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Handling fake news—Tamil Nadu Police shows how it’s done. A template for other states’ forces

As the news of attacks on north Indian workers spread, the Tamil Nadu police acted quick, using social media and other means to counter misinformation.

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The spread of fake news about north Indian Hindi-speaking workers being attacked in Tamil Nadu by the local people had the perfect recipe to create communal tensions. But the way the Tamil Nadu police acted to control this misinformation fire must serve as a template for other police forces in India to tackle the menace of fake news.

The alleged “incidents” were first reported on social media and soon spread to the print media, potentially inciting the risk of communal tensions and causing widespread panic.

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How the fake news spread

In the last week of February 2023, several social media posts began going viral, claiming that local people in the Tiruppur district of Tamil Nadu had attacked north Indian labourers. The posts alleged that the attackers were Tamils who were angry at the presence of north Indian workers in the state.

Initially, these were dismissed as minor mischiefs as only old unrelated videos were in circulation. However, in political circles, they were seen as an attempt to attack Bihar’s deputy chief minister Tejaswi Yadav, who was in Tamil Nadu on 1 March to celebrate the birthday of the state chief minister M.K. Stalin.

Soon, things got serious as the “news” of “attacks” started appearing in newspapers as well. It was discovered that all such reports were originating from towns in Bihar. Despite this, no reporter or editors in Bihar thought it fit to travel to Tamil Nadu or even call police officials in the state to verify such claims. Like it happens, shrill travelled faster.

When the development came to the attention of the Social Media Monitoring Cell of the Tamil Nadu Police, the matter was reported to the highest levels and the state police lost no time to act.

The Tamil Nadu police, who had been closely monitoring the situation, soon realised that the posts were fake and took immediate action to stop their spread. It issued a statement urging people not to believe the rumors and assured them that the situation was under control.

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Nipping the fake news in its bud

On 2 March, the Tamil Nadu DGP posted a video on social media, categorically stating that there had been no attacks on north Indian labourers on the basis of language. He cited that one of the videos was about a fight between Bihari labourers, and another was a fight between local people. He warned mischief makers and stated that the police were keeping tabs on fake news and that rumormongers would be dealt with firmly. The message was also posted in text form and received massive media coverage.

Two days later, chief minister M.K. Stalin assured that the state government would protect migrant labourers.

Taking cues from the top brass of the police, various state departments too got down to identifying social media handles suspected of spreading fake news and began informing people that such videos and reports were unverified, and legal action would be taken against those circulating such content. This had a dramatic effect, and most handles complied.

Tamil Nadu police have a robust Social Media Monitoring Cell that keeps tabs on the happenings on social media, which came in handy this time.

The language issue has political connotations for Tamil Nadu, as in the sixties, the state erupted when the Union government tried to impose Hindi. However, this time around, for the purpose of policing and maintaining law and order, the Tamil Nadu police used Hindi as a means of communication. The police roped in those IPS officers who could communicate in Hindi and recorded their message that assured laborers they were safe in Tamil Nadu and that the administration was there to ensure their security. These video messages were posted on district police handles and sent on WhatsApp groups. The police also set up state and district level helpline numbers and deputed persons who could communicate in Hindi.


The police also took stringent action against a north Indian newspaper for allegedly spreading fake news. The state police’s Twitter handle tagged all major Hindi news outlets and informed them that they must verify such news before publishing, else face stringent action. Action against some of the prominent news outlets helped calm down the turmoil and sobered the media platforms. The police also called newspapers and TV channels and shared contact information of officials with them so that they could verify news reports before publishing. Two Tamil Nadu politicians were also booked.

The police and administration officials visited areas where north Indian labourers usually live and assured them of their safety and security. A large number of police personnel were deployed at railway stations as the situation unfolded during the Holi festival, when many migrant workers go to their native places. This created a sense that the police were there to protect the migrant workers. Many industry and business organisations were also involved in assuring the migrant workers that everything was fine, and there was no need to heed misinformation.

The political leadership also played a role. The chief minister took command of the situation and held a meeting with top officials, instructing them to normalise the situation as soon as possible. He also talked with the Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and the deputy Tejaswi Yadav to address their concerns. Senior DMK leader and former Union minister T.R. Balu was sent to Bihar to coordinate the efforts between the two states. The Bihar government also acted swiftly, arresting several individuals who had posted fake news on social media and charged them for spreading false information and creating public unrest.

With these arrests, the situation soon became normal.

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The lesson learnt

India has witnessed language riots in the past, and with the potential of social media, especially Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp, the spread of false information and creation of chaos and confusion is vast. This has been witnessed on an industrial scale in the neighbouring Myanmar too where false information and propaganda spread through social media platforms led to violence and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, fueling ethnic and religious tensions, which were already simmering in the country. This demonstrates the potential for social media to exacerbate existing divisions and create chaos, especially in areas vulnerable to political or social instability.

The key takeaway from the Tamil Nadu example is to never underestimate brewing fake news. Monitor it closely, check for widespread use of keywords, reach out to people, use social media massively, apprehend key perpetrators, take stern action against them, and publicise it. While this framework can be broad, different situations may require unique solutions that can be evolved.

An important lesson from this episode is that fake news is not always political. It can also be driven by economic incentives. Social media platforms pay content creators based on views, and divisive content can garner significant attention. Therefore, there will always be a possibility that content creators may attempt such mischief again.

Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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