Jul 30th 2021

Indians have a particular love affair with WhatsApp. With roughly 400m active users, India is the messaging app’s biggest market


One spring day in 2018 the police chief of an agricultural district in southern India was sitting in a routine meeting when one of her officers mentioned that the children on his patch were no longer playing in the streets in the evening. Villagers had also stopped sleeping outside at night, as they usually did in the warmer months. While the policeman recounted what he’d seen, another ten or so officers started nodding. They had all noticed the same things, but each had assumed the situation was peculiar to their own beat.

Jogulamba Gadwal is a sparsely populated region in the state of Telangana, just a few hours’ drive from Hyderabad. The dynamism and modernity of Hyderabad, a sprawling city which hosts major offices of Amazon, Google and Microsoft, feels decades away from Jogulamba Gadwal’s cotton and paddy fields. Many of the district’s 660,000-odd residents live in poverty in scattered towns and villages; half are illiterate.

Rema Rajeshwari, the softly spoken, bookish woman in charge of policing Jogulamba Gadwal, sent officers to investigate the unusual behaviour. Two days later the policemen returned with an explanation: villagers thought that an interstate kidnapping gang was preying on local children. They were hunkering down indoors to stay safe.

When asked why they were so frightened, many locals took out their phones and pulled up images, voice notes and videos they had received on WhatsApp. Rajeshwari and her subordinates sifted through the digital haul and realised that a few videos repeatedly appeared.

In one clip, two men on a motorcycle snatched a young boy off the street while he was playing cricket with friends. Other videos appeared to show gangs cutting out people’s innards as they writhed helplessly on the ground. Footage was often accompanied by text or audio that warned of a local gang kidnapping young children and harvesting their organs.

Rajeshwari was immediately suspicious. She had followed discussions about fake news and the American election in 2016, and wondered whether this was a misinformation campaign. The videos depicting people being dissected were almost too perfectly gruesome, right down to the bubbling intestines. The cricket scene also seemed staged: the boy stood passively beside the motorbike, as if waiting to be snatched. (She later found out that she was right. The video was a doctored excerpt of a longer educational clip produced by an ad agency, warning parents to keep an eye on their children.)

Political opportunists in India’s vast, multi-ethnic society sometimes seek tactical advantage by whipping up intercommunal tensions, often by playing on people’s distrust of outsiders and marginalised groups such as those at the bottom of the caste system. Rajeshwari had seen news reports of WhatsApp-inspired violence elsewhere in India, and knew that she had to act quickly.

Cyber-gossip collided with one of India’s darkest anxieties: child kidnapping

She stepped up the officers’ evening patrols and sent them door-to-door, urging villagers to forward any worrying messages or videos to the police instead of their neighbours. She hoped that this would be enough to calm people’s nerves.

A few weeks later, two teenagers from a neighbouring district circulated a photo of someone they knew on WhatsApp as a prank, claiming that he was a “child-snatcher”. Later that afternoon, a group of men from a nearby village saw the boy in the photo, chased him and beat him up.

Jogulamba Gadwal was tense. Parents were keeping their children home from school. News reports from the rest of the country were grim: in Tamil Nadu, to the south of Telangana, rumours of child kidnapping triggered two mob lynchings in 24 hours. Rajeshwari worried that it was only a matter of time before her district descended into chaos.

Indians have a particular love affair with WhatsApp. With roughly 400m active users, India is the messaging app’s biggest market (Brazil comes in a distant second at 120m; America has about 70m). WhatsApp use in India is remarkable not just for its reach but its volume: one Wall Street Journal article in 2018 claimed that Indians sent each other so many “good morning” messages that a third of phones ran out of memory space every day.

India’s rural areas are fast catching up with its cities where technology is concerned. People used to sit around, play cards, smoke and chat with friends in the evening. Now you’re as likely to see them sitting on walls and plastic chairs, hunched over their phones. Many youths “hang around without doing any real work, top up mobile data and spend all day browsing the internet”, complained one man in Jogulamba Gadwal.

