The Maharashtra Police is probing the role of the social media in “instigating” protests by the Marathas, which have so far claimed nine lives. Sources said that in the last one month, the police have identified over 3,000 alleged fake posts on WhatsApp which it suspect fuelled the agitation, besides over 100 websites claiming to be those of the “organisers” and spreading such messages.
“One of the posts used photographs of Shivaji Maharaj and his mother Jijabai to render authenticity while calling for a ‘Thok morcha’… the emblem of the organiser was also used. This message was later found to be fake,” said an officer citing a message that went viral on WhatsApp.
The police cited other instances such as a WhatsApp post showing a youth hanging by the tree, with a text asking people to come forward and participate in the protest to avenge the death of their brother. “The hanging had nothing to do with the ongoing protests and we suspect the incident did not even take place in Maharashtra,” said an officer.
Another post that went viral, a picture of arson, was not clicked in India, said police. “The policeman seen in the picture is wearing a black cap with white polka dots on it. The picture is from some foreign country but was used by anti-social elements,” the officer said.
Another message claiming that the organisers were going to hold a protest rally in western Maharashtra with donkeys was also found to be a hoax.
Sources said that the fake websites, which were floated with an aim to spread rumours, were shut down within a day or two. Most of these posts went viral in the Marathwada and western regions which witnessed the most protests, they claimed. Of the 345 cases registered until last week, over 250 cases were registered in these regions, including in districts like Aurangabad, Nanded and Kolhapur.
“We found that most of these fake posts made its way to western and Marathwada regions — the epicentre of the protests, which had witnessed sporadic violent incidents in the last one month. With efforts to nail down the sources of WhatsApp posts taking time, these messages made their way to the general public in these sensitive pockets. These posts use emblems, signatures and photographs to make them appear authentic to the common masses, especially those hailing from remote villages and hamlets… it becomes difficult to distinguish between what’s genuine and what’s fake and these people fall prey to fake propaganda,” said an officer.
Meanwhile, there have been suggestions that the state government should suspend such social media platforms during a crisis. “In the hour of crisis, when there is a law and order breakdown, suspending these few selected platforms until order is restored has been suggested. Other than that, when a requisition to snap Internet services is made, it’s only limited to mobile data. Most companies and offices use fibre optic Internet or broadband services and these continue to operate even when mobile data has been suspended. However, we have asked that instead of the entire data, if only selected platforms are suspended for a few hours, it would help ensure that law and order doesn’t spill out of control,” said a senior official.
To deal with the August 9 protest call by the Marathas, the Centre has dispatched six companies of RAF and one company of the CISF, which have already been deployed in sensitive pockets. These forces are in addition to the 2,000 Homeguards as well as personnel from the State Reserve Police Force (SRPF) and the local police.
“The central forces have been positioned in sensitive areas likes Aurangabad, Nanded, Kolhapur and Navi Mumbai,” said an official in the DGP’s office. With one company comprises around 100 to 120 men, around 2 lakh men would be deployed across the state on August 9.
“Central and state forces have been deployed in sensitive pockets. We have also asked the local SPs to engage in dialogue with local leaders to ensure that order is maintained,” ADGP (Law and Order) Parambir Singh said.