U.P. police battle fake news and online rumours

WhatsApp groups to fight disinformation during yatra.

July 03, 2017 10:04 pm | Updated July 04, 2017 02:24 pm IST - LUCKNOW

On Sunday evening, a Twitter user posted an alarming update claiming that members of a particular community had set fire to a police station in Shamli district and paraded Dalits naked.

As the post began to be widely shared, Shamli police intervened and issued a timely clarification dismissing the content as fake. "There is no such incident. Don't spread rumours," the police posted, triggering a flood of replies by other social media users who called out the person posting the fake post and demanded his arrest.

“This is how rumors are spread which leads to riots,” posted a social media user. The police then promised to take necessary action against the culprit, who has described himself as a "fan of modifying India" in his Twitter bio.

Despite the clarification by the police on Monday, a similar story circulated on  social media. This time, a video of the alleged attack on the police station in Shamli by members of a particular community was tweeted by social media user Shankhnaad, who boasted more than 14,000 followers.

The tweet was shared more than 400 times.  The police was once again forced to debunk the post.  “This is a two-year-old video in which legal action has already been taken,” Shamli police said.

The menace of fake news, unverified and often malicious content has the Uttar Pradesh police on its toes. The Shamli episode represents the typical cases encountered by the police in the state.

The majority of fake news and rumours are "communal," says Rahul Srivastava, spokesperson UP police. “Most of these related to cases or incidents that are old and have been long resolved, or have not taken place at all, meaning they are fake,” Mr. Srivastava told The Hindu.  

He said that fake  news and unverified content, including videos, are shared either with the intent to malign, or due to the paucity of information. While the former is an offense punishable by law, the latter falls in a grey area, and offenders are advised not to repeat the act, and be more responsible on platforms like social media where the dissemination of unverified information can have serious ramifications.

The focus on checking fake news and rumours is so high that it features in the list of advisory issued by the government for the upcoming Kanwad Yatra, which has been a sensitive affair in the past.

After a meeting of senior officials including DGP, Suklhan Singh, and Principal secretary Home, Arvind Kumar, on Saturday , the administration was directed to create a WhatsApp group comprising of citizens in every district so that rumours spread during the yatra could be quickly verified, clarifications issued and untoward incidents prevented.

Mr. Srivastava, who himself monitors abusive posts and fake content, says that in the last one year, the police had to encounter around ten major cases, while minor cases are much more frequent.   Social media was put to aggressive use  recently when communal tension broke out in  Lakhimpur Kheri over rumours of cow slaughter and circulation of an objectionable video that triggered tension between two communities.

In May, police in Pilibhit recorded a video of a woman who was named accused in a case, and circulated it as proof that she was alive to quell communal tension in an area after rumours were spread through Whatsapp that she had been killed in police custody.

The police monitors fake and malicious content mostly on Twitter, followed by WhatsApp and Facebook. They are soon also expected to roll out a team of digital volunteers.  The police has devised a grassroots and federal mechanism to tackle the menace wherein many districts have taken their own local initiatives apart from following directives from Lucknow.

On April 19, the DM and SSP of Varanasi issued a joint circular laying the responsibility of content shared on WhatsApp groups on the group admin. If the group shared fake news, rumours or inflammatory material, the admin was bound to condemn it and report such members.  If this mandate was not adhered to, the administrator(s) of the groups in question would be liable to face police action.

In Ghaziabad, the SP city has directed every station officer to create a WhatsApp group linked to the citizenry to check rumours at the micro level. “Rumours are often started at the level of a particular thana and can  be checked there itself,” said Mr. Srivastava.

The police say that apart from its activism, an increasing number of citizens are also coming forward and reporting objectionable content being shared on WhatsApp groups, leading to several arrests in the past few months.

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