ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A New Political Protocol

Much greater thought and debate are needed to understand how democratic polities are to deal with social media.

The aftermath of the recent (and unfortunately, ongoing) violence in western Assam saw panic spread among citizens from the north-eastern states living in other states of India, particularly Karnataka. The fear was that they would be targeted by “Muslims” in revenge for Bodo militants’ attacks on Muslims in Assam. These rumours were spread through mass text messages on mobile phones and led to thousands of people from the north-east rushing back home from cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad and Mumbai. This panic, fed by doctored images, some extremely gruesome, had been circulating on the internet and various social media sites like Facebook and Twitter for some days. Together, these suddenly transmitted the social tensions of western Assam to different parts of the country and created an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear.

Two days into the panicked exodus of people from the north-eastern states, the central government moved to restrict text message services on mobile phones, blocked about 300 web pages and asked Twitter to suspend a number of accounts, including of bona fide journalists, which, it claimed, had been spreading rumours and giving out false information, as well as those which were impersonating the prime minister. This move of the government has come in for strong condemnation for arbitrarily restricting the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution. It has been pointed out that the new rules for governing the internet give the government unacceptable powers to block and control the flow of information and that there is little transparency in the manner in which this power is exercised. The government justified its action claiming that these web pages, Twitter accounts and mass ­mobile messages were being used to exacerbate tensions and spread violence through rumours and false information. Many of the doctored photos were traced to fundamentalist Muslim websites (some in Pakistan) while the mass text messages were traced to extremist Hindu groups who wanted to use this opportunity to create distrust between Muslims and tribal peoples of the north-eastern states.

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