Published: 15th July 2018
This Telangana IPS officer is fighting fake news with folk songs and drums
Rema Rajeshwari, a 2009 batch IPS officer, was born and raised in Munnar and then completed her Masters in Computer Science from School of Computer Sciences (Mahatma Gandhi University)
The uncontrollable intervention of social media in our lives and it's proliferation in cities, small towns and rural hinterlands in the country is turning out be one of the biggest threats and posing to be a challenge before the law enforcement today. They have been grappling with the issue of 'fake news,' 2017's word of the year.
Social media and chatting platforms like Facebook and Whatsapp have paved the way for a new era of news dissemination where perpetrators aiming to create violence or mass hysteria have been sharing fake news. In the past two months, mobs have killed six people in Assam, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu due to this phenomenon.
Focusing on these platforms and chatting apps, the Indian government recently asked WhatsApp to take immediate steps to prevent the spread of rumours following a series of deadly mob lynchings in the country for the past few months. However, nothing much has changed, and so a woman IPS officer in Telangana isn’t waiting for that; she is combating fake news in her own way.
Rema Rajeshwari, a 2009 batch IPS officer, was born and raised in Munnar and then completed her Masters in Computer Science from School of Computer Sciences (Mahatma Gandhi University). She also did a Masters Degree in Police Management from Osmania University.
Fighting the odds: IPS officer from Telangana is combatting fake news through folk songs and local drummers
Rema from Telangana’s Jogulamba Gadwal district crafted a genius and innovative method, which aims to curb the menace of fake forwards. She has hired folk singers and drummers in Telangana’s Wanaparthy district to spread awareness about fake news.
"I decided to use folk singers as it was a tried and tested method in the past. I have been running community outreach campaigns such as 'Saving Child Brides campaign,' rescue and rehabilitation of bonded child labourers, rescue and rehabilitation of Joginis(victims of ritual sex slavery) for a few years now. I used 'Police Kalabrundam - a cultural troupe comprising police officers trained in folk songs and ballads to create awareness in rural areas. Since people living in rural Telangana respond better to these cultural programmes I decided to use the same to fight fake news and fake social media rumours as well. My team wrote songs on 'fake news' and its a huge hit among people," she said, beaming with pride.
Rema recently helped save a young man’s life in the district. After a message claiming that the man was a child trafficker (with photoshopped images) went viral on the chatting app WhatsApp, a furious mob gathered outside his house. If not for this officer, the man would have been beaten to death.
While speaking to Edex, Rema vividly explains how her campaign against fake news began "In the last week of March, one of my Village Police officers told me during a review meeting that he noticed something unusual in the villages that he visited as part of our community outreach campaign. None of the villagers were sleeping outside their homes. You see, summers in India are extremely hot and people living in rural areas mostly sleep outside. So I asked him to go back and find out what was wrong. He came back and told me that these villagers were receiving certain videos and images through WhatsApp. They were so graphic and warned them of inter-state gangs and child lifting gangs.These rumors have caused villagers to patrol in anxious groups on the lookout for anyone they do not recognise. Deep-seated trust in friends and family makes villagers more likely to take forwarded rumours and graphic warnings at face value and it comes with dire consequences. So I called for an urgent training session for all the police officers and taught them how to educate people about fake news and rumours in social media."
I realized that we are dealing with an issue where rationality rarely wins over belief. The only way we can tackle this is by educating them about fake social media rumors repeatedly. That's why we have been consistently doing the educative campaign for over three months now
Rema Rajeshwari, IPS Officer
She adds "I strongly feel that social media is exploiting some deeply held societal prejudices in India. If you look at the profile of the people who got lynched, they either belong to marginalized communities, low-income groups, migrants or nomadic tribes. Even a transgender was lynched to death in Hyderabad."
Rema started the campaign much before mob lynching was reported in other parts of the state and the country. The first round of campaign was done in the last week of March itself. It took them three distinct phases over a span of 45 days. In the first phase, they trained the village police officers how to spot fake massages and go out into the community to educate them about it. For two weeks Rema's team went to each village and appealed to them not to believe in these rumors.
In the second phase, they trained the local drummers to convey the message on behalf of the police with an aim to make it more interesting. Locally they are called Dappu (small drum) artists.
Also, Rema personally conducted a training session for all the village sarpanches in both the districts (194 sarpanches from Jogulamba gadwal district and 233 sarpanches from Wanaparthy District). She holds additional charge of Wanaparthy District.
Educating through songs: They used local artists, drummers to make people aware of fake news and misinformation
In the third phase, they wrote songs on fake news and misinformation and used local folk artists to educate the people.
"A sustained educative campaign is the key as this issue is more prevalent in rural and semi-urban areas among digitally illiterate people. Also, a regulatory mechanism needs to be put in place," Rema says. Her group was effective in spreading "real" news and countering rumours - there hasn't been any issue related to fake news in the 400 villages in Rema's jurisdiction since they started the campaign.
She commented on the fact that Whatsapp should be monitored to some extent. "Whatsapp recently announced that it will roll out an optional feature called “Only admins” which permit only administrators to public messages in their respective groups. Other members can publish messages only if they are added as admins. Whatsapp says that this new setting will assist the processes of reducing unwanted forwards into important group conversations. This definitely is a positive development for police officers. The biggest challenge for us today is to track down WhatsApp groups that are disseminating unverified information and low credibility content rumours like those on child-lifting gangs and fake news."