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Northeast exodus: Is there a mechanism to pre-screen social media content?

by Prasad Krishna last modified Sep 04, 2012 04:06 AM
The government has passed the blame buck on social media and blocked hundreds of websites, which it claims, hosted hate speech and inflammatory content, enough to incite violence. But is it feasible to pre-screen objectionable or provocative content, and reject it before posting so that there is no chance of such rumours?

The article by Wahid Bukhari was published in merinews on August 23, 2012. Pranesh Prakash is quoted.

The government took the action after Home Minister RK Singh alleged that the exodus of northeastern people from southern states such as Bangalore, Mumbai and Pune was a result of the panic and rumours created because of the content uploaded on these websites, many according to him were created by elements across the border in Pakistan. Though many suspected that Mr Singh's claim was an excuse to save the government from its inefficiency in controlling the riots, and the exodus of the northeastern people who were seen boarding the trains to their home states with their belongings amid fears of reprisal attacks.

Was the action meant to pass on the inefficiency buck or not - the government has, at least, managed to shift the focus of the media from exodus to the debate - as to whether social networking sites or websites promoting hatred should be blocked or not - given the democratic rights of every citizen to freedom of speech and expression.

Around a hundred more websites have been reported promoting hate speech and Google, Facebook and other social networking sites like Twitter have been asked to remove such content as soon as possible but in this whole debate one question remains unanswered: How does removing a post from Twitter or Facebook make a difference, several hours after it was published? One might argue even an hour is enough for an inflammatory picture or comment to incite violence or hatred. As a consequence, one might demand that a comment is screened before it is posted on a website, otherwise it doesn't serve any purpose.

Whether pre-screening is technically possible, Pranesh Prakash maintains: "Given the amount of content uploaded on the larger social networks, pre-screening content is just not possible, while removal upon complaint is. They don't have editors like newspapers do; importantly, they shouldn't."

Perhaps, a mid way is to intervene prior to registration on social media websites. All those who register should be made aware of the content that's not permissible, and make them aware of relevant laws and repercussions of breaking them if their complicity is proved. Similarly, these sites can be asked by the Indian government to continuously remind registered users as well as general public, through mass media advertizing, about what kind of content is not permissible. The government, from its side, can strengthen cyber laws to empower sites such as Facebook and Twitter to curb posting of provocative content due to presence of these stringent laws.

Terming the government action unfortunate, Mr Prakash who is a programme manager with the Bangalore-based research and advocacy group, The Centre for Internet and Society believes that government botched up at so many levels. “I don't think the government should be going after Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter. It should be going to them, to work with them on removing content,” Mr Prakash suggests. "The larger social networks have dedicated complaints mechanisms, which the government could have asked them to run 24x7 for a few days, and to expedite that process, and both complained itself and asked the public to use the complaints process,” he adds.

Though Pakistan has rubbished the claims that it has any role in fomenting trouble, but it has also asked the Indian government to provide it with evidence so that it could nab the accused. Whether or not there is any evidence is a secondary question, the primary blame will always rest with both the state and central governments who failed to stop the exodus of fear-stricken people from the northeast.

Experts like Mr Prakash are wondering why the government didn't pay back in the same coin by using the social media to dispel the rumours. “It is a pity that they notified a new policy to encourage governmental use of social media only today; they sorely needed it this last week,” Mr Prakash rues.

The government has blocked content related to thirty Twitter accounts but another surprising thing is that only accounts using the web interface have been blocked, and such accounts can still be accessed on BlackBerrys or other smartphones.

The only visible thing government did on ground when the exodus started taking place in Bangalore was the setting up of helplines but did they help in preventing the exodus - there are enough reasons to believe against it. "There were some complaints that the people attending some of these helplines could only speak in Kannada, and not the English or Hindi that people calling for help were expecting. Even such positive steps were executed badly." Mr Prakash informs.

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