On June 21 this year, college student Souvik Das spotted an old woman, evidently lost, surrounded by people at the railway station in Durgapur in West Bengal. “They were trying to talk to her. But all she could say was the word ‘Gorakhpur’,” Das said. He shared a picture of the woman on social media platforms and sent a message to UP Police on Facebook. “I got a response from them a day later, saying the woman had been identified. They told me that her name is Jhinka Devi, and she belongs to Bansgaon village in Gorakhpur,” Das said.
Rahul Srivastava, Additional Superintendent of Police (ASP), Technical Services, described how they identified the 63-year-old woman.
“Das had sent us a picture of Jhinka Devi. We circulated it on all WhatsApp groups of the 26 police stations in Gorakhpur with our digital volunteers. One of the volunteers, the pradhan of Bansgaon village, recognised the woman and informed the local police. She was brought back the next day,” he said.
Srivastava is also the social media head for Uttar Pradesh Police, and the monitoring authority for the ‘digital volunteers’ initiative started on July 19, 2018. Police say some 3.5 lakh digital volunteers are associated with them today.
Twelve police officers are part of the social media team based at the DGP headquarters in Lucknow. “They oversee the digital volunteers initiative, too. Two of the 12 officers, a DSP and a Sub-Inspector, are women. The officers work in eight-hour shifts and ensure round-the-clock vigil on social media,” Srivastava said.
“We have recently got approval for 15 more police officers on the social media team. They will be posted here soon.”
Jhinka Devi’s son Doodhnath Prajapati, who has a furniture business, told The Sunday Express that his mother is mentally challenged. “She leaves home on her own, and sits in any public vehicle. That day, she somehow reached Gorakhpur railway station and got on to a train to West Bengal. We searched for her in the village and nearby areas, and we had no idea she had gone that far. Three days after she went missing, we got a call from the office of the Gorakhpur superintendent of police, and got to know that she had been found in Durgapur. We went and got her back,” Prajapati said.
Uttar Pradesh DGP O P Singh said: “The WhatsApp Digital Volunteer initiative is a one-of-its-kind outreach initiative. We have created a statewide network of ‘digital samaritans’ at the police station level. They act as our eyes and ears, and play a valuable role in checking fake news and rumours, and in the amplification of our voice. They bring to our knowledge crucial issues that merit attention, which then get resolved through timely intervention.”
Srivastava said: “We have a WhatsApp group for each of the 1,469 police stations in Uttar Pradesh. Each group has 250 members from different sections of society, such as social workers, teachers, pradhans, student leaders, lawyers, etc. The SHO of the concerned police station, Deputy SPs and Additional SPs of the district are in the group. We choose people who are on the ground to be digital volunteers. They have to be law-abiding citizens with no criminal background. We give out a form to applicants. The information given by them is verified.”
There is a separate group with police PROs and social media in-charges of all 75 districts in the state. “PROs and social media in-charges of all eight IGs, 18 DIGs and 8 ADGs are also part of the group, which has around 200 members. This functions like the central hub in the flow of information. Messages are circulated to all districts from this group, through the PROs and social media in-charges. Our social media team here (in Lucknow) also pushes content on this group,” Srivastava said.
The digital volunteers not only inform police of rumours and crimes in their areas through the WhatsApp groups, they also help police during negotiations between religious groups in situations of conflict.
“All digital volunteers are expected to keep a watch on social media and on the gound for information on crime and rumours,” Srivastava said.
To illustrate how the initiative works, Srivastava recounted a case: “Two girls, aged 9 and 22, had gone missing from Gorakhpur. From our digital volunteers, the information reached the central team here. We tweeted pictures of the two girls, and someone at Mumbai’s Kurla railway station saw them sitting there. This person, Pradip Harivilas Vishwakarma, informed the team here, and the girls were brought back.”
Vishwakarma, a 29-year-old Mumbai-based interior designer, said he is happy he could help. “I had gone to receive my mother who was returning from Varanasi (on July 1). The train was late, so I was browsing through social media on my phone when I saw a post from the UP Police on Twitter about two missing girls. And then, I saw two girls sitting on a bench who looked similar. I realised they were the girls whose picture I had just retweeted. I also realised the older of the girls was wearing the same pendant as in the picture. I then contacted UP Police,” he said.
The groups are helping scotch rumours and the spread of fake news too, Srivastava said. “If there is a news that is false and can lead to a law and order situation, we immediately verify it and circulate a message.”
Srivastava gave an example: “Last year, a post with two pictures was circulated in local groups in Gonda. One picture showed a woman tying a rakhi on a man wearing a skullcap; the other was of a badly injured woman. The post said the pictures were of the same woman, and she had been raped by the man. After investigation, we found that the second picture was that of a victim of a railway accident. We immediately sent a message that the post was fake to all police station groups with digital volunteers. The volunteers were asked to circulate our post busting the fake news in all their social groups. The post could have led to a communal flare-up.”
Srivastava also recounted the case of a boy from Chandauli district. “It was being falsely claimed on WhatsApp and social media platforms that he was set on fire because he refused to say ‘Jai Shri Ram’. We put out a post and circulated it on social media through our digital volunteers regarding his death.”
However, for all the advantages, the police have to sometimes deal with irrelevant distractions too, in the groups. “People sending Good Morning and Good Night messages is a challenge,” Srivastava said. “Though our volunteers have been instructed to not post irrelevant messages in the groups, once in a while they flood the groups with such forwards.”