Indian Muslims participate in a prayer after protesting against the mob lynching of Tabrez Ansari in Jharkhand state, in Ahmedabad on June 27, 2019. Photo: AFP / Sam Panthaky

In India, the spread of fake messages on social media has created an unprecedented crisis. Lynch mobs, often prejudiced against certain minority communities and incensed by fake news, are taking the lives of innocents while the law-and-order system grapples with the rising violence.

In 2018, the spread of false rumors of child abductions and cow slaughter resulted in widespread mob violence and lynching, where the accused were beaten or killed.

As many as 24 people were killed in mob attacks in 2018 alone, a report by India Spend suggests. Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Karnataka states have witnessed the worst of the mob-lynching cases owing to fake news.

The situation has become so dangerous that the Supreme Court of India stated that the country has become a “mobocracy” where quick vigilante justice has become the new norm. In such a context, one needs to assess the developments that have occurred.

While measures are being taken to curb the incidents of mob violence due to fake news, it is too early to comment on the outcome. Unfortunately, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the government agency that collects crime data, has not maintained a record of the number of cases that have occurred, and it does not even have a definition of mob lynching. Currently, mob lynching is categorized either as murder or culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

One of the major reasons behind the spread of misinformation has been through the circulation of fake news via social media. The unregulated misinformation that flows through such platforms as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and others has invoked fear among people and resulted in mob violence. To help curb this, WhatsApp has adopted some technological measures. For instance, it has restricted the number of people to whom you can forward messages to five. It has also added a “forwarded” label on messages to help the users be cautious of fake news. However, it has not accepted the government’s demand for tracking the messages, as that would go against the app’s privacy policy.

Significantly, radio campaigns have been launched by WhatsApp to sensitize people about the repercussions of fake news and ways to address it. It also suggests that people check the authenticity of messages they find inflammatory.

In July 2018, an order was passed by the Supreme Court of India for the states to adopt a set of preventive, remedial and punitive measures to curb mob violence. Unfortunately, lynchings continued to occur after that order in eight states. In most cases, it was observed that the police were not well equipped to deal with the situations.

So far, the court has directed the government to put in place a nodal officer in each district; take steps to prevent mob violence; “curb and stop dissemination of irresponsible and explosive messages, videos and other materials on various social media platforms”; and set up fast-track courts to hear cases related to lynching and mob violence.

The federal government issued an advisory to the states and union territories on August 4, 2018, to look into the trends of circulation of rumors that have the potential for causing violence, and to take all required measures to counter them effectively. It also set up a Group of Ministers (GOM) under the home minister, and a high-level committee under the home secretary, to make recommendations for separate penal provisions for incidents of mob violence.

Further, the states and union territories were asked to file their responses in consonance with the order dated July 17, 2018, by the Supreme Court within a period of two weeks. A few states filed the compliance reports, but many lagged behind. When these states were pulled up, they stated that the reports were in the process of being filed.

Manipur state did not file a compliance report but the anti-mob-violence bill was passed at the state level. Manipur has now become the first state to provide stringent measures in curbing mob violence. Rajasthan’s state government has also prepared a blueprint to prevent such incidents and it includes identifying sensitive areas, increasing police presence and naming nodal officers. The state is also considering a separate law to curb mob lynching.

A few other states such as Haryana are also following suit but the question remains whether these measures will be sufficient to tackle mob violence and the ills of fake news.

Although the apex court in 2017 asked states to take similar steps to check mob violence related to cow vigilantism and asked the central government to direct states to adopt stringent measures, the atrocities continued to take place. The current direction by the top court is not just restricted to cow vigilantism.

Through the preventive, remedial and punitive measures that have been given by Supreme Court last year, the directions to check mob violence have become more structured. But the states have not yet updated on their websites the measures adopted by them. It is important that a separate law that implements the given measures be enacted by states.

In addition, a proper record of lynching cases should be created. Unless big tech companies, the government and civil society come together in spreading awareness and battling fake news, mob violence in India will continue unabated.

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