Jharkhand lynching: To counter rumours on social media, police must be tech-savvy | columns | Hindustan Times
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Jharkhand lynching: To counter rumours on social media, police must be tech-savvy

Police in India has to become tech savvy if it has to meet the twin challenges of rising crime rates and social media-fuelled vigilantism

columns Updated: May 27, 2017 17:40 IST
Chanakya
Jharkhand Lynching
Of the seven people killed on suspicion of being child-lifters, four were killed in the Seraikela Kharsawan district and three in Nagadih area of East Singhbhum district(Parwaz Khan / HT Photo)

“Which is the best-known newspaper in the country?” Stand-up comedian and social-satirist Sanjay Rajoura of Aisi Taisi Democracy (ATD) asked the audience at Kamani Auditorium during a recent sell-out show. The audience laughed lightly, expecting a bazooka of an answer from the three-member ATD team.

“You don’t know!” Rajoura challenged us again. And added in the same breath: “It’s WhatsApp!”

A roar of laughter swept through the auditorium. The ATD team went on to give examples of the kind of ‘news’ that goes viral on messaging and social media platforms. While some were hilarious, others were capable of inciting trouble. This increasing popularity of messaging and social media platforms is a double-edged sword. While on one hand, these platforms work wonderfully as positive pressure groups, on the other, unverified news that travels seamlessly through its sinews has led to violence on the web (trolling) and on the streets.

Recently, seven men were lynched by a mob in Jharkhand on the suspicion that they were child kidnappers. The message, written in Hindi and circulated on WhatsApp, said: “Suspected child lifters are carrying sedatives, injections, spray, cotton and small towels. They speak Hindi, Bangla and Malyali. If you happen to see any stranger near your house immediately inform local police as he could be a member of the child lifting gang”. This news — rather this rumour — provoked villagers of three districts to take the law into own hands.

This is not the first time that rumours masquerading as news have led to such a heinous reaction. Even the humble, old world SMS has a history of creating law and order problems. In 2012, scores of people from the Northeast fled the technology hub of Bangalore, driven by online rumour-mongering of violence against them, without a single incident being reported in the city. Then in 2013, a video clip showing a Muslim mob lynching two boys led to riots in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh. The video was later found to be fake – it showed an incident in Pakistan – but the riots that resulted killed over 60 people and displaced 50,000.

In many cases, the State’s reaction to such social media-influenced violence has been blanket bans on these popular platforms. But such actions are useless. Look at Kashmir. Every time there is violence in the Valley, the first reaction of the state government has been to clampdown on social media. Yet, people find out ways to circumvent such bans, thanks to virtual private networks (VPNs). A recent story in Hindustan Times said despite the ban on Internet in the state, the who’s who of Kashmir were continuing to post on Facebook and Twitter. Besides, by banning social media the State is also blocking a channel of quick communication with the people for itself.

What passes as social media ‘news’ is many a time are actually rumours. The technology-based medium can be new but this social phenomenon of rumour being taken as truth is hardly new. In ‘Rumors That Changed the World: A History of Violence and Discrimination’ Eugen O. Chirovici, member of the Romanian Academy of Sciences, writes in antiquity, the Romans and Greeks believed that the gates of Hell were to be found on Cape Tenara, and Europeans of the Middle Ages were convinced that the entrance to the underworld was via the yawning crater of Mount Etna in Sicily and when the first travellers returned from the New World, they tried to convince their contemporaries that the natives they had seen there had eyes in their chests or walked around holding their heads under their arms. “For reasons that still puzzle scientists, the human psychical world still includes what is known as magical thinking, and this type of thought is the perfect ecosystem in which rumours can evolve and multiply,” he writes.

So for the State, the real test is now to not just quell rumours but do it quickly so that it does not further amplify through social media. And to beat the furious pace of the social media, the administration and police have to be incredibly proactive and nimble, almost like a tech start-up.

An interesting study by Onook Oh of Warwick Business School and two others on the use of social media in three major incidents, including the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, shows that authorities or organisations involved in a disaster or terrorist attack, need to set up an emergency communication centre to provide speedy, relevant information on the unfolding crisis and to confirm or dispel misinformation circulating on social media. .

Jharkhand obviously fell short on that count. And why blame Jharkhand? Most police and administrative set-ups in India are in the same boat. But the demands of the times are such — steep rise in crimes in India and information explosion — that it needs new-age policing and administration: Transparent with information but also has to have the structure to counter flare-ups on a real time basis. Some have proactively engaged with the public to ensure that rumours are nipped in the bud.

Take for example the Bangalore Police. It has adopted “tech policing” and is using social media in a big way to interact with people.

A NITI Aayog paper talks about ways in which policing needs to be reformed: First improvement in capacity and infrastructure of police forces, second revisiting the constitution of police forces through legislative/ administrative changes, and third technological scaling-up.

Technological reforms includes modernisation of the control room, fast tracking the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and System pushing for NATGRID and pushing for incorporation of new technology into policing. To enable police stations to exchange information, they need to be connected through a seamless network. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often spoken about ‘SMART’ Policing, which means “S for strict but sensitive, M for modern and mobile, A for alert and accountable, R for reliable and responsive and T for techno-savvy and trained”. The task — reforming the police force — is not easy but has to be done to stop Jharkhand-type savagery.

@chanakya