Photo: Getty

Two young men were beaten to death in India on Saturday after residents suspected they were child kidnappers, the BBC and Aljazeera report. The men, Nilotpal Das, a 29-year-old audio engineer and Abijeet Nath, a 30-year-old digital artist, reportedly stopped in a remote village to ask for directions, but were attacked by a mob that believed them to be child traffickers.

At least 18 people have been arrested following the attack, a video of which went viral over the weekend. According to BBC, locals began attacking people who they don’t recognize or who don’t speak their language after a video spread on WhatsApp warning people of child abductors. The video is reportedly edited from a Pakistani child safety awareness film and cautions viewers that there are people coming to their city to kidnap children. The misinformation was also shared on local media networks.

What’s more, photos of dead children have also been shared through text messaging, according to Hyderabad deputy commissioner of police V. Satyanarayana. “These mischief mongers are intentionally circulating such messages to create panic in the minds of the public,” Satyanarayana told CNN.

Over the last two years, more than ten violent mob attacks have occurred around India as a result of misinformation spread on social media, according to Al Jazeera.

The Assam government has reportedly launched “special unit for cyber monitoring ” to curb the circulation of such rumors. And on Monday, the Hyderabad City Police posted a warning on Facebook, noting that people are spreading child abduction rumors on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. “Whereas such acts of spreading rumours by the aforesaid miscreants by using social media are causing a lot of disturbance to the public order of the Society and creating a serious threat to the lives of innocent persons,” the police force wrote.

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WhatsApp is a crucial political tool in India, where the Facebook-owned service has about 250 million users. And while it serves as an important platform for activists, especially around elections, it has also served as a dangerous vehicle for rapidly distributing fake news. And, as is evident in the growing number of lynchings in the country, these misinformation campaigns can be deadly.

[BBC, Aljazeera]