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Wednesday
Oct032018

One police officer's unique approach to fighting deadly 'fake news' rumors spread on WhatsApp in India

Rahul Jogkelar/ABC News(CHINNADARIPALLY, India) -- As the sun sets in the remote village of Chinnadaripally, in southern India, the sounds of traditional Indian folk music reverberate through the air.

“We look forward to events like these," said schoolboy Tarun Naik, 12. "I have an exam tomorrow but I still wanted to come here to see [what’s going on].”

The men and women on stage are no ordinary artists.

They are from the local police who are on hand to sing and dance about important social issues –- fake news being one of them. The event is the brainchild of Rema Rajeshwari, the police superintendent of Mahbubnagar district in the Telangana state in southern India.

"Fake news" that is spread via social media apps like WhatsApp is an urgent and serious issue in India. At least 22 people have died this year in violence related to fake news shared over social media apps, according to local media reports.

The problem has become so bad that WhatsApp set up restrictions over the summer on message-forwarding in India.

In this region though, things are different.

In March, local police teams told Rajeshwari that something unusual was going on. Villagers who normally slept outside their homes at night -- common in India because of the oppressive heat –- were refusing to leave their houses.

“I asked my police officers to go back to the villages and do a thorough investigation about this,” Rajeshwari told ABC News.

The results of the investigation were startling. The reason villagers weren’t sleeping in the open was a widespread fear of murderers that many residents believed were at large in the region. The villagers had all heard the story through viral videos on social media apps like WhatsApp.

“These videos were very graphic," said Rajeshwari. "They spoke about an interstate criminal gang which is out there to kill people. The videos are grizzly and violent –- and she believes most probably made on a computer with advanced graphics.

Rajeshwari is tech-savvy. She has a master’s degree in computer science and worked in India’s computer industry for years before joining the Indian Police Service. Unlike many of her peers, she is also active on Twitter with thousands of followers.

After a bit of thought, Rajeshwari developed a three-pronged strategy. First, the police would go door-to-door on a digital literacy campaign. Second, town criers would be hired to spread the word. The third, and most effective, prong of all was deploying the singing and dancing cultural team created by the police -- replete with singers, dancers, drummers and keyboard players -- to villages in the district.

Many of the regions under Rajehwari’s control are underdeveloped, with low levels of literacy. Communicating messages visually through song and dance is often the only effective way to reach residents in the most underdeveloped areas of India.

“We wrote three songs on 'fake news,'" said Rajeshwari, who took ABC News with her on a recent ground patrol. "My team prepared a ballet and performance based on those songs. These teams visited almost every village on a day-to-day basis and these cultural programs were conducted."

“There are many fake videos on WhatsApp," said Kalyan Naik, 16, a young student who encountered the police ground patrol. "You should not look at these videos. You shouldn’t even share these with others. If you get a video like this –- just delete it.”

It is a campaign that seems to be working in many rural regions of India -- and not a moment too soon. In May, many Indian villages were bombarded with fake news, and a number of people were beaten to death on the basis of false rumors circulated on social media. As the number of deaths began to increase, major technology companies were forced to act.

"WhatsApp cares deeply about the safety of our users in India and around the world," a company spokesperson told ABC News in an email. "We are horrified by the mob violence and murders that happened in India earlier this year. We believe that this is a challenge that requires government, civil society and technology companies to work together."

The spokesperson said in the email that WhatsApp has taken substantial steps to combat social media-spread misinformation in India.

In July, WhatsApp announced in a blog post that the tech giant was testing forwarding restrictions in India, meaning you can only forward messages to five people a day.

“In India - where people forward more messages, photos, and videos than any other country in the world -- we'll also test a lower limit of 5 chats at once and we'll remove the quick forward button next to media messages,” WhatsApp officials said in the July blog post.

The company has also made it easier to report spam or suspected "fake news" and opt out of chats a user did not initiate, the spokesperson said. The company has also worked with India's government to help train local police in digital media awareness. Senior WhatsApp officials have met with fact-check organizations in India, seeking their assistance, and issued a call for academic papers on misinformation to help inform the company's product improvements.

With more than 200 million users, India is WhatsApp's largest market.

Smart phones can be purchased for less than 80 dollars in India –- and even cheaper if it is a used phone. Internet providers sell internet access for three dollars per month.

“I use WhatsApp for three to four hours each day,” said Mohammed Ali Parvez, 22, a student in Mahbubnagar.

“I know there is a lot of fake news that comes on WhatsApp," he said. "Recently I saw a story about riots in Rajasthan. The story was actually very old."

Not a single death was reported in any of the 400 villages under Rajeshwari’s command at the time.

The voice of the folk singers appears to be winning the war against fake news. Rajeshwari is now looking to recruit high school and college students as “information warriors.”

“We cannot be complacent about this problem,” she warned.

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