When “fake news” and gossip kills people

Way back, in the first year of this blog, I described how township gossip led to the death of a friend, in the most horrific and ghastly way imaginable.  It remains one of my most painful memories.

Now comes news that unfounded rumor has led to two more deaths, just as ghastly.

Ricardo Flores’ goal was to study hard, become a lawyer and earn enough so that his parents could return from the United States — the destination of multitudes from this impoverished corner of south-central Mexico.

. . .

That dream came to a violent end one afternoon last month after rumors began circulating on social media and the WhatsApp messaging service that a pair of robachicos, or child snatchers, were on the prowl.

An enraged mob attacked Flores, 21, and his uncle, Alberto Flores Morales, 56, beating them before dousing them with gasoline and burning them alive on the street outside the police station here. The pair had been mistakenly suspected of child abduction, authorities said.

“It was like a great spell had overtaken the people,” said Lidia Palacios, a handicrafts shopkeeper who witnessed the linchamiento, or lynching, as such mob killings are known in Mexico. “They were yelling, ‘Kill them! Kill them!’”

The barbaric episode — reminiscent of mob killings in India fueled by viral messages — illustrates how in an era of proliferating smartphone use, rumors looped on social media and messaging platforms such as WhatsApp can generate hysteria and vigilante justice.

. . .

At least 25 people have been slain by mobs in Mexico this year, including victims beaten to death and burned, and 40 more have been rescued, according to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, a quasi-governmental watchdog group.

Law enforcement officials fear that hoaxes spread on Facebook, WhatsApp and other platforms may be exacerbating the disturbing trend.

There’s more at the link.

Don’t think this is limited to the Third World.  It’s happening in US cities, too.  I’m sure you’ve heard of the “snitches get stitches” slogan bandied about in our crime-ridden urban ghettoes, and the associated Stop Snitchin’ campaign.  (See the latter link for the names of people who have already been murdered in the USA for [allegedly] informing police about the actions of criminals.)  I’m personally aware (having been a prison chaplain, and a visiting pastor in some inner city areas) of rumors circulated in such areas by instant message services, alleging that a person was a “snitch”, a police informant.  In some cases, the individuals were innocent – but they still had to flee for their lives, because an enraged gang was looking for them to exact revenge.

The problem isn’t limited to criminal violence.  Slanderous gossip can destroy someone’s reputation almost overnight, whether or not it’s true.  Just think of women who allege that they’ve been raped or sexually assaulted, only to have their past relationships, social conduct and reputation hauled out and held up as evidence that the issue was at least partly their own fault.  Men who’ve been accused of such conduct also have problems defending themselves if they have a social reputation for abusing substances, partying hard, or behaving in a predatory way towards women.  Reputation counts – and “fake news” can kill it.

About the only thing I can suggest is not to spread news or gossip unless one is absolutely sure it’s true – and even then, only if it will serve a truly useful purpose rather than bolster one’s image among one’s friends.  What’s more, distrust such gossip automatically unless and until it’s proved to be true, and don’t pass it on.  Don’t be part of the problem, as I discussed in my earlier post.  You can destroy someone’s life without even trying, in this day and age.


1 comment

  1. Thank you for this and your previous posts on the horrors of rumor. Rumor and Gossip are the hardest things to fight against, being nebulous in nature, not physical, and can't be attacked directly.

    And it is sad that people are so much more ready to believe falsehoods than the truth.

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