in their jurisdiction in order to gain the trust of the locals.
By making sustained efforts and also holding training programmes for the police officers and undertaking awareness campaigns for the locals, she managed to educate people on identifying fake news which was being circulated.
"People were taking advantage of this mass hysteria and were trying to take revenge on people with whom they had enmity with in the past. In Yadaiah's case, it actually put him at great risk. He could have been killed," Rajeshwari tells TNM, â€œHowever, because the policemen had gone to his village as part of a campaign, he knew that he could report it to us and sought our help," she adds.
"We had been seeing such messages for a while now about child kidnappers but when I saw my own photo, I was really scared. It just spread rapidly. Despite the swift police action, I'm still a little scared to go out anywhere. I feel like I'm not as free as I used to be," Yadaiah says.