At a press conference on Saturday, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee decided to address the menace of fake news in fuelling last week’s riots in the state. “Video clips of an incident in Comilla, Bangladesh, and a Bhojpuri film were being shown as if these incidents had taken place in [West] Bengal,” Banerjee noted. “There is Fakebook happening in the name of Facebook. I respect Facebook but not Fakebook.”
For the past week, an unlikely threat has buffeted West Bengal: social media. A week ago, on July 2, Muslim mobs rioted through Baduria town in North 24 Parganas district. The trigger was a derogatory cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad posted by a teenage boy on his Facebook wall.
Instead of prompting more cautious use of social media, the riot has unleashed a flood of fake news. The scale of violence was exaggerated, incidents were misrepresented and claims were made about attacks against Hindus that had simply not occurred.
Fake news mills
On June 5, ABP News debunked one such social media rumour that held that a Hindu woman had been lynched by a Muslim mob in West Bengal. It turned out that the woman was Muslim and the incident had no religious colour to it: the mob had accused the victim of baby snatching.
Fact-checking website Altnews.in went on to quash a few more highly-circulated fake news posts.
Posted on Twitter, this photo below purports to be of the parents of the Baduria boy who had posted the controversial cartoon. It is actually a picture of an incident in Bangladesh, as detailed by TheLallantop.com. In fact, the boy’s neighbours had told Scroll.in that his mother had died when he was still a child.
This photo below isn’t from the Baduria riot either – it’s from 2014.
Accompanying the image below, the text in Bengali reads “Hindu women are getting assaulted in Baduria”.
In reality, the picture is a still from a Bhojpuri movie. This image was circulated by a senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader, Vijeta Malik. Sexual assault as a trope in communal violence has the capacity to stir great emotion – which would maybe explain why this particular bit of fake news spread quickly. To capitalise on this sentiment, unverified claims of “Hindu sisters and daughters being raped” in Baduria were made even by BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya after violence broke out in the town.
The fake news from the BJP didn’t stop here. In particuarly ironic moment, a BJP spokesperson, Nupur Sharma, and one of its national joint secretaries, Shivprakash, tried to pass off a photo from the 2002 Gujarat pogrom – which occurred when Narendra Modi was chief minister of the state – as being from West Bengal.
Joining the fake news bandwagon was the BJP’s national head of Information Technology Amit Malviya: he shared an old photo of violence in West Bengal trying to pass it off as a current event.
In spite of multiple sources – including news reports – pointing out that the photos shared were fake, these BJP leaders did not delete their tweets.
West Bengal’s response
West Bengal Chief Minister Banerjee as well as top police officials have put out messages warning residents to be wary of fake news on social media. This has also been accompanied by hard power: a person spreading the still from the Bhojpuri film as an incident from Baduria has been arrested by the Kolkata Police.
In medium term, the West Bengal government said that it plans to set up more than 60,000 peace committees across the state. The continuous nature of fake news means that these multi-faith committees, the West Bengal government hopes, would be its first response team to any inkling of tension in the area.
Given the fragile nature of communal relations in the state, West Bengal’s emphasis on combatting fake news is not misplaced. The past month has seen as many as seven communal flare-ups in the state, all triggered by social media posts.