By Saji Thomas
India needs stringent laws to curb the spread of fake news through social media, said a church official after five people were lynched on July 1 in the western state of Maharashtra on suspicion of being child abductors.
They were beaten to death in a village in Dhule district by a mob after rumors spread on smartphones that gangs of child traffickers were on the prowl in the area.
Local media reports show that 25 people have been killed in recent months in similar incidents sparked by fake news that has gone viral on social media about child traffickers, robbers and sex workers being active in certain localities.
“This is crossing all limits and decency,” said Bishop Salvadore Lobo of Baruipur in West Bengal, chairman of the Indian bishops’ office for social communication, who wants a stringent law to check the menace.
“Some stringent regulations need to be put in place to check fake news that leads to such cruelty and death.”
The five killed in the latest incident were members of a nomadic tribe. The victims, all from Rainpada village in the Sakri area, were attacked when they came to a weekly market.
One apparently tried to speak to a young girl and villagers pounced on them after suspecting they were child traffickers, police said.
Police have booked 35 people for rioting.
Lynchings connected with fake news have been reported in the states of Tamil Nadu, Assam, Tripura and Telangna.
These attacks come amid a series of lynching cases reportedly orchestrated by Hindu nationalist vigilante groups in their attempt to protect cows, a revered animal in Hinduism.
“This is a very dangerous situation,” Bishop Lobo told ucanews.com. “Unless the government takes emergency steps to contain this menace, it will lead to chaos and lose many innocent lives
Six people were lynched in June alone. On June 28, three people were lynched in different districts of the northeastern state of Tripura on suspicion of trying to kidnap children. A Muslim man was killed by a mob of cow vigilantes in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh on June 18. In eastern Assam, two men were lynched on June 8 after false rumors that they were child abductors.
“This is gross misuse of social media and it should be checked with the might of the state,” said Father Babu Joseph, former spokesman of the Indian bishops’ conference.
“Unregulated social media is leading to communal discord and mob lynching. It is high time the government put in place some regulatory mechanism to contain the spread of fake news.”
Such provocative messages, he continued, “not only lead to brutal murders but also leave deep imprints of hatred among the minds of people who lived in harmony.”
Lay leader Christy Abraham said “fake news now has become a tool in the hands of unscrupulous elements to divide communities. It threatens peace among different religious and indigenous communities.”
Abraham, general secretary of the Rashtriya Isai Mahasangh (national Christian forum), wants “rumor mongers to be jailed as they have no place in society.” It would also help people understand the gravity of the crime they commit, he said.
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