April 4, 2019
This week, France became the latest country to be stricken with misinformation-related violence.
On Monday, French police arrested 20 people accused of attacking Roma people in the suburbs of Paris. In one attack, about 50 people armed with sticks and knives attacked Roma living in a slum and set fire to their cars.
The Guardian reported that the attacks occurred following the re-emergence of an old online hoax that warns people about white vans that are being used to kidnap women and children — a false claim that has roots in medieval stereotypes about the Roma. Interestingly, the misinformation spread on both Facebook and Snapchat; the latter has mostly escaped scrutiny for its role in spreading bogus claims.
“This seemed exactly like those WhatsApp rumors that were spreading in Tamil Nadu state in India,” said Derek Thomson, head of France 24 Observers, which covered the attacks. “It’s astonishing, it’s terrifying. I report a lot in countries with mob mentalities, and I’m proud of European culture. It’s sort of unimaginable to me that there would be a lynching of someone, a mob attack on someone — but this is what it was.”
Thomson said his team found no evidence of deliberate disinformation like in India; the rumors appear to have spread spontaneously, possibly sparked by an incident in which two minors told police of an abduction attempt but later admitted they were lying. And no one has been killed yet in the anti-Roma attacks in Paris.
But elsewhere, child kidnapping rumors on social media continue to incite violence around the world.
In August, a vigilante mob of more than 100 people burned two men alive in a small town in the central Mexican state of Puebla, the BBC reported. The murder came after a false rumor spread on WhatsApp claiming “a plague of child kidnappers” had entered the country with the goal of harvesting the organs of children.
In India, dozens of people have been killed in public lynch mobs following the spread of rumors on WhatsApp. BuzzFeed News reported in September that, in nearly all those attacks, child kidnapping rumors were the catalyst.
Despite the spread of this kind of misinformation-related violence worldwide, social media platforms have taken no major public actions to try and stem it. WhatsApp has taken piecemeal steps to try and limit the virality of misinformation on the platform, while Facebook has mostly deferred responsibility to its fact-checking partners.
Meanwhile, companies like Facebook, Pinterest and YouTube took swift action last month to curb the spread of anti-vaccine conspiracies after facing pressure from American lawmakers.
As we reported over the summer, there’s a legitimate question about the extent to which the violence in India, Mexico and now France has been directly caused by misinformation on social media or enabled by a lack of proper law enforcement. But it’s clear that tech platforms are playing at least some role — and, as exhibited by the moves they’ve made against antivaxxers, action is possible.