India is a wrong nation

The two young men had no idea what the night would bring. They ran out of gas while driving through a village in central India and were looking for someone to help them. Not really a big deal when someone somewhere in India is always running out of fuel. And so Sheikh Rizwan and Prem Singhare knocked on the door of a house, hoping that despite the late hour they would still get a few drops of fuel.

But there was no gas for the two men. Just a very big, life-threatening rage in the village.

The Indians had gotten into the wrong village at the wrong time. Because there was a wild rumor going around there. Allegedly a gang of criminals was in the Balaghat district. Men who sneaked around at night to murder people and cut their organs out of their bodies. Hundreds of kidney thieves should have invaded the area, so it was in messages on Whatsapp. Everything was fake, as it later turned out, a few days later the police arrested three suspects who had spread such reports.

But in mid-June the rumors were still fresh; they had spread quickly and stirred up panic. And then suddenly the two strangers appeared knocking on doors in the middle of the night. It didn't take long for an angry crowd to gather. And so began a manhunt that would probably never have happened without the lie about the kidney thieves.

The mob didn't give the men a chance, and all five were beaten to death

"India has become a Whatsapp nation," says Pawan Duggal, an Internet law expert. More than 200 million people use the online service on the subcontinent, and nowhere is the market for Whatsapp larger. On the one hand, that's great because the chats connect so many people. On the other hand, the lawyer Duggal finds this threatening because his country is in no way armed for the dangers resulting from the flood of false reports that are circulating in India. The two men who were suspected of being kidney thieves that night were very lucky that police officers stepped in in time to contain the mob. In such moments, seconds often make the difference between life and death.

There was no rescue for five men in Maharashtra last weekend. They were nomads and wanted to go to market. When one of them apparently approached a little girl, it was enough to make people angry. The mob didn't give the men a chance, and all five were beaten to death. The police said after initial investigations that this attack was also triggered by "false rumors" about alleged child kidnappers on social media.

The cases are increasing, almost every week you can read about such attacks in India, there are often injuries and, time and again, deaths. In June, the death of two men in Assam shook the nation. They had only wanted to go on a trip to the mountains and asked for directions in a village. There, however, a group pounced on them, incited by rumors that the two belonged to a gang of kidnappers. That was fictitious, but it spread in a flash via Whatsapp.

The men were artists, not criminals, just as innocent as the construction worker Kaalu Ram, who was slain in Bangalore in broad daylight on the street. The 26-year-old was just looking for work. But reports of a horde of child kidnappers were circulating via Whatsapp. Allegedly hundreds of them streamed into the city, and there was no evidence for this either, but mothers no longer let their little ones out on the street, strangers were eyed. Ram was also suspected: They tied him up, beat him and dragged him through the streets, he died on the way to the clinic.

Mass hysteria and lynching are not new phenomena in India, in a country with great social tension and a completely overwhelmed judicial system there have always been cases in which a rumor was equivalent to a death sentence, in which a lot could no longer be held, police officers too cowardly were or were late. However, the most recent attacks in various areas of India show that social media is making the problem considerably worse. The state seems powerless in the face of unpredictable surges of violence, which almost always start with a message in the social networks. "This connection cannot be denied," says Duggal, the state must deal with it as soon as possible.

The violence almost always begins on social networks

"Every Indian is now a broadcaster," says Duggal, adding that the permanent post is an addiction for millions. "Social media is a huge whirlpool, you never know what it will be whirling up in the next minute." The operators of social media platforms are making things far too easy for themselves, warns Duggal, they have long since withdrawn to the role of a mere spectator. Neither does the state show a will to control the "wild west of social media" and to set rules.

According to a report by the Reuters news agency, Whatsapp regretted that the platform was sometimes used to "spread harmful disinformation". The service promised to "step up reconnaissance efforts". But legal expert Duggal criticizes the fact that social media platforms reacted in a completely inappropriate way to the fake news crisis. The operators expressed themselves to "consistent protection against fake news".

Duggal admits that every society has to find the right balance in order to preserve the right to free information on the one hand and to fight fake news on the other. "India has so far done nothing to move forward in this direction." Duggal also sees a need to catch up in upbringing. Parents shouldn't just provide their children with smartphones to give them peace of mind.

In the Balaghat district, where the two men barely escaped with their lives without petrol, there is at least a whisper-bag of clarification. Policemen drive from village to village and trumpet out that no one should believe the rumors of an invasion of kidney thieves. It's not as fast as on Whatsapp, but it is at least louder.