Misinformation is always problematic but can be especially malicious in the digital age, when social media widely shares conspiracy theories and baseless rumors. In 2014, for example, a social media message claiming that salt water can cure or prevent Ebola went viral, causing illness and deaths in West Africa. A hoax text shared throughout Nigeria and Sierra Leone urging people to bathe in—and drink—salt water was created by a female student in Nigeria and was apparently intended as a joke. Because of the heightened fear at the time of the dreaded disease, at least two people died and dozens were sickened when they and their families followed the bogus “medical” advice.
In July 2018, rumors spread on the WhatsApp social messaging platform—owned by Facebook—became so toxic that India’s Minister of Electronics and Information Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad, issued a statement to the company that “The use, abuse, (and) misuse of your platform, particularly, which leads to killing of innocent people is plainly not acceptable.”
So far in 2018, at least twenty people have been killed in separate incidents across a dozen Indian states when mobs set upon suspected child abductors they’d been warned about in messages on social media. According to a July 8 CBC News article by Simi Bassi and Joyita Sengupta:
Three men at a railway station in the northeastern district of Assam were rescued by the army from a possible lynching. They were surrounded by hundreds mistaking them for possible child abductors. … The men were begging for alms and at one point, appeared to have been speaking to a child. The Times spoke to an officer from nearby Pimpalner village, charged with the investigation. “Although there was no child kidnapping case recorded with Pimpalner police, there was a rumor in the village and its surrounding areas about an active child kidnapping gang,” he said. “This is a tribal area, and any stranger or outsider is viewed with suspicion.”
A July 18 news story on National Public Radio by Lauren Frayer (https://tinyurl.com/yam8k9rj) told the story of Iram Sabah, a mother of two young children who lives in Malegaon, in northern Maharashtra state, with her husband Shaikh Wasim Shaikh Karim. One night they heard a commotion in the streets; Shaikh Karim said, “I saw a mob beating five people. The crowd was getting bigger and bigger. They filled up the road in front of my house. They even attacked police vehicles.” Frayer notes:
The five victims at the center of the mob were a couple, their toddler and two relatives. They’d wandered into town to beg, police and witnesses said. Locals feared they were the kidnappers all these WhatsApp messages had warned of—and attacked them. Shaikh Karim pulled the victims to safety inside his home, as the mob shattered his windows with stones. Police finally intervened and extracted them.
In response to the attacks, WhatsApp founder Govindraj Ethiraj issued a statement duly condemning the violence and promising to renew efforts to curb the rumors—including hiring a group called Boom Live to trace and debunk the stories—while noting that ultimately any crimes committed by individuals are a police matter.
In some cases, deaths are directly attributable to a series of astonishingly poor decisions. The first was the creation of a poorly conceived public service announcement video depicting two men on a motorcycle menacingly circling a young boy walking along a street. The short video shows the men grabbing the boy and taking off. The video was posted to remind parents and children to be vigilant, but it was intentionally stripped of its context by unknown persons who edited out the ending—in which one of the would-be “kidnappers” holds up a sign for the camera reading, in part, “It only takes a moment to kidnap a child from the streets of Karachi.”
The video was then posted to WhatsApp and circulated widely on social media, spurring people to be watchful for what they thought was (and what was portrayed to be) real footage of child abductors. Two men who stopped on a street to ask for directions were mobbed and beaten to death by people who suspected them of being the (non-existent) child abductors seen in the staged video.
The child abduction rumors spread to other countries as well. On August 29, 2018, Ricardo Flores and his uncle Alberto Flores Morales visited San Vicente Boqueron, Mexico, from their nearby hometown in their SUV to buy construction materials. They parked near a school and went into a local bar, arriving just as internet rumors on WhatsApp called for people to be vigilant for extranjeros (stranger) child kidnappers in the neighborhood driving an SUV. Villagers noticed the pair as not being local and accused them of looking for children to abduct. Their pleas of innocence were ignored as a mob dragged the men into the road, tied them up, beat them, and eventually burned them alive with gasoline outside a local police station.
In Gillitts, South Africa, an unidentified woman posted a voice message using WhatsApp for parents saying that a young child had been abducted at the Gillitts Primary School. She had arrived to pick up her children and heard a commotion nearby. According to Steven King, a coordinator with the South African Community Crime Watch:
She then saw a man with a brown jacket running. She made sure her children were safe and left without looking to see what happened next. She states that with all the messages on social media about children being kidnapped she became extremely anxious and sent out a voice note warning parents of the impending danger at the school.
Officials investigated and children disputed the mother’s account, saying that the “kidnapper” was in fact a security officer running in a field to help a child who had wandered off. The woman later apologized, and the South African Police Service issued a statement asking people not to create or share unconfirmed rumors on social media.