If rumour is to be denied a key role in shaping India’s life, the mass media needs to regain its legitimacy as a source of credible information
For decades before Easter Tuesday in 1517, resentment had been festering among Londoners against the European merchants and artisans who had set up home in the city: English gold, a contemporary poem had it, was being stolen in return for “Apes and japes and marmusettes taylede.” That morning, the canon of church of St. Mary Spital kindled the hate in his pious congregation’s hearts. The newcomers, he said, “eat the bread from the poor fatherless children, and take the living from all the artificers, and the intercourse from all merchants.”
Through the next fortnight, there were sporadic attacks on the growing numbers of foreign artisans, merchants and financiers who lived in the city. Edward Hall, the contemporary chronicler, recorded the spread of rumours that “on May Day next, the city would rebel and slay all aliens.” Like so many prophecies, the rumours self-fulfilled. Over a thousand apprentices indeed attacked foreigners’ homes. No one was killed, though 13 rioters were later executed.
Five centuries on, the riots of 1517 offer a useful prism to reflect on perhaps the most intriguing national crisis of recent times; the exodus of tens of thousands of citizens from the North-East from southern India’s cities on a great tide of fear birthed on the internet.
For the most part, analysts have attributed the exodus to the state’s lack of credibility as a guarantor of security for a tiny, ethnically-distinct minority. The state, in turn, has blamed the malign influence of social media. These explanations are both true. There is a third question, though: precisely what was it that gave fantasies and rumours peddled through text messaging such power?
Part of the answer to that question could lie, as it did in 1517, in the absence of institutions that can mediate information in times of bewildering change: institutions which can distinguish the real from illusion; sift the credible from propaganda.
New media, old process
Early on the morning of September 1995, Hindus at a temple in Hong Kong claimed that an idol of the god Ganesh was drinking milk. News of the miracle spread with the rising sun — helped along by international direct dialling. By nightfall on September 21, millions of believers spilt perhaps hundreds of thousands of litres into gutters across the world. In a thoughtful commentary, the Economic & Political Weekly noted the Milk Miracle was located in the midst of a “recrudescence of medieval superstitious beliefs among the educated middle classes which, disillusioned with secular and democratic ideologies and bereft of any alternative and convincing programmes, are today seeking security and solace in miracles provided by religious charlatans.”
It might have added that the Milk Miracle also demonstrated that millions were turning away from the mass media, one of the key instruments of modernity, to word of mouth.
Though the speed with which such transmission now occurs is new, the phenomenon isn’t. The impact of the digital media hasn’t been quite as revolutionary as is claimed.
Back in 1963, the historian Ramachandra Guha has recorded that the disappearance of a venerated relic from the Kashmiri shrine of Hazratbal led to anti-Hindu violence in Bangladesh. In Kolkata, refugees from this violence soon sparked off anti-Muslim violence; 400 people were killed, 300 of them Muslim. In Rourkela and Jamshedpur, over 1,000 were killed — again mainly Muslim. It bears mention that in Kashmir itself, there was no such killing — a hotel and movie theatre owned by Chief Minister Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad were burned down along with the Kothi Bagh police station.
Long before the term was invented, rumour demonstrated the capacity to go viral — using all the tools at its disposal, ranging from word of mouth to print. Digital networks were just a new tool for an old process.
Why the lie won
From the information so far available, only the barest outlines of how informal digital media drove this month’s exodus are evident. This we know: in early April, graphic — sometimes fabricated — images of anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar and the North-East began to circulate on internet websites. The images fuelled anger among some young Muslims. In Mumbai and Allahabad, the targets were the police and the state. Bangalore and Pune witnessed brawls with North-East migrants, often linked to pre-existing disputes over the consumption of pork and the use of alcohol. Mysore saw a stabbing, though its causes remain unknown. There have been dark suggestions of a jihadist plot — but intelligence analysts in Delhi who are wading through 50 million text messages and thousands of web pages say there is no clear pattern that suggests their genesis was linked to a single author.
None of this, in itself, might have caused flight: thousands of women from the North-East, after all, remain in New Delhi despite frequent, brutal sexual assault cases. However, text messages then began circulating warning of a pogrom; others urging flight because of imaginary atrocities. Families in the North-East began telling their loved ones to come home.
How did fictions succeed in persuading so many of their accuracy? Part of the answer might be that North-East migrant communities in Bangalore, like so many diasporas, were marginal to the media discourse around them — turning instead to the internet and word of mouth for information. It is also possible, though, that the mainstream media was simply seen as a source of spectacle, not credible representations of the real world which could inform decision making. India’s mass media, with a handful of honourable exceptions, has steadily diminished the space and resources it allots to reportage.
For Indians, this ought to be a matter of serious concern. Informal digital information networks are becoming increasingly available to peoples with at best limited engagement with mass media or other institutions of critical thought. This means the cultural tools to determine precisely what information is credible and what is propaganda — no easy task even in the most sophisticated media cultures — simply do not exist.
India’s ongoing effort to crack down on social media is likely to have all the success of the ancient Persian Emperor Xerxes’ whipping of the waves to tame the unruly god of the sea. If rumour is to be stopped from shaping the country’s future, the mass media needs to engage in some serious introspection.