(CNN) — A transgender woman was killed and three others seriously injured when they were attacked by a mob of angry locals acting on rumors that the women were child traffickers in the Indian city of Hyderabad.
V. Satyanarayana, a deputy commissioner of police (South Zone) in Hyderabad, told CNN Monday that the women were begging in the southern suburb of Chandrayanagutta on Saturday night when they were set upon.
“They were begging for money from some shopkeepers in Chandrayanagutta at 11 p.m. when some unruly youths started saying they had come to kidnap children,” Satyanarayana told CNN.
Satyanarayana said up to 20 people took part in the attack, while a crowd of up to 200 people stood by egging them on.
The accusations stemmed from WhatsApp messages that have gone viral in the region, claiming that transgender women are behind a plot to kidnap young children. As of Monday, Satyanarayana said 12 people had been arrested.
“For the last 15 days in India, especially in the Telugu-speaking states, a lot of rumors on WhatsApp and other social media have been shared about gangs kidnapping children,” Satyanarayana said.
He said images of dead children purportedly from India had been shared via text message, but they were found to originate from the war in Syria or alleged ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Rakhine State, Myanmar. There is no basis for rumors of kidnap gangs in Hyderabad, he added.
“These mischief mongers are intentionally circulating such messages to create panic in the minds of the public,” Satyanarayana said.
Saturday’s attack is not the first to have been triggered by false information circulated on WhatsApp. One day before the transgender attack, a man with mental health problems was beaten up in Pahadishareef, also in southern Hyderabad, over rumors that he was a member of a kidnap gang.
When police arrived, they found the man had been stripped and beaten with sticks and pipes.
Hyderabad police tackle rumor-mongering
Hyderabad police are trying to stop the violence with their own social media campaign using the hashtags #HyderabadKillsRumors and #LetThisGoViral.
Workshops have also been held across the city to educate the public, particularly in relation to the gangs believed to be kidnapping children.
Speaking at a press conference a day on Sunday, Anjani Kumar, the commissioner of police for Hyderabad, warned the administrators of groups that “no form of rumors or provocative videos that can cause public turmoil or misinformation should be shared.”
He added that the administrators could be “liable to legal proceedings and will be arrested if the need arises.”
The police have also released a public service announcement on their Facebook and Twitter accounts explaining how fake videos and photos are created.
Fast and free way to spread false information
WhatsApp has been at the center of the rise in fake news in India.
Its popularity has grown in line with the rise of socio-religious political activism in the country with political parties, especially the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, making use of the messaging platform.
Being fast, free and functional on a range of smartphone operating systems, it has emerged as an effective campaigning tool. In the wrong hands, however, it has been used to circulate disinformation.
“Social media, especially WhatsApp, is something where knowingly or unknowingly sharing rumors, makes you a part of the spreading mechanism. So, if you receive any such sensitive material, you are advised to delete it. We request you to inform police authorities and we will take immediate action against those sending such media,” said Kumar at Sunday’s press conference.
In addition to workshops and adverts, Hyderabad police is also opening social media accounts for each of their police stations to make it easier for the public to report and forward posts.