This is the second post in the 2-part series about the perceived role of social media in the wake of the Assam clashes that spilled across the country and threatened to upset the nation's peace. The first post can be found here.
As the Indian government sought to block bulk SMS, MMS, webpages and specific social media urls, justifying its step as an attempt to control viral rumor-mongering and “cyber-terrorism”, there was a lot of discussion on the mainstream media (MSM) about how social media was fast becoming a “double-edged sword” and how the recent events brought out the “mischief potential of social media in full play“. These MSM opinions, some of which offered tacit support the idea of reigning in social media, did not go unnoticed by netizens. For example, Media Crooks asked:
So what’s with the rant against the Twitterati and social media by these media celebs?
Blogger Amrit Hallan at Writing Cave wondered if the MSM had an underlying motive for creating a hype around the ‘dangers’ of social media. He wrote:
People in the mainstream media have always been at loggerheads with the free spirit of social networking websites that empowers everybody to express opinions and spread ideas…(they) have been gleefully recommending the curtailment (of social media). Social networking and blogging continuously make their job hard. The moment they try to spread some misinformation, it is countered by Twitter or blogs with factually correct information, often posted by people close to the ground.
Tweets too expressed similar concerns and sentiments:
Priya James (@james_priya): I think by now, MSM coverage volumes of ‘social media terrorism’ has now surpassed even their basic coverage of Assam situation!
Gaurav Sabnis (@gauravsabnis): Politician-MSM nexus in India so blatantly clear with blame for NE rumors laid squarely at social media's doors.
Rajeev Nagpal (@rajeevnagpal): In #India the #MSM can't tolerate any one challenging their hold. No wonder they support censoring social media #HandsOffTwitter
Things have been moving very quickly. The ISPs have been sent official communication to block webpages and twitter handles, including those of some journalists plus fake profiles created with the purpose of lampooning the Indian Prime Minister. Curiously, the Pakistani blogger Faraz Ahmed Siddiqui, who was the first to break the news about the morphed photos being used to incite communal tensions, also came under the ambit of censorship and his post was inaccessible on some ISPs.
AEIdeas, a blog from the American Enterprise Institute commented on the issue:
The Indian government ought to have given Mr. Siddiqui a medal for his investigative work. Instead it has blocked his post.
Social media users in India have been following the government actions closely and there is much debate and discussion about whether the crack down on social media is censorship of free speech in the guise of rumor control.
Some have termed the government's action as Orwellian/dystopian. Others have seen merit in the government's ‘intent’ to curb inflammatory content but have been disappointed with the ineffective way the government went about the task – acting as “Net nannies” and “blocking communications, curbing speech, and banning websites”.
At CIS India, Pranesh Prakash did an analysis of the social media content blocked in India since August 18, 2012. Here are the results:
Strong reactions are pouring in on Twitter via trending hashtags such as #GOIBlocks, #IndiaBlocks, #Emergency2012 etc. [There is some debate over the use of the word 'Emergency' and the attempt to draw parallels between the present block and the state of emergency of 1975, which saw suspension of civil liberties and persecution of journalists in the name of battling threat to national security].
Indian Rebellion (@reBel1857): today they r blocking ur twitter account, tomorrow ur bank account and then will lock u in ur home … #GOIBlocks #Emergency2012
Pranesh Prakash (@pranesh_prakash): If you oppose #censorship, more power to you! I do too. But calling this #Emergency2012 is ridiculous! #IndiaBlocks #netfreedom
Madhavan Narayanan @madversity): Social media is a modern challenge and a modern opportunity. Government attempts to police it smacks of outdated feudal style #GOIblocks
Raheel Khursheed(@Raheelk): Everything ██ is █████ ████ ████ fine ███ █ ████ love. ████ █████ the ███ UPA ███ ████ Government ██ #GOIBlocks #Twitter
Sunanda Vashisht (@sunandavashisht): First they ignored us, then they argued with us, then they blocked us #emergency2012
Babar (@6a6ar): The only thing left for us to do is block all media and Govt. handles in protest. Let's start a #VirtualRevolution #IndiaBlocks
Abhijit Majumdar (@abhijitmajumder): Govt of
#India is just testing #socialmedia waters by blocking spoof PMO accounts. Prepare for greater censorship on #Twitter and #Facebook
Amit Agarwal (@labnol): The Indian govt can force ISPs to block individual Twitter profiles but everything will still be available through web apps like Tweetdeck
Humour and sarcasm too weren't in short supply. For example:
Mahesh Murthy (@maheshmurthy): Now that Govt has solved North East crisis by limiting SMS, it will fight malnutrition by banning food pics on Instagram
Kalyan Varadarajan (@itzkallyhere): My nose blocked. But I didn't poke my nose in Govt matters! My nose isnt a handle. Damn! #GOI
Ramesh Srivats (@rameshsrivats): I've a few SMSs to spare from today's quota. If you mail me recipient's number, message & a cheque, I can send an SMS for you.
However, not everyone is amused. Amrit Hallan asks:
Are we going to follow the footsteps of Pakistan and China and turn into a Blockistan? No matter how much it makes some of the English-speaking mainstream journalists happy, blocking isn’t possible, at least sustained blocking. The Internet has empowered the silent majority and there is going to be a big backlash if the government, or another agency tries to take this power back. In what form this backlash is going to manifest? It remains to be seen.
instead of banning social media, the government can use it in its favor controlling the crisis of NE. The virality feature that our politicians are scared of can be used for killing rumors. Can’t the government get in touch with Facebook and Google India to find out ways to use social media in a better way? Can’t the Government start a social media campaign to “Save NE and Save India”?
Twitter is one of the tools that the government can use. A brilliant example is how Nirupama Rao, India’s Foreign Secretary used Twitter during the evacuation of Indians at the time of the Libyan crisis.
Social Media is not rocket science; it is about communicating with humans and for that you need to have the will to evolve and change. Banning social networks is not a solution to combat rumors but it is a half backed measure to cover the lid on the growing tensions.
The government, on it's part, issued social media guidelines to be followed by government agencies. It remains to be seen how the situation develops on the ground and what impact the current stand-off between government and social media has on cyber-control policies in the days to come.