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In May an Indian family of five was piled into their red sedan on a pilgrimage to a temple in the southern part of the country when they stopped to ask directions in an unfamiliar town. Rumors had been going around of child lifters, a wave of kidnappings, and the woman they asked for help grew suspicious.
They drove away, but word quickly spread of the suspect vehicle on the messaging service WhatsApp, which has 250 million users in India alone, and by the time they reached the next town, a mob was waiting for them.
The family was dragged from the car and beaten. Rukmani, a 65-year-old woman, was killed and the four others suffered significant injuries, while the car was left smashed as if crumpled by the fist of the Hulk.
False rumors about kidnappings, some bolstered by doctored videos, have gone viral on WhatsApp, inciting violence and leading to the deaths of at least two dozen people at the hands of vigilantes since April.
To combat the swell of mob attacks, WhatsApp is now labeling all forwarded messages and purchased newspaper ads to educate people about misinformation. The company has also offered to work more closely with police and independent fact-checkers. Of course, you may have heard of WhatsApp’s overseer, Facebook, where CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently rustled up some empathy for Holocaust deniers.
Meanwhile, the attacks in India continue. In mid-July, a mob killed a software engineer and injured his companions after they were seen giving chocolates to some school children. Bogus stories on social media have led to violence in other parts of the world too, including Brazil and Sri Lanka.
Police in India have been going around for weeks warning people not to trust the reports of kidnappings on WhatsApp, but so far the power of social media has proven too strong.
“We could not compete,” an Indian official told the New York Times.