Breadcrumb trail Rema Rajeshwari, then police chief of a rural district in southern India, tried to debunk the idea of a child-kidnapping conspiracy (top). Police officers increased their presence in the countryside (middle). Images purporting to show child-kidnapping gangs were shared widely on mobile phones (bottom)

The passion for WhatsApp (which Facebook bought in 2014) is explained partly by how internet use spread across the country. WhatsApp was launched in 2009, shortly before an influx of cheap, Chinese-made smartphones enabled hundreds of millions of Indians to access the web for the first time. It was first enjoyed as a cheap alternative to SMS, but the app’s design also encouraged people to use it as a platform for sharing news, jokes, political commentary and gossip.

Its appeal was boosted further in 2016 when the company dropped its token subscription fees. At the same time, India’s data prices plummeted. Two years later, the country’s mobile data were estimated to be the cheapest in the world.

In the spring of 2018 the national fondness for cyber-gossip collided with one of India’s deepest anxieties: child kidnapping. The potency of this fear comes partly from the fact that there is some justification for it. Nearly 200 children went missing every day in 2018, according to government statistics, many of them snatched by sex-traffickers and criminal gangs.

A few years earlier a story had circulated in Jogulamba Gadwal that children were being abducted and sacrificed at a nearby temple. Yet without the power of mobile messaging, the rumours faded away. There was no mass hysteria or violence.

“They ask how it can be false when there are photos or videos?”

A key feature of WhatsApp is how easy it makes communicating with large groups. On an iPhone you can send messages to only around 25 people at once, whereas WhatsApp groups have up to 256 users. So, when stories about child-snatchers resurfaced in 2018, videos and photos lent them heft and credibility – and the app provided a platform for them to spread.

Dadepogu Anjaneyulu, a teacher from the district, said that many villagers found it hard to dismiss such images. Even when someone trusted told them that a video was fake, they struggled to accept it: “They ask how it can be false when there are photos or videos?”

Serious trouble came close to Rajeshwari’s district in May. Four men from one of India’s marginalised castes drove a motorised rickshaw to a village called Gandeed, just outside Jogulamba Gadwal. The men were collecting alms as part of an annual pilgrimage made by members of their caste.

The driver hopped out to get some water, leaving the rickshaw next to a crowd of farmers waiting outside a local bank to collect their state subsidy. Some of the farmers were drunk. As the minutes passed, they grew suspicious of the men in the rickshaw and asked why they had come to the village.

It’s not clear how the idea caught on that the visitors were part of a child-kidnapping gang. But by the time the rickshaw driver had returned, the crowd was shouting, throwing punches and pelting the men with rocks and sticks.

A policeman tried to calm them down. With the help of a local man, he managed to get the four visitors back in the rickshaw, but the mob stopped the driver as he attempted to speed away and then dragged the men out. They doused the rickshaw in kerosene and set it alight.

Two teenagers circulated a photo as a prank, claiming the man was a “child-snatcher”

The villagers beat the men on and off for half an hour, until enough policemen arrived to pull them away. The victims were badly injured and were taken to hospital. For months afterwards they were afraid to collect alms. The mother of one of them had to sell her house to pay her son’s hospital bills.

Elsewhere in the state, things were getting worse. A few days after the rickshaw attack, locals in Nizamabad, a city north of Gandeed, beat two tribal youths they suspected of child kidnapping; one later died. Shortly afterwards a huge mob lynched a 52-year-old transgender woman in Hyderabad, whom they also accused of kidnapping children.

There were some 70 mob attacks across India between January 2017 and July 2018, according to IndiaSpend, a data-journalism website. More than 30 people were killed and nearly 100 injured. Most of the violence was in response to rumours about child kidnapping spread on social media. Nearly a third of the assaults were traced directly back to messages spread on WhatsApp.

As violence flared, the Indian government asked WhatsApp to help stem the flow of misinformation. Yet like other encrypted messaging apps, WhatsApp cannot see what content is being exchanged on its own platform, so it cannot moderate the content.

Despite the size of its market in India, WhatsApp had no formal representatives in the country. When WhatsApp eventually appointed a “grievance officer” to field concerns from the subcontinent in September 2018, the position was initially based in America (it has since been moved to India).

