On Aug 18, 2012, Home Secretary informed the nation that our neighbour has attempted to create panic in the minds of people from northeastern states about their safety in rest of India, abusing social media such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter leading to mass exodus.
The government tried to calm the situation and issued various orders to block social media sites and URLs (Universal Resource Locators). It is presumed this to be a case of cyberterrorism or cyberwar initiated by our neighbour. In the following days many facts emerged which raised reasonable doubt that it was probably FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubts) to divert attention from the existing political atmosphere. It was also presumed that it is another attempt to discipline the netizen. This article will analyse the ability of social media to cause mass-hysteria, facts of the present case of the exodus of northeasterners and government actions to block information on the internet.
Social Media a tool for Cyber-terrorism?
In India there are about 5.3 crores (533 millions) users on Facebook, which is about 4.5 per cent population of the country. About 66 per cent users of the internet have a Facebook account (Socialbaker, 2012). Social media users continuously interact with each other hence they become vulnerable for a psychological attack. However, unlike broadcast media such as TV, radio and newspaper, social media is multicast and interactive. Therefore it is more difficult to spread rumours through social media unless such rumours find roots in real world.
If social media information is trusted by the users for any reason, it can go viral and spread to millions in much short span of time. Unlike broadcast media where one may presume a bias of broadcaster, on social media, a piece of viral information is much more trusted because it is coming from reliable ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ or ‘leaders’. Thus the consequent impact of such propaganda can be higher.
Events allegedly led to mass hysteria
Some unlinked images were used to misrepresent as humiliation and atrocities by Rakhine (Buddhist) Monks of Myanmar on Rohingya Muslims on social media. (It is not well understood as to how the images of Mynamar were linked to the situation in Assam and create hysteria in northeasterners). Similarly, many images from various part of the world were mistagged or false-commented to arouse the passion of Muslims. A blog reported the misrepresentation. However, when the Indian government clamped down, this was one of the first Pakistani websites which got blocked, though copies of this article are available on Indian websites!
The misrepresented pictures were from various parts of the world especially of earthquake victims of China and a Tibetan boy self-immolating in India against Chinese Prime Minister’s visit. That photograph was of JamphelYeshi, the general secretary of Tibetan Youth Congress. It is obvious that when such blood-curdling images appear, the viewer tends to react. But such inputs on social media alone are not sufficient enough to incite passionate actions such as leaving a job and fleeing the metros.
The images were available on the internet and social media sites even prior to July 18, but there was no fear psychosis in northeasterners for more than a month. Just when the print media published these images without verification, Muslim communities reacted. Many Urdu newspapers and magazines carried imaginary horrifying stories based on misrepresented images. To make matters worse, some mosques displayed these images.
The misrepresented pictures were from various parts of the world especially of earthquake victims of China and a Tibetan boy self-immolating in India against Chinese Prime Minister’s visit.
One of the Members of Parliament stated about the possibility of ‘Third wave of radicalisation’ on August 8, 2012. And over next few days, it spiralled out of control and Northeasterners got targetted in Pune and Bengaluru. The situation became fertile for real-world action and Mumbai saw planned rioting by few thousands Muslims on August 11, 2012. The failure of the governments of the states as well as centre to control the hysteria led insecurity among the northeasterners.
Super efficiency in provisioning of special trains to northeast probably affected the decisions of fence-sitters to leave for Assam. About more than 50,000 northeasterners left for home from various part of the country by the time government stepped in to contain the false propaganda.
Why government actions are suspect
Despite the fact that there was a clear build-up of the inflammatory situation both in cyberspace and real-world since mid- July, no effective steps were initiated to counter the false propaganda. It is likely that the silence of government may have been presumed as acceptance of these mistagged photographs as genuine. When on August 18, 2012, the Home Secretary blamed Pakistan for abusing social media to spread hate in India and fishing in troubled waters of Assam.
Everyone trusted the government and assumed such action of Pakistan as an act of Cyberwar. Events unfolding over the next few days have exposed the hollowness of such claim and the presumption that government is using the garb of ‘exodus of northeasterners’ to settle its own political issues. This presumption gained weight when it was noticed from the leaked government letters that the orders of blocking websites on the first two days were somewhat focused on the issue in hand.
The government action became more suspicious on closer scrutiny of the four letters issued by a director ranked officer department of telecommunication. While ordering the Internet Services Providers the letter did not mention any provision of law as the government was using special power to curtail fundamental right.
Worse still these letters gave a presumption that government has something to hide like the last sentence of all the letters directed the ISPs, “Kindly do not mention the name of URLs in compliance of the letter”. The only provision under Indian statute to block information flow on the internet is provided under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act and rules made under it. A proper transparent procedure with appropriate checks and balances was put in place through a Gazette Notification No G.S.R. 781(E) dated October 27, 2009.
The Government through other Gazette Notification dated January 20, 2010, nominated group coordinator, cyber law division of the department of information technology as a designated officer’, who is empowered to order ISPs or anyone else to block website or URL under Section 69A of IT Act. However on August 18 till 21st, while passing draconian orders under the garb of national security, no law of the land was followed. The impugned order was passed by an unauthorised officer while suppressing the provisions of Fundamental Rights. In the best interest of the country, their Fundamental Duties and to protect the business interest most of the ISPs had complied with the orders.
Making a ban, work
The fact is that even at the time of writing this article more than 65,000 sites still display mistagged images of Myanmar situation as well as so-called atrocities in Assam. By blocking a few hundred sites, information on the internet or social media cannot be blocked; one needs to block thousands of sites and URLs to make such a ban effective. Selective application of the law on the same information has caused thousands of URLs not being blocked and reflected hollowness of such orders.
While there was a clear attempt made to block twitter accounts of several prominent journalists and those who wanted to dispel the false information on the net. No attempt has been made to block the similar information available in print media within the country for which there exist proper precedence and established law. No case was registered against people for giving hate speech in real-world or in print media but reportage of such speeches was blocked.
The failure of the governments of the states as well as centre to control the hysteria led to insecurity among the Northeast Indians.
In conclusion to assess that whether social-media can be used as a tool in propaganda warfare, the answers are affirmative but with a rider that such false information must find roots in actual happening and substantiation in the real world.
This mishandled incident has made our case with Pakistan poor and unnecessarily provided alibi that India takes recourse of media rather than diplomatic channels and also makes allegations without evidence. And this false alarm of cyber-war can hurt our genuine concern about abuse of cyberspace against the interest of our country.