Social media is now intertwined with geopolitics, and not always in a good way, as illustrated by rising tensions in south Asia, where India is accusing Pakistan of contributing to rumor-mongering which provoked a mass exodus in India last week.
As noted in a post last week, the situation in India traces back to ethnic and religious conflict in the country’s northeast, where some 80 Muslims, many of them settlers from across the border in Bangladesh, have been killed by locals in the northeastern state of Assam. As a result, northeastern Indians living in other parts of India feared that they would be targeted for reprisals by Muslims angry over the mistreatment of their co-religionists in Assam. Last week tens of thousands of northeastern Indians began fleeing big urban areas for home, clogging railway stations and disrupting business.
Their fears were fed by threatening messages which circulated via social media and mass mobile text messaging, and which Indian ministers are now blaming, at least in part, on users in Muslim Pakistan. The Indian Home Minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde, even phoned his Pakistani colleague, Rehman Malik, to ask Pakistan to crack down on inflammatory content and the people who post and circulate it. Shinde said this included altered photographs and made-up articles designed to provoke communal violence in India. Another official said Indian police had identified 76 Web sites uploading fake images and articles, with the majority in Pakistan.
Of course, given the poisonous relationship between India and Pakistan, it’s entirely possible that Pakistan’s government is actually the one behind the campaign, with the goal of spreading insecurity and destabilizing Indian society; Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency has a long history of stirring up ethnic and religious tensions in India. By the same token, the Indian government sometimes tries to deflect blame for genuine domestic problems by invoking the ever-present threat of Pakistani meddling, so it’s hard to know for sure.