Big bad wolf WhatsApp has suffered a spate of bad publicity in India. In January 2021 the company took out adverts in the leading newspapers to tell users it respected their privacy (above)

The company did make extensive changes to combat misinformation. Before 2018 WhatsApp had put no limit on how many groups a message could be forwarded to at once. In July 2018 it introduced a cap in India, so you could send a message to only five chat-groups simultaneously (since chat-groups can be so large, this still means that a single message can reach more than 1,000 people instantly). It removed a “quick forward” option next to messages with media content, and started tagging messages that had been forwarded from other chats. The company also developed technology to identify accounts suspected of suspicious behaviour, such as sending messages in bulk. WhatsApp bans 2m accounts a month on these grounds.

In addition to the technical changes, WhatsApp also launched a campaign to improve digital literacy in India. One advert, released in late 2018, featured a stylish young woman using WhatsApp to stay in touch with her family after leaving home. One day she notices that her uncle has shared an unsubstantiated rumour on the family group chat. She calls him to find out if he has any evidence for it, and warns him that “fake news can cause violence”. The ad ends with the tagline: “Share joy, not rumours”.

Setting a five-chat limit reduced the number of forwarded messages on WhatsApp in India by more than 25%, according to the company, and the policy was eventually adopted worldwide. The changes probably did help to slow the spread of the inflammatory rumours. But panic, once fomented, needs more than a technological fix.

On the front line in Jogulamba Gadwal, Rajeshwari had her own ideas on how to calm the situation. Rajeshwari was born in 1979 in Munnar, a hill station of tea plantations and lush forest in the southern state of Kerala. As a child, Rajeshwari remembers listening to stories about her great-grandfather’s life as a butler in the household of a British civil servant.

In her 20s, after a brief and abusive marriage to a local man from Kerala, Rajeshwari moved to New Delhi with her infant son, where she found a job at a magazine designed for people preparing to join the civil service. She arrived speaking only Tamil and Malayalam, the local language in her home state, but she soon taught herself English, Hindi and Punjabi.

Rajeshwari was determined to join the Indian civil service herself, and in 2008 she sat the gruelling series of exams hundreds of thousands of Indians take each year to try to get a government job. She passed, and became her hometown’s first female police officer.

“Misinformation is a human problem, not just a tech problem”

Soon after she qualified, Rajeshwari spent a year as the only female assault commander with the Greyhounds, an elite commando force set up in 1989 to fight the Naxals, a left-wing extremist group. Carrying an AK-47, a Glock pistol and a rucksack filled with water, rations and ammunition, she and her team would wake up at dawn, walk for miles through thick vegetation, set up camp and launch raids on insurgent hideouts or training camps. Human-rights groups had accused the Greyhounds of extra-judicial killings in the past, but they were widely seen as effective at preventing attacks.

Force was not enough to quell support for the insurgents. Alongside the Greyhounds’ raids, local police officers waged a “hearts and minds” campaign among the civilian population, forming a theatre troupe to tour local villages. They performed songs and skits that highlighted how insurgent violence had damaged rural infrastructure and hindered economic development. Rajeshwari liked the initiative so much she helped to co-ordinate the troupe’s performances after she left the Greyhounds in 2011.

Several years into her career, she was posted to Jogulamba Gadwal, and was all too aware of the poor reputation Indian police had in rural areas: they were seen as corrupt, brutal and unaccountable. Rajeshwari realised that, just as gaining the trust of communities had been important in combating extremism, it could also help to stanch the spread of fake news. “Misinformation is a human problem, not just a tech problem,” she said. “In villages, where most people don’t read or write, you have to physically go and make that human connection.” It was time to make a drama out of a crisis.

When the child-kidnapping rumours broke out in 2018, Rajeshwari knew that to stop villagers from sharing false information she would have to find a messenger whom people trusted. She started with the town criers, who in districts such as Jogulamba Gadwal don colourful costumes, perform dances and announce important government initiatives. Rajeshwari wrote warnings about the perils of WhatsApp into their scripts.

She also decided to set up a police theatre troupe of her own, and asked her subordinates to draft lyrics for a song about misinformation. Their composition was so vague that she ended up writing it herself.

