“The dark side of social media is that, within seconds, anything can be blown out of proportion and taken out of context. And it’s very difficult not to get swept up in it all”, said Nicola Formichetti- Italian/Japanese editor.
Malicious content, such as fake YouTube videos and morphed photographs, are usually spread rapidly to trigger rioting. In UP’s Muzzafarnagar, a video clip purportedly showing a Muslim mob lynching two boys, which police now suspect is from neighboring Pakistan or Afghanistan, was used to stir unease, deepening hatred between Muslims and Hindus.
The state police have blocked the video, invoking sections under 420 (forgery), 153-A (promoting enmity on religious grounds) and 120-B (conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code, along with section 66 of the Information Technology Act.
More recently, we’ve seen this kind of thing in Egypt where the government last winter moved to block access to the Internet and mobile phone networks as protesters took to the streets. Social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry Messenger, reportedly has been used largely by British youth to post inflammatory messages intended to fuel the rioting and looting. It’s also been reported that social media has been used to organize illegal efforts.
What does it mean?
Do these incidents call for curbs on Social Media?
Research shows social media sites, including sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, are more persuasive than television ads. Nearly 100 million Indians use the Internet each day, more than Germany’s population. Of this, 40 million have assured broadband, the ones who mostly subscribe to social-media accounts. The country also has about 87 million mobile-Internet users, according to Internet and Mobile Association of India.
Whatever may have been the catalyst of the violence, it cannot be dealt with our heads in the sand — by banning or restricting access to social media and digital content.
Anything that is banned or heavily regulated gets pushed underground and becomes even harder to control. This is not a defence for defamation, hate speech or any other internationally accepted standard for restrictions to unfettered speech and expression.
If the government attempts to shut down social media during a national emergency, like the riots, what would happen? Well, one thing is for certain – the rioters would find a way to communicate, and it would have a neglible effect on the riots themselves. On the other hand, it would be hugely damaging for the rest of society. Social media was an amazing channel during the riots for individuals to share information about what was happening, to find out what travel routes were available, for the media to get on the ground information all over the country as soon as anything happened. It’s an information network the government could never hope to replace. The riots are horrible, but people are relatively calm – because they know, all the time, what is going on, if their friends are safe. If Facebook and Twitter has been turned off during this time, it would have been chaos.
The Indian Government recently announced that it was setting up a social media wing at a cost of Rs 22.5 crore for five years. Even as the Government wants to create another platform for propaganda, particularly in an election year, the move appears desirable because it creates an opportunity for the state to connect with citizens and fight rumour with fact.
Free flow of Information and Social Media
Emergence of new technologies has formed a new arena for public debate. The phenomenon also presents a new and innovative way to allocate talent, unite aspirations, spur immediate and mass mobilization, and effect change on a grand scale. Strengthening the link between the Internet and social participation seems a more and more essential condition to ensure the vitality of democracy. If people want to communicate, the government can’t do much about it. Repressive regimes do everything they can to block social media channels, but people find a way around them. When people are determined, they will find a way. Even in China (who we should be setting a good example to, not copying), people manage to get around the censors.
There is a need to reflect further on this phenomenon. Social networking rioters can post very quickly where they will be and what time to riot. … But doing something anti-democratic isn’t the right solution. Police should be allowed access to messages related to specific investigations, but should not be permitted to monitor or suspend communications. Restrictions on the use of social media or smartphones would be difficult to enforce and could violate basic freedoms. The government exists for society’s benefit, and the free flow of information between individuals is what makes them a society. Nobody has right to take that away.