On Wednesday morning, Rema Rajeshwari, Superintendent of Police of Jogulamba Gadwal district, found her phone flooded with several gory and explicit visuals, with messages that claimed that the notorious Parthi gang was in the district and kidnapping children.
Swinging into action immediately, the SP ordered police officers to conduct a massive awareness campaign across the district to stop the menace of fake news.
This comes after a spate of fake news related incidents in the district, triggering law and order concerns. The SP also ordered an inquiry to trace the source of the messages.
TNM has managed to get those visuals but decided not to publish them, given the explicit nature of the same.
It turned out that the messages had originated from a teenager in Utkuru village in Alampur mandal. The teen said that he had forwarded the messages he had received from someone else. On identifying that it was fake news, local police officials counselled the teen and arranged an instant awareness campaign in the village.
In another incident, two women folk singers from Pebberu were attacked in Gattu mandal on the suspicion that they were members of a gang that had been kidnapping children from the area. Luckily, the swift intervention of the police saved the duo from getting further hurt.
Identifying source of fake messages
Speaking to TNM, SP Rema Rajeshwari said, “We are working on finding out the source of these messages. At present, we have sent teams to border areas of the district as the messages are in Telugu, Kannada and Hindi as well.”
Three kinds of messages are in circulation, according to the police. While one refers to an interstate gang of thieves, another mentions a gang that is kidnapping children. The third kind is communally sensitive messages that are in Hindi.
When asked if there is any information about where the fake messages are being circulated from, the SP said, “While Telugu and Kannada messages are apparently surfacing from Andhra Pradesh’s Kurnool district and other border areas, the communally sensitive messages in Hindi are apparently coming from north India.”
In fact, such unconfirmed messages had flooded WhatsApp groups in the adjoining Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh since the first week of this month, which had also led to the arrest of three juveniles earlier in the week.
The police said that they would take legal action if any person attempted to spread panic and unrest using rumours and fake news through social media.
What is the way ahead?
Social media has become a crucial source for updates and news and while it can be a great tool of engagement and information, there is always a concern in terms of the credibility of the information.
WhatsApp is popular in several interior rural areas in Telangana, but due to poor literacy it is often tough for people to identify fake news, SP Rema Rajeshwari opined.
“Through our interactions with the locals, we found out that people are being carried away by visuals and photographs rather than text since many cannot read,” she said.
Therefore, the Jogulamba Gadwal police have decided to take up the task of carrying out an awareness campaign against fake news through the Community Outreach Policing method, supervised by the Superintendent.
“Our village-level police officers will be in touch with sarpanches and different communities through WhatsApp, in coordination with our dedicated IT cell. Any suspicious messages will be immediately debunked with facts through this network,” she explained.
On Wednesday, Circle Inspectors and Sub Inspectors reached out to several people across many villages.
“As part of the campaign, our officials interacted with the locals and gave them information about the kind of measures that are being taken to prevent crimes. The police officers also told the people how to verify and fact-check messages,” the SP explained.
She added, “Earlier, people used to panic and be afraid to step out of their homes, but following our outreach drive to curb fake news, they are happy and appreciating us saying ‘no one explained it to us in this way’.”
Hoping that the move will develop awareness among people to counter fake news, the senior police officer said, “The task is big, but we hope it will definitely succeed, like our other community outreach programmes.”