Rema Rajeshwari, a 2009 batch IPS officer, has hired folk singers and drummers in Telangana’s Wanaparthy district to spread awareness about fake news.
Time was when news was just that - information about current events. But in recent times there has been a surfeit of “fake news”, 2017's word of the year, which is now seen as one of the greatest threats to democracy and free debate. Focusing on digital platforms and apps, the Indian government recently asked WhatsApp to take urgent steps to prevent the spread of rumours following a series of deadly mob attacks. But a woman IPS officer isn’t waiting for that; she’ll combating fake news on her own.
Amid the recent lynchings across India, Rema Rajeshwari, a 2009 batch IPS officer, helped save a young man’s life in Wanaparthy district in Telangana. After a message stating that the man was a child trafficker – accompanied with Photoshopped images – went viral on WhatsApp, a furious mob gathered outside his house. If not for Rema, the man would have been beaten to death.
The cop's investigation revealed that a "friend" of the man had spread the rumours by circulated fake, Photoshopped images. But people in the area, without thinking things through, had picked up sticks and batons. Rema’s team quelled impending violence by nabbing the culprit, who was booked under IT Act.
“We are mentally wired to believe bad things first,” Rema told India Today. But she, added, “verification is key”. “Whenever you get a WhatApp message making a claim, stop. Think. Verify. and don't forward if it is fake.”
Rajeshwari, who joined the Indian Police Service in in 2009, was deployed to Andhra Pradesh and was here when the state split in two to create Telangana in 2014. But recent happenings across the country worried her; she thought WhatsApp rumors had the potential to spark violent riots. “This region has always been sensitive,” she said. “That’s why we’re so worried about WhatsApp. Any trigger could set it off,” she told Hindustan Times.
She ordered training sessions for more than 500 officers and spoke to hundreds of village leaders. When villagers didn't seem interested in her text messages, Rema decided to bring back a traditional method of spreading information to tackle the spread of wrong information. She hired folk singers to create and perform songs about fake news.
The group was effective in spreading "real" news and quelling rumours - there hasn't been any issue related to fake news in the 400 villages in Rema's jurisdiction. To ensure better communication, she has assigned villages to her officers; they visit twice or thrice a week and mingle with villagers.
“Even if everyone educates those close to them to not forward a message without verifying, it can go a long way,” the officer has said.