The online hate campaign targeting people from the northeast has put the spotlight on the power of the social media network in India, which counts more than 60 million users, and how this burgeoning community can be manipulated for insidious propaganda. The unprecedented exodus of people from the northeast, abetted by hate messages, has also opened the debate about issues related to internet freedom and content regulation. India, which is looking into the alleged role of Pakistan-based elements in using morphed images on internet, has blocked over 250 websites for orchestrating the online campaign of hatred.
The last two years have seen an explosion of social media in the country with overwhelmingly young users. According to a report by iCRossing, nearly 36 million people in the country use Facebook. Of these, nearly 50 percent users are aged below 50. Estimates for 2012 posted on the India pages of various network sites show that microblogging site Twitter and LinkedIn have nearly 15 million users each in India. This mushrooming is a double-edged sword. Social media has created a vibrant online community and widened public discourse, allowing a platform for activists with a thousand causes. On the flip side, it has also become a vehicle of skewered propaganda, as the latest exodus of people from the northeast from cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad shows.
Social networking is becoming a double-edged sword
"The next big war that India may have to wage against terror will be on the internet," said India-born Ankit Fadia, who is based in New York and is a cyber security consultant. "If any wrong, unacceptable and vicious content originates in Pakistan, it is the responsibility of the citizen of India to check the veracity of the content. If anything goes wrong, those monitoring the content should be held culpable. The government must take action against those who put unacceptable content on social media websites," Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Nirmala Sitharaman told IANS.
Experts say the vast volume of users makers makes the task of monitoring difficult. The wide spectrum of subscribers' database which cuts social and language divides - with Facebook using Hindi as one its languages - has the potential to make the networks national security risk. Not every user is discerning and the fact that there are no entry barriers makes the sites porous. Anyone can log in. "The potential of an individual using a social networking site in a secretive manner is much more in a social networking site than in a social media. There is no procedure for registration and ownership. And so there is no way to pin down the culprits," media commentator N. Bhaskar Rao told IANS. He said the government had initiated a "Convergence Bill in 2000 for the merger of telecom, entertainment and info-tech platforms which could have taken care of the problems". But it failed to become operative.
The recent developments dredge up fears of a gag on information and expression. The spectre of curbs on the freedom of expression looms large following Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal's statement about monitoring of content on the internet and social networking sites this year. In the last two years, networking sites, taking a cue from the Arab Spring which had relied heavily on protests on the social media in the early stages, have mobilised public opinion for several key social issues. Constructive debates on issues such as environment, wildlife conservation, gender justice, human rights, education - and tirades against cyber pornography and terror, have drawn millions of users to the social networking sites.
In the last decade, the sites have encouraged even trade and businesses to create e-commerce bases. Social networking sites can't be blamed for inciting violence in northeast, adds Thangkul tribal leader Selicita, who works in the capital. "Most of those who react to such provocative information join the hate group without knowing the motives. Those involved in the violence against residents of northeast on the ground are not acquainted with such social networking sites," Ngathingpei Khayi, a Manipuri who too works in capital, told IANS. "The networking sites are a blessing... they are another freedom of expression," said Mohammed Abdul, a student of Delhi University.