A villager displays a false message shared on Facebook’s WhatsApp service while attending an event to raise awareness about fake news in Balgera, India, on June 12. (Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg News)

More than a dozen people have been killed across India since May in violence fueled primarily by fake social media messages, as officials struggle to rein in this growing technology-driven menace.

The perpetrators are largely villagers, some of whom may be using smartphones for the first time. Inflamed by fake warnings of child-trafficking rings or organ harvesters sent via the WhatsApp messaging service, they have resorted to vigilante justice — attacking and beating to death people who often were innocent.

In the latest such lynching, a mob killed five people Sunday after rumors spread on social media that they were trafficking children.

On Tuesday, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology called on WhatsApp to take “immediate action to end this menace,” saying the company can’t evade “accountability and responsibility” when its users spread false information.

Governments around the world are considering laws and controls against fake news in the wake of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the rise of hate speech. Such reactions have raised free-speech concerns. But the spread of fake news has been particularly pernicious in India, where legions of new, inexperienced smartphone users send billions of messages a day on WhatsApp, which has more than 200 million users in the country, its largest market.


Satish Bhaykre, 21, was beaten by a mob because of a fake WhatsApp text. (Reuters)

As India’s government weighs what to do, local authorities are left to tackle fake news as best they can, issuing warnings and employing low-tech methods such as hiring street performers to visit villages to spread public awareness. One such “rumor buster” was killed by a mob Thursday in the eastern state of Tripura.

“We are trying to counter the misinformation by aggressive campaigning on social media, WhatsApp and local TV channels,” said M. Ramkumar, superintendent of police in Dhule, a district in western India. It was there that five nomadic beggars were beaten to death Sunday by villagers who thought they were child kidnappers.

“We want to convey the message that all rumors are false and they should not fall prey to them,” Ramkumar said.

In recent days, officials at WhatsApp — owned by Facebook and based in Menlo Park, Calif. — have introduced a function that allows administrators of groups to control which members can post messages, and the company is testing a plan to label which messages are forwards. WhatsApp is expanding its outreach in India as the country’s 2019 general election looms and as political parties are signing up thousands of “WhatsApp warriors” — who, in some cases, are spreading incendiary content themselves.

“WhatsApp is working to make it clear when users have received forwarded information and provide controls to group administrators to reduce the spread of unwanted messages in private chats,” said a spokesman for WhatsApp, Carl Woog. “We’ve also seen people use WhatsApp to fight misinformation, including the police in India, news organizations and fact-checkers. We are working with a number of organizations to step up our education efforts so that people know how to spot fake news and hoaxes circulating online.”

Unlike on Facebook, where users can be tracked and shut down for posting content that violates the site’s standards, WhatsApp content is difficult to monitor because messages are encrypted between users. Still, critics say, the company can and should do more.

“The police are always going to be at a loss because the scale of WhatsApp usage is going to be difficult to contend with and they don’t have the manpower,” said Nikhil Pahwa, a technology expert. “The platform itself needs to evolve.”

Pahwa argues that WhatsApp’s forwarded messages should be tagged with the originating number, to make it easier to crack down on misuse and discourage users from creating bad content.

Meanwhile, Google announced last month that it is expanding a program for journalists in India to help train 8,000 reporters in seven languages to spot and expose fake news, according to Irene Jay Liu, head of Google News Lab for the Asia-Pacific region, Google’s largest such effort.

The Indian government’s attempts to combat the problem have been fraught. In April, a circular from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry proposing stiff penalties for journalists who post fake news was pulled in less than 24 hours after an outcry.

In Tripura, three people were killed last week in violence fueled by the death of an 11-year-old boy on June 26. Rumors on WhatsApp that he had been a victim of organ harvesters were reinforced by Ratan Lal Nath, a leader of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party, who showed up at the boy’s home to falsely allege that his kidney had been cut from his body by organ traffickers, a video shows.

To control the subsequent violence, state authorities hired “rumor busters,” including Sukanta Chakraborty, 33, a musician who was paid about $8 a day to travel from village to village in a van equipped with a loudspeaker, warning of the dangers of fake news. He and two others were beset by a mob wielding bricks and bamboo sticks in a crowded market Thursday.

“They killed him. He was pleading to the mob that he was only doing his duty,” Tanushri Barua, Chakraborty’s wife, said in a telephone interview. “No one listened to him.”

Farheen Fatima contributed to this report.