In July last year, residents of a rural Indian town saw rumors of child kidnappers on WhatsApp. Then they beat five strangers to death.
Hours after a mob of villagers beat five strangers to death over a rumor on WhatsApp, nobody wanted to clean up the blood: There was just too much of it.
It lay congealed in a 6-foot-long puddle on the floor of the Rainpada village council office. The walls and the dusty portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and Indian politicians that adorned them were flecked with it. Even the ceiling was spattered. That evening, the village council offered five laborers from a neighboring village 5,000 rupees ($70) to clean it up. They came and mopped up the gore with old saris. Then they burned them and buried the ashes.
Five days after the event, the police had rounded up most of the suspects. Each admitted to attacking the five men — all nomads passing through Rainpada, a tribal hamlet 200 miles northeast of Mumbai — and each said they’d done so after watching shocking videos on WhatsApp warning of outsiders abducting children.
The suspects are now awaiting their trial. “Our clients’ position is that they genuinely thought that the five people were child kidnappers because they had been seeing this kind of information on WhatsApp for months,” Akshay Sagar and Manoj Khairnar, two of the four state-assigned lawyers representing the 28 people accused, told BuzzFeed News. “They said that as long as their children are safe, they have no regrets.”
WhatsApp, a Facebook-owned messaging service, is used by more than 200 million people in India, its largest market. It’s become an inextricable part of the country’s culture and social fabric, widely used by younger and older generations alike. It’s one of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s crown jewels, an app he acquired for $19 billion in 2014 that began as a messaging platform but is now evolving into something more, with a new payments feature already being tested in India.
Lately, however, WhatsApp has been getting Indians killed. In June, rumors about child kidnappers shared on the service inspired a mob of hundreds to lynch a 29-year-old man and his friend who was passing through a village in Karbi Anglong, a district in the eastern part of the country. In July, two weeks after the Rainpada incident, hundreds of people hurled stones at an IT worker who was visiting the South Indian village of Murki, killing him. Since May, there have been at least 16 lynchings leading to 29 deaths in India where public officials say mobs were incited by misinformation on WhatsApp.
As Facebook wrangles an ongoing crisis of public confidence over its role in spreading misinformation throughout the 2016 US presidential election, the company is grappling with a different kind of problem in places like Rainpada, where its products have abetted flesh-and-blood harm. In attempting to fulfil Facebook’s current mission — to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” — Zuckerberg and his team of Silicon Valley-based executives failed to foresee its malignant applications: misinformation, propaganda, rumor, hate.