She Keeps Fake News From Getting Deadly — Because WhatsApp Won’t
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She stopped WhatsApp lynchings in at least 400 villages in India.
The dirt roads leading to the village were unusually empty. All the locals were holed up inside their homes. Alarmed, the officers patrolling the village informed their boss, Rema Rajeshwari, at a police station in Telangana state in south India. It was surprising to see villagers hiding, she recalls. But why were they hiding? “It was like a self-imposed curfew,” Rajeshwari says.
A video that had been circulating in this village in Jogulamba Gadwal district and hundreds of other villages in Telangana had everyone spooked. “First of all, this was a remote village and my boys were surprised almost everyone had a smartphone — Chinese smartphones — and mobile data,” Rajeshwari says. She ordered the officers to collect the videos, and they gathered about 135 — plus voice messages and photos — from the villagers’ phones. Some videos were in Hindi, and some were in the regional languages of Kannada and Telugu. They found one particularly gruesome video that was being shared repeatedly. It showed an injured man lying on the ground, bleeding profusely, surrounded by at least four men, with one of them pulling organs from his body.
“I could hear the language they were speaking in, these men: It was Spanish,” says Rajeshwari. But the video was accompanied by a voice message on WhatsApp saying that they were from the Pardhi tribe — a wandering band of hunters known to disobey the social order and indulge in theft and even killings. The message warned locals to stay indoors because these tribe members were visiting villages and killing people to harvest their organs. “It was a lie,” says the 40-year-old Indian Police Service officer. “We had to do something to stop villagers from believing such rumors.”
In other villages across India, similar videos had deadly consequences. But not in Rajeshwari’s region.
According to data journalism outlet IndiaSpend, there have been at least 33 lynchings and at least 69 incidents of mob violence across the country between January 2017 and July 2018 — all fueled by WhatsApp.
She has decided to take on a hard life for the greater good.
Lorna Solis, CEO of Blue Rose Compass in New York
With 400 villages under her jurisdiction, in two districts of Telangana, Rajeshwari assigned officers to go door-to-door to warn villagers against these fake videos and fake news. “It was a hard task because in our country the public doesn’t trust the police,” she says. After months of sleepless nights, during which troublemakers in these villages did their part to spread even more fear, Rajeshwari decided to rely on a traditional form of storytelling called Janapadam — a short skit in which two or more people narrate a story — to combat the fake news. While other states struggled to curb the fake-news-fueled violence, residents of Rajeshwari’s villages stayed safe.
It took the 2016 U.S. elections for Rajeshwari to take an interest in fake news, and it wasn’t until March last year that she first had to deal with the fallout. “The people that were looking at the video didn’t understand if it was fake or real. We had to subdue the fears and stop any killing from taking place in these  villages,” she says. In addition to her patrolling team of police officers, she hired musicians, artists and village council heads to mingle with villagers and help them distinguish between what is fake and what is real.
While Rajeshwari believes that tech companies should have a bigger role in this fight, and she’s been in touch with WhatsApp, she couldn’t afford to wait for them in this case. “Digital platforms must offer solutions to address this issue and fund research to study the social impact of WhatsApp use and its potential to incite violence,” she says. As Rajeshwari continues her community outreach campaign, she has intensified efforts to educate villagers about pernicious rumors and teach them “self-regulation” when using social media. “We have to have constant vigilance,” she says. “Unless the malicious content is taken down permanently by the tech platforms, their propensity to come back into circulation is quite high.” (WhatsApp did not respond to several requests for comment for this story.) She also met with social media platform ShareChat, opening a profile for the district police, who disseminate clarifying information in the local Telugu language.
With more than 500 million users, India is WhatsApp’s biggest market. At a time when the country is reeling under nationalistic Hindu fervor and fake news is rampant, Rajeshwari’s work is critically important. Suneem Khan, a senior medical officer posted with the Central Reserve Police Force who has known Rajeshwari for years, says, “She is an officer with empathy. She is not a status quo-ist. When faced with an issue like fake news, she evolved her own modules of delivery to deal with it.”
Rajeshwari grew up in a large, multigenerational family but spent much of her time with a grandmother in Munnar in Kerala. In her youth, she dreamed of becoming a “collector” — a British-era term for a district magistrate. Then, “when I joined the National Police Academy in 2009, I just fell in love with it,” she says. A decade on, she still feels lucky she’s able to go out in the field and work in law and order. “Usually, women are relegated to the desk and administrative work.”
Besides combating fake news, Rajeshwari has been instrumental in running campaigns against child brides and for the rescue of child laborers and the rehabilitation of joginis — women “married to a goddess” and then forced into prostitution. “She has decided to take on a hard life for the greater good,” says Lorna Solis, CEO of Blue Rose Compass in New York, who met Rajeshwari when they were both Yale University Greenberg Fellows in 2017.
But it’s hard to say whether her fake-news strategies can scale up enough to meet the challenge. “Her efforts are commendable,” says Prakash Singh, a retired IPS officer. “To be able to save 400 villages from violence and murder is really an achievement, but the country needs more such efforts on a large scale. We also need to figure out a way to stop fake news from spreading.” Rajeshwari acknowledges the daunting task at hand — and the fact that she could not even find the source of the videos.
Off the clock, Rajeshwari is “a closeted Broadway fanatic,” according to Solis. Married with a 17-year-old son, she’s also an amateur photographer and poet. As Solis puts it, Rajeshwari is “always questioning and asking the bigger questions.”
With no evidence that the plague of fake news has been contained, the biggest questions now are before the tech companies.
OZY’s 5 Questions With Rema Rajeshwari
- What’s the last book you read? Two books. AI: Its Nature and Future by Margaret A Boden and Rage Becomes Her by Soraya Chemaly.
- What do you worry about? I’m human. I mostly worry about everything.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Reading.
- Who’s your hero? Maya Angelou.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? To travel to at least one country in each continent.
Read more: How Italy is saying ‘Basta’ to fake news.