The deadly menace of social media rumors

The scourge of false rumors circulating widely and rapidly via social media is now well known, with Facebook in the US being blamed for much of it. But in India, another vehicle is being used to spread rumors with deadly results. That medium is WhatsApp, a phone and chat application that uses the internet. It is used widely in developing countries because if you have access to free wifi, you can make free phone calls to anywhere in the world.

In India, these rumors have led to the murders of many people, the latest case being that of five people who were lynched because the rumors said that they were abducting children.

Five men have been lynched by a mob in India’s western state of Maharashtra allegedly over rumours of child abduction spreading over WhatsApp.

Twelve people have been arrested for the killings, which happened on Sunday, police told BBC Marathi.

The victims belonged to a nomadic community and had been passing through the village, police said.

Despite attempts by the police to counter them, incidents of lynchings resulting from such rumours continue.

Officials elsewhere in India have also urged people not to believe messages linked to child abductions.

“When rumours start circulating on social media, it takes some time to stop them completely,” senior Assam police official Mukesh Agarwal told BBC Hindi’s Dilip Kumar Sharma, adding that police were watching various social media sites to try to stop the spread of the messages.

What puzzles me is not that false rumors can spread so quickly. This has long been well known. Mark Twain said, “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Social media has simply aggravated the problem.

What puzzles me is that people are willing to take such drastic vigilante actions, even to the extent of murdering someone, purely on the basis of such rumors. What drives such people? Do they think that will be treated as heroes and bask in glory for supposedly preventing crimes and providing summary justice?


  1. jrkrideau says

    It is weird but a friend of mine will believe just about any such rumour without any evidence though I would hope he would not take such such violent action. It seems some people just cannot rationally evaluate the strength of the evidence of such a rumour.

    It was through him that I learned that there was a mass murderer living on my street and that Canada and Brazil were at war. He is not stupid and generally speaking not naive but will often believe the damnedest rumours on no evidence.

  2. Raucous Indignation says

    The Maple Syrup-Samba Conflict was incredibly bloody and ruthless. Thankfully it was brief. Who can forget the horrors of the firebombing of Winnipeg and the inevitable nuclear retaliation against Ipanema?

  3. sonofrojblake says

    I have lost count of the times I have responded to a Facebook post by a friend or family member with a terse link to the Snopes page explaining that whatever they’re clutching their pearls about is bullshit. Encouragingly most of them now check there first.

    The sad truth is though that fully 50% of people are of below average intelligence, and the average is pretty low. See also the home of the Welsh paediatrician whose house was attacked by vigilantes who didn’t stop to wonder why a “paedo” would have a brass plaque announcing their status as such on their house. I wish I was making that up.

  4. rjw1 says

    “the victims, belonging to a nomadic community”
    There’s a possible explanation.
    People from minorities are being murdered because of their ethnicity or culture rather than simply on the basis of rumours. They’re easy targets, there seems to be some similarity with the Roma and Jews of Europe.

  5. jazzlet says

    It wasn’t just people from a nomadic community though, a worker employed to tell people the rumours were false was also murdered, his driver survived the attack on their car only because the police managed to get to him in time.

  6. jrkrideau says

    The other thing seems to be that India is becoming more and more violent. The “cow defence league” (cannot remember the real name) have killed a lot of people accused of killing or planning to kill a cow.

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