MUMBAI—Kerala was drowning. For over a week, rains had inundated the state, located in southwest India, causing widespread flooding and leading to the deaths of hundreds. Disturbingly, agents of disinformation saw the disaster as the perfect time to strike. Taking to Facebook and to WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned encrypted messaging platform, they disseminated false news of a dam on the verge of bursting, circulated a fake phone number for a navy rescue helicopter, and spread an erroneous claim that the Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo had donated $11 million to relief efforts. The sheer volume of disinformation that spread during the floods and the subsequent rescue operations was so great that the Indian army asked the public to help identify people sharing disinformation. Kerala’s chief minister issued a warning that “strict measures” would be taken against “cyber offenders.”
Meanwhile, some 800 miles away in Mumbai, a TV in the newsroom at BOOM flashed with images of people in Kerala stranded on rooftops, surrounded by brown, murky water, awaiting rescue. BOOM is one of a handful of websites in India dedicated to the seemingly quixotic task of debunking junk science, doctored photos, and false rumors that spread on social media and messaging platforms. Creators of this content—politicians, nationalists, and pranksters among them—have found a captive audience in India’s voracious tech consumers. While some hoaxes are fairly harmless, others have had far more serious consequences, including a recent string of killings that have been fueled in part by rumors that spread through WhatsApp. “What you are seeing is a phenomenon that is unlike anywhere else in the world,” Govindraj Ethiraj, BOOM’s founder and editor, told me.