The Prime Minister’s ‘Mann ki Baat’, the radio programme he hosts every month, in which he talks about important policies and everyday concerns, also invites the people’s inputs and suggestions. Here’s one: PM Modi should talk about, and warn against the rumours spread by social media platforms, including WhatsApp, that prey upon primal fears and, in many cases, trigger horrific violence, even murder. Most recently, in Dhule on Sunday, five persons were lynched due to rumours of child-lifting. A report in this newspaper has plotted a deadly rumour map by piecing together data from across the state: In the last 25 days, 14 cases of “strangers” being attacked, and 9 deaths, in 3 geographical clusters. How do a group of persons who may or may not know each other morph into a bloodthirsty mob acting in concert to inflict violence and to kill those they may or may not know, and mostly don’t? What can be done so that it doesn’t happen again? The answer to the first question will require a deeper, collective probing. On the second, a message of caution, a warning against the power of social media to spread falsehood and incite violence, from a PM who regularly and expertly uses it as a communication tool, will help.
From the time the Modi government took charge in 2014, the PM and his party have used social media to reach out directly to the people. They have been accused of using it simply as a publicity tool and to bypass other media that involve two-way communication and require the answering of questions. While there is truth to the criticism, it is also true that the PM’s consistent social media outreach — from discussing examination stress for students to the power of positive thinking — has had the welcome effect of shrinking the distance between the stiff formality of high office and the aam aadmi while providing him with an ever-widening audience. With great following, comes great responsibility.
Speaking about the use of social media to spread falsehood, create and confirm prejudice, or to stoke fear and hate, will not be enough to prevent another lynching, of course. That will require the long and hard work of plugging the holes in the local administrative and police network that were laid bare in Dhule, for instance, where eight cops were reportedly rendered helpless by a mob of about 3,500, which counted on the impunity offered by weak state capacity and an opaque justice system that seldom brings cases of mob violence to a just conclusion. It will need hard work by local civil society networks including schools and community groups. But the PM’s message could go some way in reminding the people of the vital distinctions that must not be lost sight of in this age of easy communication and media saturation — between truth and falsehood, between reality and rumour, criticism and abuse. The PM needs to speak to the people about reading the social media message right and to tell them that there are penalties to be paid for using it as an excuse or pretext for violence. He must, because he will be heard.