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 Article written by Soutik Biswas Soutik Biswas Delhi correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Most Indians do not understand that this is a part of a larger, complex, and dangerous problem of illegal migrations (without Indo-Bangla border fence) which has led to extraordinary demographic changes in the state by minority. However, this is NOT and Hindu-Muslim issue, but illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, a serious threat to both Indian economy and security (Islamist militants from Bangladesh).

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Mr. Biswas,
    Thanking you for bring real issues faced by todays India to light. As a fellow concerned Indian, I can’t say that I feel the pain of being homeless but as an immigrant I can totally understand how it feels like to be in a ‘foreign’ land. For NE Indians, it’s a shame that rest of India is still ‘foreign’.

    Viki Shah

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    There's something sinister and weird about all this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    How difficult it is to trace back to those who started this rumor mill? It is important to catch the culprits involved in this case. If caught and severely punished, it will become deterrence against anybody attempting to spread rumors. It is unfortunate and horrible that so many believed the rumors and yet to see any police action. Government should take swift and measurable actions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Rumor mill are not only the cause.Ministers are main culprits,not to stop the exodus Where is Indian army and local police departments.What are they doing about migrants from Bangladesh?There won't be end to problems till Government becomes responsible government with he right cause of service to the country..

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Background to the Report:
    It all started with violent skirmish between Bodo/hindus and illegal Muslim migrants from Bangladesh in Manipur and Assam last month. A section of muslim community staged violent protest in Mumbai against this and the Buddhist vs muslim riots in Burma. They vandalized the amar Jawan memorial. Text messages
    have been circulating threatening of violence against NE people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Sounds a lot like what happended in the UK last year with the riots. Everything spread like wildfire through facebook/twitter etc, even when there was nothing happening in a certain area there was nonsense reports by people stating there were? Social media is good for creating nonsense and scare mongering.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Sorry, I havent been following this story. Now WHY are north easterners feeling threatened? Why these SMSs suddenly and who's sending them?Mr Biswas please provide some background for readers who are not monitoring the story as closely as you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Ministers communicating with rumour-spreading folks! Can Soutik give one good example of such instance happening successfully - anywhere in the world - where he thinks ministers know how to shutdown social media sites? Sadly your article is arbit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    After reading all this story I got bogged down. It was not possible to make out the head or tail about this rumor mongering factory of India, What are the rumors about? The author of this story has failed to report or to highlight the factual position about the rumors Then the people leaving their places have also not spoken If it is racial, communal, sectarian or what else. Mere waste of time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Where there is smoke, there is fire. Indian states have a long history of Hindu-Muslim riots. To pin it down to rumours and tweets/sms is a great deception of the media that has too much power and not enough accountability. Let's not forget the Arab spring and last year's London riots which started with the use of tweets/sms. But they both had a real grave issue at heart! Face up India...

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Unless Indian government and Indians start understanding human rights, democracy, social justice, India can not be a free country. Unfortunately she is not free yet. Look at the killings of innocent citizens at the hands of Indian law enforcement authorities. Its disgusting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    India belongs to all states, religion, caste, language one person from one state should move or live freely in other state. People should not leave if some one/group threaten.
    When the people leave that means that miscreants have won.
    Please don't go people, you are part of us.
    Please it is the duty of the people in Bangalore, hyderabad, pune etc to take care of this people and ask them not to go.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    On # 10 Minotaur
    Q. "How can one find the wolves from the sheep? People are just taking precautionary measures by going back home."
    A. Wolves attacking/killing sheep is old problem. But wouldn't it be ideal if one didn't have to worry about wolves or run miles to get away from them?
    It would be called "peace"; its biggest interference is orthodix religion or sometimes, just plain greed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    To some of the readers posting comments like "India is not a real democrazy" i think you dont really know anything about India.Sure there is corruptionbut ours is a functioning democrazy. If you dont understand what i mean by that you should come to india to experience it first hand.Problemcreators will be there everywhere and people find new ways to create trouble.if we can lets try to help.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Thanks RS,
    Agree that in grand scheme of Nation Building, 66 years might be a short period, but shouldn't we learn from others mistakes?
    Indian is still emerging, growing, learning, developing, but this kind of in-human acts should not be taken lightly.
    Also wanted to thank you for 'investing' your time in reading my blog. Much appreciated.

    Viki Shah

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    So, this appears like a combination of
    - ethnic violence
    - social media incitement &
    - fears of reprisal.
    @ 2,000 people left Pune on Thursday, with students & professionals from Assam, Manipur, Mizoram & Nagaland following.
    Ethnicity? When will we ever get under the skin to the blood that unites us all?

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    More likely, N.E. feared reprisals over violence against Muslims in Assam. People from NE fled from cities such as Bangalore, Chennai, Pune & Mumbai, even as ethnic clashes between Bodos & Muslims (that began in July) spread to Baksa, Nalbari & Kamrup. In Assam, @ 19 people were injured. In Gossaigaon in Kokrajhar, nine Muslims had acid thrown at them; in Tamulpur in Baksa, 10 Bodos were arrested.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    A : How can one find the wolves from the sheep? People are just taking precautionary measures by going back home.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Friday, 5-yr-old boy was injured in minor blast at Pimpri; this may have added to feeling of panic in the city which was rocked by multiple explosion on August 1. Blast occurred at Laxmi Tara Residential Bldg in Dange Chowk. Joint Commissioner of Police S K Singhal said no "terrorist or sabotage", stressed "no need to panic". Singhal said people should consult police when in doubt.


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