On Friday, an IT engineer working for a multinational corporation based in Hyderabad went on a drive with three others, including a Qatari friend, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.
Hours later, Mohammad Azam was beaten to death by a mob of around 200 people in Bidar district, about 150km from Hyderabad – a major IT hub – after he was suspected of being a child kidnapper.
At least 32 people, including the administrator of a WhatsApp group that circulated the abduction rumours, were arrested following the attack on Friday, India’s NDTV website reported.
Azam was the latest victim of abduction rumours circulating on the popular messaging platform owned by Facebook.
Once you let loose demons in society, where mobs are encouraged, lionised and valorised, then you can't ask them to act at your bidding and go back quietly into their cages
Since the end of April, more than two dozen people have been beaten to death by mob vigilantes across India over suspicions of child abduction, according to reports.
Two weeks ago, five men in their 20s were also lynched by a mob at Dhule in the western state of Maharashtra, following similar rumours shared on WhatsApp, according to police.
One of the five men, all nomadic beggars, was spotted talking to a young girl at a bus stop, leading to the deadly beating. They all died before police could take them to hospital.
Activists and technology analysts have raised alarms that messaging applications like WhatsApp are being hijacked by people intent on spreading hoaxes.
Harsh Mander, an activist fighting hate crimes and mob lynchings in India, said WhatsApp only serves as a platform to spread a pre-existing tendency for violence.
“It’s the culture of violence patronised by the politics of hatred that legitimises such killings, and not just a social media platform,” Mander told Al Jazeera.
Easy accessibility to technology
Earlier this month in southern India’s city of Mangaluru, a man out in the street with his two-year-old daughter, was beaten by a mob.
In the northeastern state of Tripura, a man working for the government to dispel WhatsApp rumours on child kidnapping was beaten to death on June 28.
In a report published on July 6, The Indian Express said at least 27 such killings in the last one year showed a similar pattern: Outsiders who happened to be found in an area, lynchings taking place during the night, and helpless police often outnumbered by the mob.
The report said that WhatsApp, which counts India as its largest market with over 200 million users, was the most frequently used phone application to spread fake news and hoaxes.
Journalist and social media expert Nandagopal Rajan said end-to-end encryption on WhatsApp makes any kind of regulation “almost impossible”.
“It can’t control something it can’t see,” Rajan told Al Jazeera.
WhatsApp is a free app, which runs even on low-priced phones, making it easier for messages to spread among the country’s millions of consumers.
For example, an edited version of a video featuring an anti-lynching campaign in Pakistan was shared widely in India.
In the Dhule lynching case, a video showing scores of Syrian children, who died in a nerve gas attack five years ago, was shared triggering the deadly attack.
The Indian government has asked WhatsApp to take “immediate action” to prevent the misuse of the social media platform. The government said the messaging service “cannot evade accountability and responsibility” when its services are abused.
WhatsApp, in response, said such issues are “best tackled collectively” by the government, civil society and technology companies.
“Like the government of India, we’re horrified by these terrible acts of violence and wanted to respond quickly to the very important issues you have raised,” WhatsApp said, according to the Reuters news agency.
Last week, WhatsApp published advertisements in India’s leading newspapers to push back against the accusations.
WhatsApp also announced a $50,000 grant for ideas to help fight the spread of fake news in India.
India’s Ministry of Home Affairs has directed state governments investigate the killings, and identify “vulnerable areas” where attacks could ignite.
On Tuesday, India’s Supreme Court asked the government to create new laws to deal with cases of lynchings, saying “mobocracy” can’t become the norm.
Zafar Islam, spokesman of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told Al Jazeera that the government is committed to stop the mob lynchings.
“The government is doing everything to ensure WhatsApp and other social media are not misused by vigilante groups or random mobs.”
According to reports, at least two dozen murders have been linked to the cow vigilantes since the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014. The cow is considered holy by Hindus and its slaughter is banned in many of India’s states.
“Even before the whole phase of cow lynchings started, right-wing Hindu organisations had built a whole methodology of propagating rumours that incited people to violence,” Mander, the activist campaigning against lynching, told Al Jazeera.
“Rumours didn’t start with WhatsApp … but of course, it is the most effective and accessible one.”
The Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013, which took place in the run-up to India’s national elections, was also triggered by rumours and hate messages magnified primarily through WhatsApp, according to an Indian Express report.
Silence and complicity
A number of BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have been accused by critics of maintaining silence on the issue of mob killings.
Earlier this month, two of Modi’s ministers, Jayant Sinha and Giriraj Singh, were criticised for their praising people arrested in cases of mob attacks and communal violence. Photographs of Sinha honouring a group of “cow vigilantes” convicted for killing a Muslim man in 2017 were widely shared.
Mander told Al Jazeera that if Prime Minister Modi does not want lynching incidents to happen, he should speak “sternly” against it.
“His silence speaks a lot.”
However, Zafar Islam dismissed the allegations saying, “Nobody in the party endorses violence.”
Journalist and social media expert Rajan said the government can at least ensure that “swift and exemplary action” is taken to prosecute those involved in spreading the rumours.
“It will act as a deterrent in future.”
For Harsh Mander, the shift from killing Muslims to lynching just about anybody over child abduction has an ominous message for India.
“Once you let loose demons in society, where mobs are encouraged, lionised and valorised, then you can’t ask them to act at your bidding and go back quietly into their cages.”