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Twitter handles: How and why govt erred and what it can do to be smarter & more effective

by Prasad Krishna last modified Sep 07, 2012 09:22 AM
Here's a weekend reading recommendation for the mandarins who run the Government of India: it's a freely downloadable, a 145-page long document called "After the Riots". It is a report by the Riot Communities and Victims Panel, set up by the British prime minister to study reasons for the cause, spread and the damage wreaked by the riots that occurred in towns and cities in England in early August 2011.

TV Mahalingam and Shantanu Nandan Sharma's article was published in the Economic Times on August 26, 2012. Sunil Abraham is quoted.


During the riots, many British politicians had blamed social media for the quick spreading of lawlessness. "Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organised via social media," British Prime Minister David Cameron had told the British parliament. Others called for social networking sites to be "switched off". That is perhaps why the word Twitter features four times in the report, Facebook twice, BBM once and the phrase 'social media' appears 39 times.

So, what did the report have to say about the role of social media in the riots that tore through England? "Although social media was used to mobilise rioters, it has also been acknowledged that a number of forces used social media extensively to engage with their communities and provide reassurance during the riots," reads the report.

The report also highlights that by using social media to provide and receive intelligence, social media "can become a crime fighting tool". It shot down the idea that social media be switched off during times of widespread and serious disorder. The panel also recommended that every neighbourhood policing team should acquire social media capability by the end of 2013.

Bangalore Falling

Bangalore's deputy commissioner of police Vincent S D'Souza has had a harrowing 10 days. He had been asking most of his friends to post his mobile number on all social media networks. D'Souza's message: if anyone from the Northeast feels insecure in any part of the city, contact him directly.

But by then, the damage was already done. In the three days beginning August 15, as many as 37,000 people belonging to India's Northeastern region fled the city after SMS threats spread like a wildfire among the closely-knit Northeastern communities living in the city.

"A lot of the damage happened through social media. The images of victims of Tibet earthquakes and Gujarat riots were morphed and passed on as those of Assam riots. We busted a module in Bangalore. Seized computers and mobiles have given us enough leads," says D'Souza, who is in charge of intelligence.


Nitin Pai, founder of Takshashila Institution, a think tank, believes that the current crisis unfolded in two phases. The first phase, says Pai, was the events (the riots and mobilised violence) that occurred in Assam before August 15. The second phase, starting August 15, was the flight of Northeastern people from various parts of India after rumours of attacks began to flow. "To be fair, what happened between August 15 and August 18 was unprecedented in India," says Pai.

"Perhaps, for the first time, the Indian government had legitimate reasons to censor speech," says Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, adding that even international human rights treaties like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), of which India is a signatory, provide for restrictions in free speech for the protection of public order.

However, what most people who have closely followed the events of the last fortnight, will disagree with is the way in which the government has gone about playing censor. "The government got in too late and went about too bluntly," says Pai.


Subtle as a Sledgehammer

"Given that SMS-based mobilisation isn't new in India (stone-pelting incidents in Kashmir led to a ban on SMSes since 2010), the government has had almost 2-3 years to put in place the strategy and ability to counter the problem. The arrests of miscreants spreading rumours through SMSes should have happened sooner," says Pai.

On August 17, two days after the trains from Bangalore began to fill up, an advisory signed by the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (ICERT) chief Gulshan Rai cautioned intermediaries that "publishing and hosting of hateful and inflammatory content is an offence" under Section 69A and 79-3(b) of Information Technology Act, 2000. The advisory, which lacked specific details such as the names of the offenders and details of such content, asked all intermediaries to disable inflammatory and hateful content hosted on their website on "a priority basis". ICERT falls under the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.

"That essentially made intermediaries like ISPs the judges of what was inflammatory or hate speech and what wasn't," says Abraham. In the following days, more orders would come, this time from the Ministry of IT and Department of Telecommunications and they would worsen things even more. These orders were a lot more specific: they had URLs of websites, Twitter posts and Facebook pages that were ordered to be blocked.


However, like a Centre for Internet and Society posting revealed: the list wasn't compiled with enough care. Some items did not exist, others were not even web addresses and in some case, thanks to overzealous ISPs, whole websites were blocked instead of a page on the site. One webpage that actually busted doctored riot pictures was blocked.

What gave teeth to the rumours that the government was using the events of August 15 to go after its critics was its crackdown on Twitter accounts. First, the government asked for a list of accounts parodying the PMO's account to be blocked, on charges of impersonation (which Twitter eventually did on Friday).

