India came very close to banning twitter after the micro-blogging site was misused for rumor mongering last month, which led to massive exodus of Northeasterners from southern cities fearing for an imminent attack on them from Muslims.
It all started with clashes between Muslims and Bodos in northeast state of Assam in which some Muslims died. Minor reprisal clashes were witnessed in places like Pune in Maharashtra state, but the security forces soon quelled the unrest.
Ahead of Eid-ul-Fitr which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a series of text messages spread like wildfire, warning that northeasterners staying in other cities, particularly in Bangalore, India's Silicon Valley, will be attacked.
Irrespective of their religious identities, Northeasterners have similar Mongoloid racial features and feared that in the eyes of rioters, they would all look the same. This led to the exodus tens of thousands of Northeasterners from Bangalore and other cities to the seven states they belong.
What was most significant in this period was how bulk text messaging, tweets and smart phones were used in spreading the rumors. Government scrambled to find the source of this misinformation campaign and part of their investigation stopped at twitter.
The prime minister's office noticed that there were many fake twitter accounts in its name and asked twitter to immediately take them down.
By August 21, Indian authorities blocked over 250 websites and launched a 15-day ban on bulk SMS and MMS. Many facebook posts that allegedly fanned the fires of hatred were blocked too. Mobile phone service providers were ordered to limit the number of text messages from each phone to five. The government went on to block access to over 150 profiles and handles on twitter, facebook, google and other social networks and websites.
A minor diplomatic row ensued after reports emerged that some of the messages originated from neighboring Pakistan, the so-called ‘arch-rival’ of India.
Earlier this week, it was revealed that India’s Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DEIT) mulled banning twitter in the states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, but refrained from doing it, as such a move was not practical. Instead of banning, the authorities said they would monitor content on twitter in India, which has the sixth largest number of users for the micro-blogging site.
The reported move to ban twitter led many advocates of internet freedom to rail against the perceived censorship. For some time, the hashtag #emergency2012 was trending on twitter, a reference to the state of emergency imposed in 1975-76.
The prime minister waded into the controversy, expressing concern about role of social media in communal tensions. "Increase in communal incidents in the country in the past few months and the revival of ethnic tensions in the northeast in recent weeks have been particular causes of concern to all of us," Manmohan Singh said, adding, “We need to fully understand how new media are used by miscreants. We also need to devise strategies to counter the propaganda that is carried out by these new means.”
The entire episode brought many issues into focus: the deadly cocktail of ethnic and religious strife, use of information technology to fan hatred, and censorship in the name of national unity, to name a few. It exposed the dangerous potential of social media and limitations of free speech even in a democratic society like India.
Probably the most tragic part is that these events may have increased the bitterness of people from the northeast, who have been locked in insurgencies against the central government for many years in response to a long history of perceived injustices.
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