Dangerous designs

The flight of the people of North East from Bangalore, Chennai and other cities over the past week has drawn attention to the dangerous role that social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and SMSes are playing in inciting hatred, violence and terror in this country.

A preliminary probe by the home ministry has found evidence showing that whether it was the violence in Mumbai or the flight of people from Bangalore, these were carefully planned and orchestrated by people determined to destroy India’s social fabric. And social networking sites came in handy in their dangerous designs.

 Individuals and organisations mainly in Pakistan but also in India morphed photographs of violence in other countries and passed them off as having happened in Assam. These were loaded on to websites, forwarded via emails and MMSes to incite anger among Muslims. SMSes warning North Easterners of attacks –retaliation for the Assam riots in July - were then sent to polarise society and pit people against each other.

Social networking sites as well as mobile phone technology are excellent tools providing voice to even the most marginalised sections of our society. It is a pity therefore that a tool that has immense potential for deepening democracy is being misused by hate groups to incite violence and panic. It has compelled the government to shut down several inflammatory sites. Many will argue that silencing the social media is undemocratic and gagging it poses a threat to freedom of speech and expression.

 However that freedom is not unlimited. It is a right that must be exercised with great responsibility. When it is misused, it calls for regulation. Self-regulation is no doubt the best option but when website companies and networks fail to disable inflammatory content, it becomes mandatory for the government to act.

However, banning bulk SMSes and shutting down websites to address the crisis is a bit like banning hammers as they have the potential to be misused. While social media did facilitate the spread of hate last week it is merely the tool that was misused. The government must tackle the underlying problem, which requires a more nuanced approach. If people are not to fall prey to rumours, they must have confidence in our democracy’s capacity and willingness to protect them. The government must work on building that trust. 

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