“We are Indians,” her song began. “We should heed the pain of others/Help others if you can/Otherwise hand it over to the law.” The song concluded by urging villagers not to put too much stock in “the imaginary world of your mobile phone”. The officers performed in local villages, belting out the lyrics over a drum beat. The song became an instant hit: Rajeshwari felt proud as she saw the locals nodding and singing along. More importantly, her approach appeared to work: the performances encouraged people to talk to the police, if only informally.

Pied pipers Rajeshwari staged theatre, musical performances and other events to educate villagers about fake news (top and bottom). A car destroyed by a mob who thought its occupants were child kidnappers (middle)

Much later, I watched one of Rajeshwari’s police troupes perform. I drove down a dirt-track with her to a small village where a few hundred people on white-and-blue plastic chairs gazed up at the crude wooden stage. A gaggle of children sat on the ground in front.

Onstage, policemen performed skits in front of a yellow curtain. Their repertoire had expanded beyond disinformation. The set I saw featured a man hitting his wife for spending too much time on her phone, prompting a lecture on why domestic abuse is wrong. I was struck by how absorbed the audience was, especially the kids, who could hardly control their giggling whenever a policeman cracked a joke.

As the summer of 2018 progressed, the panic over child kidnapping subsided. There were no more serious incidents relating to WhatsApp in Rajeshwari’s district, though they continued elsewhere in the country.

Rajeshwari played down the idea that she did anything special or new. “I was not sure whether the performances would succeed or not. This was the only option left to me,” she said. “I didn’t have the manpower to reach out to every citizen, so I had to pick a medium that would reach the greatest number of people with the fewest resources in the shortest amount of time.”

No one knows whether the child-kidnapping scare of 2018 was the product of collective hysteria, or if individuals looking to promote ethnic and religious strife deliberately stoked the rumours. Eventually people stopped forwarding videos about child snatching and turned to different topics, though they still pinged each other just as frequently: combustible kindling for the next crisis.

I spoke to Rajeshwari again over Zoom as covid-19 spread across the world in 2020. She wore a light-blue medical mask and looked tired. She had been spending her days enforcing social-distancing measures, monitoring contact-tracing efforts and helping to set up a centre to feed homeless migrant workers, alongside local NGOs and citizens.

Unsurprisingly, WhatsApp had already become a vector for misinformation in India about covid-19. Among other things, messages circulated claiming that ice cream and other cold foods helped spread the disease, and that a peppery soup called rasam could cure it. Other messages accused India’s Muslim minority of causing the outbreak.

“I knew the video was fake, but I still went ahead and shared it”

Rajeshwari didn’t have the time or energy to fight this time. “There’s just an unimaginable amount of fake news circulating about coronavirus,” she said. “And we can’t do anything about it. I’m barely sleeping, I’m perpetually staring at my phone wondering when the next person will test positive.” It was her job to help trace the contacts of infected people and persuade them to quarantine. “We just don’t have time to deal with misinformation right now.”

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, has used popular concern about misinformation as a pretext to stifle online criticism about his handling of the pandemic. Earlier this year, Indian officials ordered social-media firms to take down messages which they deemed unlawful and demanded that companies like WhatsApp make it possible to trace messages back to the person who first created them. WhatsApp sued the Indian government, saying that complying with the new rules would require it to abandon end-to-end encryption, an integral part of its service.

In Telangana many people now know not to believe everything they see on WhatsApp. Each day brings a spate of information, some of it false, some true. Rajeshwari eventually got her team back out into the villages, trying to correct misperceptions about the virus.

Individuals have to make the constant calculation: should I share this? Am I letting people down if I don’t? “I knew the video was fake, but I still went ahead and shared it because it concerns our kids,” said one villager, talking about the kidnapping scare. “I have never seen a ghost, but whenever I’m riding my bike at night and see smoke in the distance, I get worried. I never saw God, but I often go to a temple and fold my hands before the idol.” So it was with the rumours of child-snatchers: “I’ve got to take care of my family.” ■

Nikita Lalwani is a former foreign correspondent in New Delhi. Additional reporting by Harsha Vadlamani.

IMAGES: GETTY, IDS/Eyevine courtesy The Economist