istock-radiokukka533857546.jpg
(Credit: Radiokukka/Getty Images)

In India, an unlikely army has risen up to combat rumors spread through the popular messenger service WhatsApp. After a string of brutal murders fueled by misinformation, kids in 150 of 600 schools in the southwest state of Kerala are attending classes teaching them how to spot fake news.

The 40-minutes classes use images, words, videos, skits, and basic lectures to get children to see the difference between real information and rumors.

The spread of fake news in cities like Kozhikode, Kerala have created mass panic and mob-mentalities. Mobs have lynched at least 25 people across the country. Authorities and officials urge citizens not to spread or believe fake news, but it's difficult to police what people believe.

SEE: News With Friends is a new app that's joining the fight against fake news

WhatsApp's biggest market is in India with 200 million smartphones using the program. The company claims 90 percent of the 65 billion messages sent daily through the app--in 60 different languages--are between two users. However, forwarded texts in India have became a major problem in spreading fake news. That's why WhatsApp recently rolled out a new feature specifically to solve this issue.

Rumors that have circulated India include soda spiked with HIV-infected blood, three-headed snakes on the highway, fake job advertisements, and sales on airline tickets and sneakers.

One of the most damaging pieces of fake information spread was a video of a child being kidnapped. This led WhatsApp users to believe a motorcycle gang was abducting children at random. In response, townspeople began attacking strangers--some who didn't even speak their language--and beating them to death because of fear caused by the video.

It turned out the video wasn't real and didn't come from India. It originated in Pakistan and was used as a child safety awareness campaign.

"Video is the easiest of platforms for fake news. It's so easy to misrepresent: just find any old video of a fight or a brutal killing on the internet, describe it as something recent and inflammatory, and send it out. In minutes, it goes viral, racing around on Facebook and WhatsApp," Technology analyst Prasanto Roy told the BBC.

Another rumor accused children's MMR vaccinations of being dangerous resulting in 240,000 peopling refusing them. Another vaccination hoax resulted in the death of nine people in Kozhikode due to the Nipah virus.

Pratik Sinha, founder of Alt News, a fact-checking website, said it's harder for those in rural areas who haven't had social media before. They tend to have difficulty distinguishing what's real from fake.

WhatsApp told the Indian government they are equally "horrified by these terrible acts of violence" and that the situation is a "challenge that requires government, civil society and technology companies to work together." The company didn't say whether they will change their encryption policies, but claims to be making strides to fix the problem in other ways.

WhatsApp said it will make it easier to leave groups and block people. They're planning to run safety campaigns in India as well. Some of the new features would be on a trial run basis like lowering the limit of chats to five -- individual or group-- at a time. The company is also considering removing the forward button.

Those in rural areas aren't the only ones who have trouble deciphering fact from fiction though. Sweden had its own fake news battle in 2016 when the transportation administration told local councils not to use Trafikverket's lamp posts to hang Christmas lights.

The simple story was picked up by extremist fake news sites and suddenly the false narrative became that Sweden had banned Christmas lights for religious reasons. Photos poured in with the snowy country lit up for the holidays. Some people had already seen the fake article, not fact-checked it, and believed the worst.

One extremist site that twisted the truth was Info Wars, the site run by far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. The article said Sweden wasn't hanging Christmas lights as to not offend their Muslim population. Other sites picked up the false story, spreading lies about the marginalized population.

FOLLOW Download.com on Twitter for all the latest app news.

Takeaways

  1. India is holding classes for students to help them learn what fake news looks like and stop spreading it.
  2. The fake news problem in India is immense with people being attacked and killed in the streets over rumors spread through WhatsApp.

Also see

Shelby is an Associate Writer for Download.com.