Lynch Mobs – Whatsapp?

Did Whatsapp cause the brutal lynching of an innocent man in the state Karnataka in Southern India? A mob of 2000 attacked four men in a car on rumours that they were out to abduct local children. (In fact, they were IT-professionals from Hyderabad searching for good natural honey.) The four were brutally beaten and one died. It is not the first time lynch mobs like this kill people in India on various rumours. Of course those involved are responsible for their deeds. The police should have stopped it. Harsh sentences should be the consequence for the murderers, hopefully as warning to others. The Indian parliament allegedly considers an anti-lynching law. Other policies may work too. You guessed it, there is a but. But the lynch mob formed via Whatsapp. It was on this particular app the rumour spread. If I was Whatsapp, I would take a long hard look in the mirror and ask if there was anything I could have done to avoid it.

Is Whatsapp a messaging service, similar to phones, mail or text messaging? Or something else? The app makes possible instant messaging to groups of thousands of people. Pretty hard to do with mail or phone calls, or even SMS. And it can be great, but at what point does it become less like private conversation and more like public communication? It would be much harder to reach critical mass for a lynch mob if communication was slower or limited to fewer people. Perhaps the tragic story from Karnataka hints at a breaking point, where communication is less private and more public. It could very well be a gradual transition more than a threshold effect, but the question remains. If it is public communication, very different questions of responsibility arise. A newspaper cannot write anything it wants, it is committed to press ethics. There are mechanisms in place to make sure such standards are respected. Broadcast television and radio is subject to many kinds of legislation. Advertisers follow codes. And so on. Free speech goes hand in hand with responsibilities. This is for good reason and comes from hard earned experience. Bad speech can sometimes be remedied with more speech. But the reality is that the public sphere requires accountability. History shows that the consequences can be deadly, Karnataka is only the most recent example. What conclusions will Whatsapp draw? Please don’t come back and say that communication technology brings people together, or that the power of information will set us free, or that social media does more good than bad on the whole. You can do better than that.