Social media and the India exodus

A man from India's northeastern states reads a newspaper showing news about people leaving as he waits with others to board a train home, at a railway station in Bangalore, India,Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012 Rumours triggered off the exodus from Bangalore

Is social media adding grist to the rumour mills that have triggered the exodus of workers from north-eastern states living in Bangalore and other cities in India?

By all accounts, yes. Threatening text messages sent in bulk - inexpensive in India - were the main vehicle of the insidious rumours that have swirled around in the city for the past two days, driving panic into the hearts of the tens of thousands of people from the north-eastern region living there. The federal government has panicked and banned bulk text messages for a fortnight to stop rumours.

The second wave of rumour-mongering possibly happened through Facebook and Twitter (India has 50m of the 955m Facebook users in the world).

I have been looking at some of tweets circulating in the pell-mell world of social media. "Now almost all north-east people have left our city", one resident tweeted. That means an exodus of 250,000 north-eastern people from the city, which is obviously bunkum (officials say some 15,000 workers have left since Wednesday evening).

Another tweet talked about north-eastern people - "especially business folks" - living in some Bangalore neighbourhoods who have been threatened and asked to leave the city within five days. There is no evidence that it happened. And, anyway, most tweets are silent on the source of the so-called threats. Some journalists didn't help matters by re-tweeting unverified information.

Social media is a mixed blessing, so good sense kicked in soon with senior journalists taking the lead in squelching rumours.

"The exodus is being sparked off by rumours... and those using Twitter/smses [text messages] to spread hate and falsehoods, time all right-thinking Indians isolate them... enough to spew bile on sms/Twitter," tweeted Rajdeep Sardesai of CNN-Ibn news channel.

Barkha Dutt of New Delhi Television (NDTV), a prolific Twitter user herself, said that the site had "become a quicksand of poison, bigotry and malice". Ms Dutt even said those who incited violence on social media should be hunted down and punished.

The social media storm even hit the parliament this morning. An MP belonging to a prominent regional party sought a "shutdown" on the social media sites for "a couple of days" to stop rumour-mongering. No prizes for guessing that he didn't have a clue about how to go about it.

That is where the problem lies. Rumours, as somebody once wrote, are the oldest form of mass media. In the early days they would be spread by word of mouth and travel slowly. Now with mobile phones and social networking sites, rumour - and panic - spread like wildfire, and India's largely technophobic government appears clueless about understanding and dealing with social networking sites.

There was a clumsy early attempt to gag the sites when a senior minister pulled them up for hosting "objectionable content". The sites pleaded that pre-screening of content was impossible. Netizens whipped up a storm of protest at what they believed was an attempt to censor the sites. (Who decides what is objectionable or acceptable?) Soon the chastened minister clarified that there were no plans to censor the sites.

One way is possibly for the government - and politicians - to use social media to engage with the people. Only a handful of Indian politicians - mostly the upper class and English-speaking - use social media to communicate. PM Manmohan Singh has a Twitter account, managed by his office, with over 160,000 followers. Much like the man himself, the content there is useful, but mostly comprising anodyne policy statements.

Social media is like the coffee house of yore, where people drop in to have a chat and share things. Indian politicians should shed their inhibitions to engage with people informally and quicky. If they had reached out that way when the Bangalore exodus began, the situation would have been defused much more quickly.

Soutik Biswas, Delhi correspondent Article written by Soutik Biswas Soutik Biswas Delhi correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Maharashtra blogger alledgedly triggered NE panic:
    Investigators uncovered blog which they believe initiated NE residents' exodus. Advisory to Pune Police (Pune 8 largest metropolis in India, 2cd largest in State of Maharashtra after Mumbai) & message on website enhanced panic.
    Q. Why would people believe it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Viki, 66 years is the blink of an eye. There were lynchings and mass killings in the United States less than 100 years ago, which was 150 years after American independence. Look up Herrin or Ludlow. And India is far, far more diverse if you look at the differences between e.g. Chennai and Manipur. Considering that, it is incredible how well its been working in "only" 66 years. Think positive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    This is a case of how mass hysteria can grip a nation so fast in these of twitter and facebook.
    The issue is not fixed to India, imagine a situation where such a similar rumour campaign starts in UK about how the some neo-nazi group is planing to attack south asian immigrants.
    However absurd this may sound, when paranoia hits a community the attitude and behaviour will be different.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    This is just pathetic...66 years ago India found her own place in the world map and 66 years later North-East Indians are still 'looking for there place' in India.
    Is this a 'working democracy'?

    Viki Shah

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Yeah, right, guys. Ask the Sikhs being hounded out of Pakistan (the other occupier of "Sikh lands", if "Sukhwinder" (probably a pseudonym of a Pak or Chinese propagandist) is willing to admit to that, why they're moving to India. Or the Tibetans flooding the Northeast. India is far from perfect, but as the strong response to this social-media fueled madness shows, India tries to be inclusive.

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    @1. Sukh - you're not wrong. Democracy is a silly word banded round in india. Freedom is merely a dream in India

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Well Every body knows Indian occupation forces r behind each n every killing, disapearance & exodus in the Assam, Manipur, Tripura and other NE states.this has been going on for decades and Indian Gov't keeps her eyes shuts and international players are busy in appeasing the Indian Gov't. From Occupation of Sikhs Land to the tribes of Nagaland everyone want freedom from Un-natural Indian union.


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