A 65-year-old woman, named Rukmani, was murdered for giving chocolates to some children. Was there something wrong with the chocolates? Not at all. Did someone have a grudge against her? No, nobody even knew who she was. In fact, her murder was traced back to WhatsApp and a news story that was posted there. Was the news story about this woman? No, but the people who read the story thought it might have been. In fact, Rukmani was killed because of fake news.
It seems that someone, possibly in the hopes of making money through clicks and shares, sent videos out to villagers in India. The video claimed that kidnapping gangs were kidnapping children in order to harvest their organs and sell them. These videos, graphically depicting kidnapping and organ harvesting, told those who received the videos to share them in order to warn others of the danger. No one thought the videos might be fake. They believed any news on WhatsApp must be true. As a result, they were afraid to let their children out of their houses and kept a look out for suspicious strangers. So when Rukmani stopped to ask an old woman for directions and gave candy to some children, it aroused suspicion. The old woman called other villagers who quickly came to surround Rukmani. 200 villagers beat her to death and sent her 4 traveling companions to the hospital. And if this were an isolated incident, we might be able to dismiss it as an aberration. However, 46 people have been killed and 43 critically injured in 56 related attacks, all of which were linked to fake news stories on WhatsApp.
Fake news is an especially lethal weapon wherever there are pre-existing tensions between communities, religious groups, or political parties. One place that seems to have all of these is Nigeria, where serious tensions exist between different tribal groups and different religions. One fake news story provoked a group of people from one tribal group to kill 11 men from another tribal group. A picture which supposedly showed a Christian desecrating the Koran caused a similar response among Muslims. No one thought to validate the story and Facebook, the social platform on which these stories were published, did not have the manpower to stop them. When asked about the danger of fake news, police spokesman, Tyopev Terna Matthias, stated that “It causes panic. Fake news is doing a lot of damage to our society. We pray Facebook shall listen to us and do something fast.”
As someone who has frequently reported fake accounts to Facebook, I know it normally takes months to get anything done. Usually, I get a message that the account appears to be real, even though I have ample evidence that it has been established to scam people, usually elderly women who believe that they have found their soul mates. At least I have the advantage of reporting the problem in English. Imagine the difficulty of assessing the validity of thousands of posts in an obscure tribal language.
Another problem is in discovering the source of the fake news, since fake news is often used as a tool by the very group the news seems to victimize. Let me give an example. In Pakistan, 4 Muslims were killed when police fired on a threatening mob. The mob was incited by a Facebook story seemingly posted by a Hindu man named, Biplop Chandra Baddya. His post contained criticisms of Mohammed which infuriated Muslims. Enraged by his comments, a large group of Muslim men surrounded a group of policemen and demanded Baddya’s execution. The policemen, fearing for their lives, fired into the crowd, killing four of the protestors.
In fact, police investigations found that Baddya’s Facebook account had been hacked by Muslim fundamentalists who then put up the fake news. The group initially demanded that he pay $235 or deal with the consequences of an anti-Muslim post. Baddya went directly to the police. Apparently, the police already knew who the suspects were and arrested them. Oddly, they also arrested Baddya, charging him with spreading messages demeaning Islam. While being held in custody, the mob burned down Baddya’s home.
Now, I know what many reading this are thinking. Sure, such emotional reactions are understandable in troubled areas where people may be easily manipulated, but this would not occur in a more developed country. Well, think again. Residents in developed Western nations are both perpetrators and victims of deadly fake news.
Dr. Idris Ahmed lives in a quiet suburb in Coventry, U.K. He heads an organization called, Citizens United for Peace and Stability.
On the surface, he seems like an upstanding citizen. However, in 2018, he put up the following post on Facebook.
“We have never seen terrorists killing innocent fellow humans and deriving pleasure in eating them up! The Berom terrorists are in a class of their own. They are the worst savage barbarians Africa has ever produced. We must WIPE-OUT the Berom terrorists, by whatever means necessary.”
There is no doubt that this is a call for genocide against the Berom people. Last September, Ahmed implied that the Nigerian army was aiding the Beroms. This infuriated the army and provoked an army spokesman to challenge him. “We dare Dr Idris Ahmed to provide evidence to support his infantile claims.”
Facebook has been slow to react because, according to some, they don’t fully understand what some of these posts may lead to. As a professor at Jos University points out, “How I wish they were aware of the gravity of what we are facing. And if they are aware, I am wondering why they are so inactive or insensitive. We are talking of human lives.”
To its credit, Facebook has removed Ahmed’s account several times. To their discredit, he has set up new accounts within days. He was banned again this month, but, as of this writing. his account is still active.
Think of what this says about Facebook’s policing policy. Could they be implicated in any genocide that might result from all of this? I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone try to exploit this angle.
In the West, some violence has been linked to false news posted on various social media sites. Some mass shootings have been tenuously linked to a variety of fake news stories, but the connections have been indirect in most cases. Since most tension in Western nations is politically based, it is not surprising to see the extremists on both sides using social media to stoke the fires of hatred. On the extreme left, there are groups like Antifa. On the extreme right, there are groups like the Proud Boys. They are constantly trolling each other with fake news and have had a number of physical encounters. Some deaths have already occurred.
Occasionally regular citizens are affected by these fake news stories. One fake news article panicked Trump supporters. The post claimed that Antifa was going to file child abuse charges against them. The post claimed that it didn’t matter if the charges were true or not since Child Protective Services would have to investigate them. The post further asserted that since most “child service agents tend to be liberal”, these agents would most likely take their children away.
It was not clear if this fake news was created to troll Trump supporters or make Antifa look bad; however, the story was widely believed to be true.
It would be naïve to believe that fake news stories such as these will be taken down from social media sites before they do damage. It would also be naïve to believe these stories will decrease as the next U.S. presidential election approaches. Even more naïve would be the assumption that physical confrontations, fueled by fake news, will die down after the election, no matter which side wins. In short, expect fake news to get more believable and cause more disruption. Expect fake news to further divide the country along political lines and expect people to be injured and killed. Only some major confrontation that results in a catastrophic outcome will make people reassess the value of maintaining these divisions and the importance of disabling the use of fake news.