Does India’s Exodus Vindicate Web Control?

In India, online rumours of ethnic violence have driven hundreds of thousands from their homes and, as self-fulfilling prophecies, left dozens dead. From Ishaan Tharoor at TIME:

In the world’s largest democracy, recent fears of pogroms and ethnic violence have highlighted just how fractious and febrile India’s social makeup is. Rumors circulating last week of planned attacks on migrants from the Indian Northeast saw tens of thousands of Northeasterners in some of India’s main cities cram onto trains bound for their remote homelands. The “exodus” — as it was branded in bold block letters by the Indian media — followed earlier incidents of ethnic strife in the northeastern state of Assam, where members of the indigenous Bodo tribe clashed with Bengali Muslim settlers, driving hundreds of thousands of Muslims out of their homes. Mass SMSes, emails and posts over Facebook and Twitter warned of (and, in some cases, encouraged) Muslim reprisal attacks on Northeasterners in cities like India’s tech capital, Bangalore, as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan drew to a close, sparking a nationwide panic.

The government’s efforts to stem the panic included a flurry of take-down requests to Google, Twitter and Facebook, as well as limited blocks on webpages from Al Jazeera, The Telegraph, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Wikipedia. While there has been some speculation about ulterior motives behind this response, The Atlantic’s Max Fisher wrote that the episode raises difficult questions about the role of social networks in spreading the hysteria.

Technology didn’t cause any of this, of course. But social media and text messaging, both of which are becoming increasingly common in reaches of India’s enormous lower and middle classes, accelerated the flow of rumors and of inflammatory images. Some of the material turns out to have been fake: doctored images and videos showed anti-Muslim attacks that never happened. Because the rumors can be self-fulfilling, their lightening-fast spread across India’s vast population, much of which is very newly connected to the web, can be costly. The original 1993 crisis displaced an estimated 20,000 people, but this most recent manifestation has already displaced 300,000, and killed 80. No doubt there are many factors that might explain the new severity of this old crisis, but with the spread of rumors apparently playing a significant role, the recent explosion in Indian Internet access rates (the 100 millionth Indian web users logged on in December) could be relevant. The government, unable to counter the destabilizing rumors, shut down some of the means of their dispersal.

[…] When world governments in places like Ethiopia or China censor the internet, they tend to cite some version of the same basic idea: free discussion is a threat to “national stability.” Typically, web freedom activists perceive this as little more than an excuse for online authoritarianism, and they’re probably often correct. But what if, in India’s case, the government could actually be right? Can Photoshopping up some “evidence” of ethnic attacks be akin to inciting violence? What about sending a text message falsely claiming such attacks, for which a Bangalore man was arrested? At what point does a Facebook rumor become a cry of “fire” in the crowded theatre of Indian ethnic anxieties?

Chinese authorities have long used the “cancer” (or bats) of potentially destabilising online rumours to justify Internet controls. The exodus in India, argued Global Times, demonstrated the danger posed by “unchecked websites”, and the need for tough measures to control them:

[…] What happened in India can help us understand more objectively whether the Internet can foment social instability and how it does so. The exodus was a result of public panic that was easily ignited by rumors. It takes more than working with social networking websites to appease the agitated public and prevent this from happening again.

But New Delhi’s worries that the Internet promoted the rumors didn’t come out of nowhere. As the inventor of social networking sites, the US has experience in regulating them. But these websites have caused disturbances in other countries. The unrest in the UK last summer exposed the side effects of these networking sites, prompting the government to ponder blocking Internet information flow in times of emergency, a decision that led to an outcry.

[…] India is a poor country. Survival is top priority for the majority of the population. Every piece of information carried by the Internet or cell phone looks real to grass-roots people.

China’s situation is relatively good. It is hard to imagine rumors causing an exodus. The government’s reaction and public’s ability to discern false information are much better. But the mass of information flowing through the Internet still presents a challenge to governance. The Internet has become deeply integrated in Chinese society, but can still create a disturbance.