Hours after Tamil Nadu witnessed the horrific lynching of a Chennai woman in Thiruvannamalai by a mob that mistook her for a child trafficker, political parties and internet rights activists have slammed the incident.
Speaking to TNM, Superintendent of Police, R Ponni said that the villagers, who were on edge after seeing videos of child trafficking on WhatsApp, had assumed that the victim Rukmani, 65, and her relatives were there to kidnap the kids when they stopped near an old lady's house to ask for directions to a temple.
With the menace of fake news and fake videos becoming a global phenomenon, entire democracies are being threatened. The incident in TN assumes greater significance in the light of a number of such incidents taking place – where mobs have lynched people on the basis of their suspicions. A 30-year-old man was similarly mistaken for a thief and lynched to death at Gudiyatham town in Vellore last week.
Fighting misinformation with information
Speaking to TNM, Rohini Lakshané, Director (Emerging Research), The Bachchao Project that works for the prevention of gender-based violence says while fake news online enables ‘mob justice’, it takes concerted effort to fight misinformation.
“Whoever has watched those child trafficking videos did not have any context or didn't care to read or get to know any context. That's why they seemed to quickly believe that anyone who gives candy to kids is a pedophile or a child trafficker. While rumour-mongering that disturbs public order is a punishable office, sharing videos without context is not. Secondly, a lot of content circulated on forwards like these are twisted to fan communal fires. Sometimes the video, photos, etc., are doctored or are from another time, another place and another context. In this video, some north Indians were allegedly seen trafficking south Indian children. That's a rumour taking advantage of the north-south divide in the country. Sometimes, real incidents are exaggerated on such forwards. Mob justice is sadly a way of life and internet fake news makes it even more possible to fan it, manipulate it and even justify it. The only way this menace can be curbed is for law enforcement, the press and public-spirited citizens to fight misinformation with information. I'm sure they get the forwards too. The police could use their social media channels for this and also to warn miscreants that they will be caught and punished for making any mischief.”
Onus is on the police
A Saravanan, lawyer and spokesperson for the DMK, says that the fake news phenomenon has created paranoia among the public. Speaking to TNM, he says, “The fake news menace has taken many dimensions, which is unimaginable. The latest being fake news circulated that north Indians are coming to south India and kidnapping your children. I myself have seen several such Facebook posts that warns people to be careful of people from north India. This creates paranoia. We have a migrant worker population and they are being vilified and their security is at stake now. This has to be stopped. The police have to take firm action. They should ensure that this fake news is curtailed. They need to create awareness that this content is fake and that the content does not have any truth in it. The onus is on the police department.”
Sensitising people to technology
Since the internet has an elephantine memory Ravikumar, General Secretary of VCK, feels that the people must be sensitised. “How can we control what is circulated online? If we give technology in the hands of someone who is new to it, he/she will only be able to use it in ways he/she knows. Even educated people tend to circulate fake news sometimes. The better way is to make people more sensitised towards technology.”
Slamming the state government, he says, “There have been plenty of cases of women and children disappearing in districts like Thiruvallur and Nagapattinam. Earlier trafficking and making them beg was common. Now there are cases of organ theft. We get to hear such disturbing cases everyday and the police do not respond promptly. Naturally people do not trust the system. They are suspicious of outsiders. When we hear of migrant workers being involved in theft, murder and abduction cases, we naturally get more suspicious and wary of the group. It is up to the government to make people feel safe. On the judicial side too, suo moto action should be taken to provide better safety for women and children in the state.”
(With input from Anjana Shekar)