Seven dead in India after fake news spread over WhatsApp incites mob violence

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Two separate vigilante attacks last week resulted in the deaths of seven men in eastern India, and were apparently the result of rumors about strangers abducting children that were spread over popular messaging service WhatsApp. The attacks occurred in the state of Jharkhand, and police say all the victims were innocent, and no abductions ever occurred.

Videos of the May 18 mob attacks spread across social media in India this week. Police say crowds of up to 500 attacked passersby. “The mobs have intentionally killed these men,” Animesh Naithany, Jharkhand deputy superintendent of police, told the New York Times. “Not a single case of child abduction has been reported in this area,” assistant superintendent Shrikant Khotre added in a separate interview.

Police at this time still do not know who sent the WhatsApp messages, and said an investigation is continuing. Five arrests have already been made in the village of Jamshedpur, with another 17 people identified as suspects, including the head of the village.  Altogether in Jharkhand, 20 people have been arrested on rioting and murder charges since the attacks, Naithany added.

One survivor relayed his account of the mob in Jamshedpur, where only four police officers were present at the time of the incident, according to the Times report. Uttam Verma, who had entered the area on motorcycle with his brother looking for land to set up work, was blocked from entering the village by people wielding “bows and arrows, axes and swords.” Verma wanted to turn around, but was pushed to move on by his brother.

As they approached the group, members stopped them, accused them of being child thieves, and asked for identification. Verma had his, but his brother did not. Another brother, friend, and Verma’s grandmother rushed to the scene to assist, but they were eventually attacked with “bricks, sticks and swords.” Verma said the group spoke a tribal language that he couldn’t completely understand. “We just could not comprehend what was happening,” he said.

Police did little, and only Verma and his grandmother survived the attack.

“Rumors of children being abducted spread on WhatsApp like wildfire,” Naithany told the Times. “Villagers started keeping vigil around their villages. Since they are an illiterate lot, they cannot differentiate between a real piece of news and a rumor.”

Naithany says an investigation into the incident will take about a month, but the police force has suspended the chief officer in charge in both towns as a result of the mob attacks.