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India Bans Mass SMS to Counter Panic

by Prasad Krishna last modified Aug 27, 2012 07:29 AM
Last year social networking was credited with helping to organize revolutions across the Middle East and with getting normally apathetic middle-class Indians onto the streets to protest corruption.
India Bans Mass SMS to Counter Panic

On Wednesday and Thursday students and workers from the northeast who were living in Bangalore, where a hoax text message warning of attacks circulated, were rushing to the train station.

This article by Shreya Shah was published in the Wall Street Journal on August 17, 2012. Pranesh Prakash is quoted.

But in recent days, India has seen a darker side of social networking, as doctored videos of Muslims being attacked and text messages warning of retaliation by Muslims went viral in the wake of riots in the northeastern state of Assam.

The messages have caused panic among thousands of Indians and spurred attacks and clashes in two cities. In an attempt to calm the situation, India banned the ability to send mass text messages on Friday afternoon, the home ministry press office confirmed. The ban will stay in effect for two weeks.

In remarks to Parliament on Friday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, “The unity and integrity of our country is being threatened by certain elements.”

The riots in Assam saw clashes between Bodo tribals and Muslim immigrants, beginning in late July, which led to dozens of deaths and displaced tens of thousands of people. On Friday, Abdul Khaleque, press secretary to the chief minister of Assam, told India Real Time that the death toll had risen to 78 as sporadic clashes continued. Of the 400,000 people that had fled their homes, approximately 115,000 had returned home.

As India has struggled this month to bring calm to Assam, flare-ups started taking place in the western city of Pune, while in Bangalore, thousands of northeastern workers began fleeing the city.

Mobile phone messages saying that northeasterners had been killed in Bangalore have been circulating since Sunday, said Dilip Kanti, a 24-year-old law student from Mizoram who has lived in the city in the southern state of Karnataka for six years.

“The messages warned that we should leave the city before the day of Eid,” he added. Monday, Aug. 20, is an official holiday for Eid, the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting.

The Karnataka state government and the police have said that this is a hoax message and that they are investigating the source of these messages.

The messages appear to be intended to panic northeasterners, send large numbers of them back to their home state, and foster fear of Muslims. Those developments could set the stage for sectarian riots, always a concern in a country that has seen such clashes break out frequently.

The home minister has said an inquiry is underway. But so far officials have not shared information about the source of these messages.

Presently, Indian companies that send mass text messages need to register to do so. But there’s no bar on individual users sending mass messages. A limit of 100 messagesper user per day was imposed last year in an attempt to reduce spam and later increased to 200, but this was overturned by the courts in July.

Text messages are the “most potent weapon of rumor,” said Shiv Visvanathan, a professor at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy in Haryana. “They can multiply a few thousand times in a minute.”

India has been aware of the danger of high-tech rumor-mongering. When the verdict on the contested religious site of the Babri Masjid in Uttar Pradesh state was due in 2010, the Indian government temporarily banned the ability to send mass text messages.

But this time, with a new home minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde, who has only been in the job for a little more than two weeks, India was slower to act. It wasn’t till Friday afternoon – after the messages had been circulating for nearly a week – that India banned mass text messaging.

But by Wednesday, students and workers from the northeast who were living in Bangalore, where these messages circulated, were rushing to the train station to head home. On Thursday alone, two special trains were scheduled to take 6,000 people back to Guwahati, the capital of Assam.

Some of them had already experienced personal run-ins with Muslims upset about the riots in Assam. A 21-year-old student from the state of Nagaland, who didn’t want his name used, said that he is “sick of receiving these messages with rumors.” Apart from the messages, he said that he had been threatened twice in Bangalore by Muslims in the last five days but did not want to return to Nagaland and miss classes. His mother, on the other hand, is fearful for his safety and is forcing him to come back. His roommates have already left. “I will stay till Ramadan and if the situation doesn’t get better I will have no option but to leave,” he said.

The messages have gained potency from the fact that there have been some attacks on northeasterners in parts of India; these attacks too seem to have been intentionally instigated online.

Videos were doctored to show Muslims being tortured purportedly by ethnic Assamese, Pune police inspector Prasad Hasabnis told India Real Time.

“These incited the youth,” he added.

Four students from the northeastern state of Manipur were attacked in Pune by young Muslim men in three separate incidents in the last week as a result, he said. In Mumbai, meanwhile, two people were killed and 65 injured after a protest over the suffering of Muslims in Assam turned violent.

A group called the Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena (Bhagat Singh’s Revolution Army) has been spreading some of the rumors, said Laurence Liang, a researcher with the Alternate Law Forum, a Bangalore-based human rights group that also advocates free speech.

Mr. Liang said the group put up a post on Facebook that remained up until Wednesday. It said that a fatwa has been issued by the Muslims against people from the northeast and provided telephone numbers that didn’t work, he added. The Alternate Law Forum complained about the post to Facebook and it has since been taken down, he said.

“Technology is a double-edged sword,” says Mr. Liang. A few people use it to “rip up a frenzy of emotion by spreading rumors,” he says. He added that it didn’t help that “people in the United States and the United Kingdom, sitting in the safety of their homes, reply provocatively on social media, unaware of the consequences they unleash.”

Of course, some people are trying to use Twitter and Facebook to counter the rumors.

American Enterprise Institute resident fellow Sadanand Dhume tweeted on Friday that a video purporting to show violence in Assam was actually footage from Indonesia.

“I lived in Indonesia so recognized the policeman’s uniform, batik sarong & writing on baseball cap. Must be many more fake videos out there,” he said. (Mr. Dhume is an opinion columnist for The Wall Street Journal in India.)

And in a message on Facebook, Walter Fernandes, head of the North-Eastern Social Research Centre, said northeastern and Muslim associations were meeting in Bangalore to figure out how to quell the rumors, and that people shouldn’t give in to panic. Muslim leaders have promised to speak about the situation and the need to protect people from the northeast in their sermons, Mr. Fernandes wrote.

The Indian government last year attempted to censor social networking site like Facebook, arguing inflammatory content on the site could lead to violence in India. Facebook, Google and several other Internet firms are presently on trial in India for failing to remove offensive material from their sites in response to complaints. This month’s developments could help the government make a stronger case for censoring these sites.

But Pranesh Prakash, of the Bangalore-based Center for Internet and Society, says that greater regulation will not solve the problem. What he says is needed are proactive statements by the government and rigorous fact-checking by the media, especially regional news channels.

The only way of “countering rumors is by fact,” he said.

– Preetika Rana contributed to this post.

ASPI-CIS Partnership


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