There’s a palpable sense of urgency among the thousands of northeast residents thronging the railway station to board their train to safety. Ask why they feel threatened, and one whips out his cellphone to show a text message: “Four killed — two Manipuri, two Nepali.” Another SMS alleges rape and yet another warns of dire consequences if they stay beyond the weekend, with some background on a backlash to the strife in Assam and Myanmar. Over the past week, they say they have received several such messages.
“Call your relatives, sons and daughters back,” another SMS implores, obviously targeting an audience back home in the northeast. It is close to impossible to find a first-hand account of violence though. Early investigation by Bangalore police indicates that a majority of the messages have originated from outside the State.
Rumours and conflict have a long history, but technology — mobile and social networks — now connect all in real time. So, while text messages and social media updates have replaced word of mouth or pamphleteering, technology per se is not the villain.
In a move that came perhaps a day or two too late, the Union government banned “bulk SMS” for 15 days; capping the maximum number of messages at one go at 5 and data at 20 kb.
An official response blaming social media for unrest is not new. During the 2011 London riots the British government viewed social networks and the BlackBerry messenger as a significant trigger. In Mumbai, the protest was blamed on doctored videos and pictures allegedly circulated by Islamists.
Even as we question whether technology really plays a defining role, what is certain is that it did fuel rumours. Here, it was text messages on cellphones, not so much social media (few among the northeast migrant population use Facebook or Twitter).
Barring a few closed community groups on Facebook, social media was largely silent till the day the exodus started, while SMS on alleged killings — unsubstantiated — began circulating at least a week earlier. A lot of it was plain misinformation: whether it is northeast groups reporting hearsay “attacks” or right wing cyber whispering about “local fatwa against northeasterners” or likely violence. In recent days, a counter voice too has emerged on social media where citizens have offered support to those fleeing.
While the police and government have been quick to blame the uncontrollable social media creature, they have not used it themselves to inform and to seek inputs. “Instead of approaching this as a problem, the government can also use technology to reach out and dispel rumours,” says Lawrence Liang of the Alternative Law Forum.
Indian case law treats spreading hate messages or incitement on technological platforms in the same way as it would deal with it in the case of an incendiary pamphlet. Multiple sources in the Bangalore police told The Hindu that it is difficult, even impossible, to trace these messages to the source given the sheer volumes. Intelligence on these SMS, police sources said, was available for at least a week. A 2011 Home Ministry directive mandates that operators store SMS records for six months. Experts say tracking SMS origins only requires accessing databases and searching.
On Saturday, amid pressure from the Central government, the Bangalore police arrested three persons for sending bulk SMS.