While social media has contributed to the fall of dictators and the hunt for war criminals, it can also help catalyze civil disorder arising from various socioeconomic, religious, and ethnic tensions. In the latest example, the Indian government is asking security and law enforcement agencies to monitor social media sites for inflammatory content and rumor-mongering following another bout of communal violence.
As always in India, the situation is complicated. Over the last month and a half, around 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. These fears triggered a veritable exodus of people from the northeast back home, taxing the transportation system, disrupting business, and alarming Indian authorities.
None of these tensions are new, but the role of social media and mobile communications technology in stoking the rumors is. In addition to monitoring social media sites, which have been asked to remove all objectionable content, the government has also asked mobile providers to block bulk text messages and videos nationwide for 15 days, thus preventing anyone from sending messages to more than five people at once. Meanwhile police in Bangalore sent out a mass text message of their own telling recipients not to panic or believe rumors. The government has also vowed to punish anyone spreading rumors or inciting violence online or via mobile.
The good news is that so far the government has no plans to ban or enforce blackouts on Facebook or Twitter, as was suggested by one member of Parliament -- echoing similar calls in Britain during the riots which rocked London last year. Another member of Parliament, Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, warned: “We can't go back on technology, science and kill electronic media, social media. We have to make it more responsible.”
India certainly isn’t alone as it grapples with the ability of social media and mobile technology to stir up ethnic animosity. Last week I wrote about controversy in Australia over a Facebook page which rehashed racist stereotypes of aborigines. The public outcry led some members of Parliament to call for new legislation empowering the government to force social media sites to remove offensive content.