New Delhi (CNN)A mob in India lynched five people after rumors spread by WhatsApp messages prompted suspicion that they were child abductors, the latest in a spate of violent crimes linked to the messaging service.
WhatsApp India: Five lynched after online child kidnap rumors
The victims were killed in Dhule district of the western state of Maharashtra on Sunday morning after locals accused them of being part of a gang of "child lifters," police said.
It was the fourth time in recent weeks that WhatsApp messages have inspired deadly attacks in India.
The men, poor agricultural workers from a nearby district, were attacked by a group of about 40 people after they arrived by bus. They were surrounded by a crowd of almost 3,000 people.
WhatsApp messages warning residents of possible kidnappers had been circulating in Dhule for 10 to 15 days.
"Someone starts the rumor and it goes on from there," M. Ramkumar, Superintendent of Police, Dhule, told CNN.
"They (the victims) were traveling to different places to ask for alms," he added.
A police team reached the area after the lynching took place. Two policemen sustained injuries when the mob turned on the officers, said Ramkumar.
Police confirmed a total of 23 people have been arrested in connection with the incident and police are searching for the remainder of the 40 accused. Those arrested have been charged for murder and rioting.
The police have suspended internet and mobile facilities in Dhule district in an attempt to halt the spread of the false messages.
Earlier last week, three people were killed in the northeastern state of Tripura after social media, including WhatsApp, rumors of child abduction.
One of the men who was killed Thursday had been hired by the Tripura administration to make announcements through a loudspeaker and warn residents against fake rumors.
The death of a child during a family dispute earlier in the week had fueled fears of kidnap across the region.
"All over social media, people were sharing (fake images and videos) that child lifters looking for human organs such as kidneys and livers were out in the area to kidnap children," said Smriti Ranjan Das, a senior police official to CNN.
On June 8, two men traveling in a SUV were lynched by a mob in the northeastern state of Assam after rumors that a child was being held in the car spread through the local village on social media sites Facebook and WhatsApp. The car was stopped by locals and the men were pulled out and beaten to death.
In May, a transgender woman was killed and three others seriously injured in the city of Hyderabad when they were attacked by a mob of angry locals acting on WhatsApp rumors that the women were child traffickers.
The messages, which went viral in the region, claimed that transgender women were behind a plot to kidnap young children.
A day before the transgender attack, a man with mental health problems was beaten up in Pahadishareef, also in southern Hyderabad, over WhatsApp rumors that he was a member of a kidnap gang.
Incidents involving fake rumors about child abductors have increased across India in the last month. State governments have begun campaigns to counter rumors mostly spread through WhatsApp groups.
The police in Dhule are running ads in local newspapers and TV channels to create awareness about such false reports.