In Indian state after Indian state, this spring and summer, the stories of communal violence bore an eerie similarity. There’d be a rumor, sent from phone to phone (perhaps accompanied by a video), about some strangers stealing children, or harvesting organs, or slaughtering cows. Then, someone unlucky enough to hand chocolate to some children or pass through a village would draw the attention of a crowd who’d heard the hearsay. The mobs attacked. Sometimes the outsiders lived. Often, they did not. Sometimes video of the attack would surface, bloody victims pleading for their life, and that would drive a round of journalistic coverage. And in the dozens of cases that drew media attention, there was a common thread: WhatsApp. “When a Text Can Trigger Lynching: WhatsApp Struggles With Fake Messages” read one headline in India. In the U.S., the title of a Washington Post story was “Forget Facebook and Twitter, Fake News Is Even Worse on WhatsApp — And It Can Be Deadly.” The BBC intoned: “How WhatsApp Helped Turn an Indian Village Into a Lynch Mob.” The Indian government issued a statement castigating WhatsApp and its parent company, Facebook.
This year has been presented as an epidemic of violence, aided and abetted, even caused, by WhatsApp. The narrative slotted neatly into the broader discussion of Big Tech’s failures, the corrosiveness of social media, and the crises of misinformation across the world. After all, WhatsApp usage has exploded in India over the past few years, across city and country, rich and poor. Two hundred million Indians now use WhatsApp. Communal violence has been on the rise, going from 751 incidents resulting in 97 deaths in 2015 to 822 incidents and 111 deaths in 2017. Surely one had something to do with the other, given all the reports of violence, not to mention troubles with vaccination misinformation and all manner of hoaxes.