The rumour mills on social media

BY Geeta Seshu| IN Media Practice | 14/09/2012
Internet and mobile media inflamed the situation while traditional media failed to counter the damage done.
GEETA SESHU on the role of social media and short messaging in the wake of the Assam riots
Social media networks on the Internet and short messaging services on mobile media have been the site of an unprecedented and chaotic flow of intense and incessant information, opinion, fact, misrepresentation and doctored news ever since the riots broke out in Assam last month, followed by the violent protest in Mumbai last Saturday and the flight of panicky North-Easteners from Delhi, Bangalore and Pune.
As events of the last few days have proved, there are inherent dangers in relying on media, as interactive as the Internet or as rapid as mobile media, to provide news that cannot be quickly verified. Both media have dissolved the boundaries of time and distance . While, in a knee-jerk response,  Facebook posts have been taken down and bulk SMSs blocked for 15 days, cyber police have already realized that it is difficult to quickly catch cyber crooks that spread disinformation and contain the damage they cause. 
Barely are the police dealing with the issue of the morphed pictures on social networking sites, than the news of attacks on students from the North-East began registering over SMS, spreading panic and resulting in the flight of several people to North-East destinations. Helplines and attempts by police to assure them of safety are being put into place but in the atmosphere of fear, fact and fiction become a dangerous medley.
Four incidents of attacks on members of the North-East community were reported in Bangalore on June 17, informed Lawrence Liang of the Alternative Law Forum. The organization, which investigated all the attacks, found that the attacks were unplanned and unconnected with one another. “There may have been a history of skirmishes, even cultural differences but they did occur in the context of the current volatile situation,” Liang said.  
The state administration has been largely responsive with police bandobast in sensitive areas but Liang is apprehensive that any fresh outbreak of violence when members of the North-East return to the homes may just turn what is still largely the fiction on the internet into reality! 
Clearly, partisan and bigoted forces from everywhere will try to utilize every means and medium to spread their lies and mischief. If, in the first round of this madness, morphed images presented a distorted picture of the grim situation in Assam’s Kokrahjar’s district, the aftermath – of the rumours and panic over the possible backlash against the North-east community, was also fuelled by the Internet and mobile media. 
Ironically, the morphed pictures first surfaced in mid-June, 2012, on Facebook and in sections of Arab media in connection with the long-standing conflict in Burma/Myanmar against the Rohingyas. The website of the Burma Democratic Council reproduced all the photographs along with the originals. Clearly, a cybermedia propaganda war between supporters of the Rohingyas and the Burmese spilled over into the riots in Assam with disastrous intent.  
But what has also exacerbated the situation is the rank failure of traditional media to first, cover the tragic outbreak of violence and then, address and refute the propaganda that followed. Instead, as Liang says, traditional print media has contributed to the fear and panic! A leading newspaper in Bangalore today mentioned a number of attacks in the city but most irresponsibly, none of these were confirmed incidents! 
On June 17  in Pune, where two members of the North-East region were attacked a couple of days ago, Police Commissioner Gulabrao Pol called a meeting of social activists to discuss the issue and devise strategies to counter both the conflict as well as spread of disinformation. 
Blogger and secretary of the DYFI Pune, Siddharthya Swapan Roy, who was present at the meeting, posted a quick message on Facebook that illustrated both the level of disinformation and the attempts by Muslim leaders to counter the propaganda:
 A Manipuri student who as per an SMS was reported to have been beaten and chased out of Ferguson college (and was said to have left Pune) took the mike smiled and said "No nothing has happened to me"
 …The Mufti (after reciting Sahir) said "I told my audience after the prayers if you receive an SMS that tells you to get angry about what's happened in Assam, delete it. We will not fight battles in the name of Assam in Pune"
Roy told this writer that the cyber police as well as social activists need to brainstorm together on how to counter this kind of rumour mongering on the ‘net. “Obviously censorship is not the answer, nor is it technically feasible. But this needs to stop,” he said. 
In Bangalore, members of the North-East community met Karnataka Chief Minister Jagdish Shettar and showed him the messages they received on their mobile phones, referring to unconfirmed reports of attacks on their community.
 A Facebook post about a fatwa against members of the North-East on the Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena run by Tejinder Pal Singh Bagga, created its own share of panic. The ‘Sena’ announced a helpline for the North East community and several of its posts clearly position  the ‘Sena’ itself as a ‘friend’ of the North-East against the Muslims! It also issued a ten-point ‘rebuttal’ to The Hindu newspaper for alleging that it was behind the exodus of North-Easteners from Bangalore!
 Pattern in the propaganda?
 Is there any discernible pattern in the propaganda on social networking sites?
 At first, Mumbai police investigating the outbreak of violence that took them unawares last Saturday and Maharashtra’s Chief Minister Prithviraj Chauhan made statements that the ubiquitous ‘foreign’ hand was behind the violence in Mumbai. Today, police said that the propagandists may be home-grown mischief-makers (Pics did not originate in Pakistan,Times of India, Aug 17, 2012).
The police said that the cyber crime investigation cell is probing the origin of the morphed pictures. Internet users, particularly on social network sites like Facebook, were sent pictures of a Tibetan youth immolating himself in Delhi, but captioned as if a Muslim youth was being set ablaze in Assam.  
By far, the best attempt to nail the lies on the net was by Pakistani blogger Faraz Ahmed, who wrote about the doctored photographs in a blog of the Pakistani newspaper Express Tribune. His work was picked up and circulated by other bloggers (Delhi-based filmmaker Yousuf Sayeed wrote in the popular blog Kafila) and by the Mumbai-based civil liberties group, Citizens for Justice and Peace.
But the damage was done, at least before the run-up to the protest organized by Mumbai-based Raza Academy and other organisations in Mumbai last Saturday. And as we saw later, fundamentalists of all hues had a field day.
Each medium brings its own responsibility with it and the internet and mobile media, with their vast capacity for communication that takes on a life of its own, will have its own set of problems. And will have to find its own set of solutions. As fast as they can.
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