Virtual fires-Pratik Kanjilal

-The Indian Express

The exodus to the Northeast, perhaps the biggest mass displacement in peacetime, reads like the dark side of the Arab Spring or the reverse of a flash mob. The social and SMS media, which accumulate forces for positive change, were leveraged to spread rumours and disperse minorities by the fictitious threat of violence. And the response is totally inadequate.

Social media shifted the balance of power from governments and formal media towards individuals. A positive development, it provides dispersed, perceptual support to events like the Arab Spring, Pussy Riot’s challenge to Vladimir Putin and Julian Assange’s standoff in London. But the picture turns grim when malicious communicators use the same levers of power. In 1995, Ganesha was force-fed milk to test-fly a rumour campaign run over mobile phones. That proof of concept with a global footprint, orchestrated from Delhi, harmed no one. But now, we have experienced the real thing.

How easy is it to start a viral rumour? At what point do recipients suspend disbelief? Earlier this month, the Stockholm communications group Day4 decided to find out. They drew a CAD diagram of a tamper-proof, “asymmetric” screw, emailed it to themselves, took a screenshot and posted it anonymously on Reddit, claiming that Apple had developed it to prevent customers from prying inside their products.

It was blogged and reported by mainstream media within 12 hours, with the caveat that it was unverified. But the tale developed a twist when readers commented on the “news” on social media. The caveats vanished, 90 per cent of recipients swallowed the gag unquestioningly and the rumour began to spread at light-speed. Google “asymmetric screw” to see how far it’s travelled.

This was a harmless rumour, like a computer virus without a payload. Add a malicious payload, push it out on Web and SMS networks and you have a social engineering weapon capable of triggering or sustaining unrest. If the payload is a fake picture, satisfaction is guaranteed. Pictures speak far louder than words. Faked photos of the 9/11 attacks still circulate in the xenophobic, nationalist fringe in the US. They were pranks but they help to maintain a climate of fear that encourages hate crimes like the gurudwara attack in Wisconsin. The most disturbing image showed passengers falling out of a damaged airplane’s fuselage. It was actually a grab from the TV serial Lost.

After violence broke out in Myanmar, gruesome images, including a YouTube video attributed to the Jamaat-e-Islami, were used to heighten feelings about Rohingya Muslims being attacked by Buddhists. The violence is real and condemnable, but the images actually depict earthquake relief operations in China and a protest in Thailand, as noted by the Pakistani blogger Faraz Ahmed.

On August 11, their effect was felt when a protest against the Assam situation at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan turned into a riot in which two lives were lost. Apart from Assam, the killing of the Rohingyas was also a focus of outrage. Since the issue had got little space in formal media, social media was clearly in play.

Looking back, the failures of three agencies assured the success of the Northeast rumour campaign. The government is the worst offender. There would have been no exodus if the targets had faith in state protection. They had none because the Indian state has a history of permitting and even abetting political violence.

Social media is a force multiplier, but its owners failed to recognise that it is a double-edged weapon. After the Northeast exodus, motivated content is being pulled down on government request, but it is too late. The damage would have been limited if sites had acted on their own, without waiting for formal take-down requests. That quasi-legal process is intended to resist censorship, to protect the speech of individuals and minorities from government curbs. However, this was not a censorship issue but a matter of public order. In fact, the public, minorities and government stood shoulder to shoulder — on the losing side.

The internet resists curbs on speech for historical reasons. It was conceived as a free frontier where mainstream rules were suspended. This was a healthy model, opening up discourses that may have been stifled otherwise. However, the border is now blurred. Some parts of the internet, like social media, are integral to everyday life. Should they remain havens where free speech trumps all other concerns? If curfews and Section 144 are acceptable offline, are temporary curbs on online speech during crises really unthinkable? However, the sites should consider regulating themselves, since the motives of government are permanently suspect.

Too often, we propagate dodgy material that confirms our preconceptions and prejudices, increasing its apparent validity. The antidote is to use your head. It is surprisingly easy once you put your mind to it. The first firewall against rumours is the alert, responsible user. 

The Indian Express, 22 August, 2012, http://www.indianexpress.com/news/virtual-fires/991192/0

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