On late Wednesday, several other people, including journalists, a tech entrepreneur, discovered that their accounts had been blocked by some ISPs. Even as speculation raged if this was the case of yet another trigger-happy ISP, the government maintained a stony silence, The Economic Times broke the story that it was a notification issued by Ministry of IT and Department of Telecommunications that resulted in these blocks. The blocked account holders meanwhile continued to tweet, thanks to the ISP-level blocks, making the whole affair shambolic.

Big, Bad Government?

For its part, heavyweights from the government like Sushil Kumar Shinde and Kapil Sibal have maintained that this was just an effort to censor hate speech and not free speech. That's a line many are increasingly finding tough to believe, especially what this government tried to do late last year. In December 2011, Sibal had called a meeting of social networking companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google and asked them to remove offensive content.

A New York Times report had said that Sibal had showed the companies a page that maligned Congress president Sonia Gandhi and told them that this was "unacceptable". After heavy criticism followed Sibal's call to "pre-screen" content, the government backed off. So, is this government's second attempt to muzzle voices that it doesn't want heard?

"Perhaps not. It's just government being itself: gauche, clumsy, big-brother like and swinging a club when it needs to be using a surgeon's knife," says a cyber security consultant who has worked with the government in the past. "But, it would be a good idea to keep track if any more blocks or bans come our way. That would be crucial," he adds.

As for the companies themselves, Facebook and Google have "co-operated" in removing the "objectionable pages", while Twitter, after taking its time, knocked off the PMO "impersonators".
Rules of Engagement

Social media is posing challenges and opportunities for governments and law enforcement agencies across the world. In the developed world, police departments like the New York Police Department (@nypd) or London's Metropolitan Police department (metpoliceuk) use Twitter to engage with citizens. They upload mugs and profiles of suspects, give advisories and ask for retweets of missing persons' pictures. It's a game Indian authorities have just begun to play.

"At best, cyber monitoring is a reactive intervention. So the strategy must be how best to live with social media and counter it [misinformation] from within," says GK Pillai, former Union home secretary. He suggests that the government must create a separate department to exclusively tackle issues arising out of social media and messages.



"If social media is used for any propaganda, the government should use the same platform to counter it. If one hate message appears, there should be a thousand to counter it. We can't ban social media the way China has done it. We have to live with it," he adds.

Social media is a challenge to existing legal frameworks like never before, even in countries where free speech is protected a lot more than ours. Last week, the New York Police Department went to court to get Twitter to reveal details of a person who had tweeted: "people had gonna die like Aurora" at a Broadway theatre. Initially, Twitter had refused to share details but eventually relented (after lots of criticism) and the matter was resolved 'without an arrest'.

Things get even more complex, say government officials, because Twitter is a US-based company and claims that it is beyond India's jurisdiction. "Social media and disputes associated with it are relatively new areas [for India]. The US is already engaged in court battles with social media sites. We are a bit slow on this matter," admits Mohan Parasaran, additional solicitor general of India.

Centre for Internet and Society's Abraham believes that the government needs to put in a process which is transparent when it comes to censoring hate speech. "Even in Saudi Arabia, when you go to a blocked site, reasons are given why the site is being blocked along with addresses of the offices where redressal can be sought," says Abraham.

For now, observers say the Indian government needs to learn to engage and communicate better on social media. "There is a lot of hyperbole out there because the Indian government doesn't communicate — what it does and how it does things — very well. There is a lot of second-hand information and as a result a lot of speculation," says Pai. "Basically, the government is trying to use industrial age policies [like blocking] to solve information age issues," he adds.

A first step, perhaps, is fine-tuning the guidelines for social media use for its departments published by the government last week. It will be a big challenge — a change of mindset — for the Indian government which is used more to monitoring and posturing than engaging.

When the law & social media worlds intersect, the results can be not so pleasant. Here are a few examples:

1) An anonymous tweet that people were going to "die like Aurora" at Broadway show had the New York police department worried. So, the police approached Twitter for details about the account, which Twitter turned down. After some criticism, Twitter shared the details. The matter was resolved "without an arrest".

2) In Early 2010, Paul Chambers was stranded at Robin Hood Airport, south Yorkshire, thanks to cancellation of flights due to heavy snowfall. "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high," he tweeted. He was charged, asked to pay a fine and lost his job. However, two appeals later, Chambers conviction was overturned.

3) When footballer Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the field after suffering a heart attack, 21-year-old Liam Stacey posted a vile, racist remark on Twitter about Muamba. When others questioned him, Stacey was combative and a case was registered against him. Even though Stacey admitted that he was drunk and that he was sorry, a court sentenced him to a 56-day imprisonment.

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