The rumours circulated through the hills of northeastern India on Facebook and Whatsapp. There were photos of dismembered corpses in some messages, and of an injured child lying in the street.
The messages said hundreds of people, sometimes disguised as beggars, were stalking the towns and villages of India’s Assam state, slipping into houses at night. One message said the outsiders were criminals. Another said they’d come from the poor, nearby state of Bihar. All said the gangs had one goal: kidnapping children.
“Be aware, people of Assam!” one message read.
There was no truth to the rumours, police say, but fear ignited by those messages led to the brutal deaths last week of two Indian tourists, the latest in a wave of mob attacks fueled by social media rumours that have left well over a dozen people dead across the country.
Days after the messages began to circulate in Assam, two friends returning from a trip to a waterfall were driving through a village when a mob stopped their car and yanked them out.
In video footage shot by someone in the crowd, one of the tourists, his face already bloody and swollen, is shown begging for his life, calling out his name and the name of his father to try to prove he was native-born Assamese. The other man tries to reason with the crowd, but eventually gives up, dropping to the ground and curling up to protect himself as much as possible. At least a dozen men appear to be punching, kicking and beating the two with sticks.
The attack did not stop until both men — Nilotpal Das, a 29-year-old musician and sound engineer, and Abhijeet Nath, a 30-year-old businessman — were dead.
“False news and rumours being spread on social media platforms were largely responsible for what happened,” said Mukesh Agarwal, a police official based in Assam. Police have arrested 15 people for the attack, and 35 more on charges of spreading rumours, false news and hate crimes.
The attack apparently began when Das and Nath had an argument with a local man at the waterfall. When they left, police say the man messaged area villagers that Das and Nath were kidnappers. Soon after, the villagers stopped their car.
India has seen a string of similar attacks in the past few months. The victims are often outsiders in some way, targeted because they look different, or don’t speak the local language.
In just one day in Assam, police rescued six people in three separate mob attacks. All the victims had been accused by crowds of looking for children to kidnap.
While police have no national statistics on mob deaths, there have been at least 16 people killed in a half dozen attacks since early May, and dozens more people have been injured.
What’s behind the attacks? Experts point to all sorts of reasons, from the power of social media to India’s hobbled school system to widespread distrust of the police and the courts, both of which are burdened by corruption and poor training, leading people to take the law into their own hands.
“We have repeatedly issued denials of the presence of any such (kidnapping) gangs. There have been no incidents to suggest any such activity,” said V. Satynarayana, a top official in south India’s Telangana state, which has faced a series of the attacks. “But still the rumours have continued and created serious problems. “
Some of those sending warnings truly fear for their children, he said. Some only want to sow trouble.
Syed Ghouse Mohiuddin, who runs the news portal Indtoday.com from the southern city of Hyderabad, is a prominent local voice on social media. But he also worries it’s becoming dangerous.
“Some people forward these messages and videos under the impression that they are doing a service to the people and alerting them against a potential threat to their families,” he said. “But there are also people active on social media who do it to create mischief.”
He also wonders whether the Indian media — which is dominated by shouting TV anchors — adds to the problem by sometimes running stories based on questionable reporting.
“They are in a hurry to beat the competition and report without understanding” a situation, he said.
Das, the musician who was killed, told his parents there was no cause for concern when he drove out to the waterfall.
“‘Don’t worry,”‘ he told his father, who repeated the comments later to reporters. “‘I will be fine.”