Maria del Rosario Rodriguez watched her son and her brother-in-law burn to death on Facebook Live. She was 4,000 kilometres away from the scene but helplessly watched the events unfold on the screen in front of her. The two men, entirely innocent of the crimes of which they were accused, died as the result of a rumour on WhatsApp.
While this sounds like the plot to an episode of Black Mirror, this is the reality that one family is living through. “Please everyone be alert because a plague of child kidnappers has entered the country,” said the message which spread like wildfire around the Mexican town of Acatlán.
“It appears that these criminals are involved in organ trafficking... In the past few days, children aged four, eight and 14 have disappeared and some of these kids have been found dead with signs that their organs were removed,” the prankster added. “Their abdomens had been cut open and were empty.”
On August 29, 21-year-old Ricardo Flores and his uncle Alberto Flores had gone to buy building supplies. Alberto had moved to Xalapa, 250 kilometres away - in order to study law. He had returned to see relatives and help his uncle on a building project.
They were spotted near an elementary school in a nearby community called San Vicente Boqueron and, to the locals who had fallen prey to the hoax, became the kidnappers in the story. As they were accosted, the police arrived and the two men were arrested for “disturbing the peace”.
The town of Acatlán came alive with activity. Shopkeeper Maura Cordero stated that only on days of national celebration had she seen so many people on Reforma Street. Francisco “El Tecuanito” Martinez, a renowned resident of the town, is said to have helped stir the town into a mob mentality.
He used WhatsApp and Facebook to draw a crowd in the town centre. “People of Acatlán de Osorio, Puebla, please come give your support, give your support,” he said during a livestream. “Believe me, the kidnappers are now here.” Petronilo “El Paisa” Castelan used a loudspeaker to call for contributions towards petrol money - to set the men on fire.
The police repeatedly explained that the two men were not kidnappers and weren’t being investigated for any related crimes. However, as this news spread, the message became that the men were being released, rather than that they were innocent.
The town was buzzing with vengeful anticipation when a man identified by police only as “Manuel” climbed onto the roof of the town hall building next to the police station and rang the bells of the government office to alert everyone to the fact that the police were planning to release the men.
More than 100 people had gathered and, aware of the drama outside, the police had no intention to surrender the men to the baying mob. But the gates to the station were stormed and the men found themselves in the hands of the angry crowd.
A sea of camera phones recorded what was believed to be vigilante justice served in the street. Eyewitnesses believe Ricardo was already dead from the beating however, his uncle Alberto was still alive when they were set on fire. Harrowing footage shows his limbs moving as the fire engulfed him.
Today, few people in the town are prepared to speak about what happened. Ricardo’s parents, Maria and Jose Guadalupe, had moved to Baltimore, Maryland when he was younger. Here, they were able to earn a far better wage and provide for their family remotely. Ricardo and his brother stayed with their grandmother.
It had been 10 years since Ricardo’s parents had returned but they flew down on the same day. However, when they asked about what had happened, they were met with a wall of silence. People said they were out of town or hadn’t seen who was actually responsible.
A funeral service was held the next day and, even here, Maria believed there were reliable witnesses who were staying quiet. “Look how you killed them!” she shouted, choking back tears, as local and national television stations filmed. “You all have children! And I want justice for my loved ones!”
Alberto Flores was 43 when he died. For decades, he had lived in a small community just outside Acatlán. An unfinished house, intended as a gift to his wife and three children, stands as a lasting testament to his devotion and a sombre reminder of his absence.
Alberto’s widow, Jazmin Sanchez, also watched the events unfold on Facebook. The bodies subsequently sat in the street for two hours while state prosecutors travelled from Puebla City. Petra Elia Garcia, still in shock, had to identify the charred remains of her grandson.
“It was one of the most horrific things that ever happened in Acatlán,” local man Carlos Fuentes told BBC. “The columns of smoke could be seen from every point in the town.” Fuentes is a taxi driver who works from a taxi stand near the station. “No one wants to talk about it,” he says of the incident. “And the people who were directly involved are already gone.”
Four people have now been charged with murder while a further five have been charged with instigating the crime, according to state authorities. Those five include Castelan, who called for petrol money, Martinez, who broadcast the livestream, and the man identified as “Manuel”, who rang the bells.
While this sounds like a freak occurrence, it’s actually shockingly common. In the same country on the same day, two men were beaten and burned to death in Tula having been accused of being child abductors. The next day, two men were almost lynched in San Martin Tilcajete when they were accused of the same crime. Luckily, in this case, the police were able to step in.
In Ecuador, on 16 October, two men and a woman were killed by a mob after eyewitnesses spread news of their arrest. Again, they were accused of kidnapping children when, in reality, their only crime was allegedly stealing 200 US dollars.
On 26 October, a mob killed a man in Colombia's capital of Bogota. Again, he was falsely accused of kidnapping a child and the rumours had spread on WhatsApp. However, the issue isn’t exclusive to South America.
In India, where there are more than 200 million WhatsApp users, there are dozens of these incidents every year. As was seen in Acatlán, loudspeakers are often used to stir the crowds into action and spark a mob takeover.
WhatsApp has taken steps to try and prevent the spread of false news by limiting the number of groups messages can be forwarded to to 20 worldwide and to five in India. It now also marks these messages as having been forwarded.
Meanwhile, Nigerian authorities have stated that, in just one region, more than a dozen people have died recently due to these mobs. The rumours are usually spread on Facebook, which provides just four full-time fact-checkers for a country where there are 24 million users on the platform.
Scams, chain mail and urban legends are all things which, in many cultures, are something we grow up with and learn to be suspicious of. However, in developing and newly industrialised countries, false news has the potential to be incredibly dangerous. While readily available, many people are new to the technology and this “digital illiteracy” makes them more susceptible to the malicious rumours.
For the families of Ricardo and Alberto Flores, it will be little comfort that these mobs are seen by other cultures as bizarre. Furthermore, irrespective of the cause, it sparks a degree of barbarism which remains inherent in all of us. As any psychologist will tell you, mob rule is hard to resist. But in the town of Acatlán, the power of mob rule - and its effects - are even harder to forget.