Self-fulfilling rumors of ethnic violence spread like a virus across the newly wired India, sending 300,000 citizens fleeing and leading the government to extreme measures.
Smoke hangs over Mumbai at the scene of a violent protest by Muslims in response to unfounded rumors of anti-Muslim violence in a distant region. (AP)
Technology can be a great liberator, but can it sometimes be a public menace? The Indian government seems to think so: it has blocked around 250 websites, ordered Google and Facebook to pull content, threatened legal action against Twitter if it doesn't delete certain accounts, and has arrested several people for sending inflammatory text messages, all in the name of public safety. If you're appalled, you're not alone: the U.S. State Department responded by calling on India to respect "full freedom of the internet," highlighting the growing divide between the two governments on web freedom.
But the Indian censorship -- and it is censorship, despite the government's insistance otherwise -- may not be as clear-cut as a case of state oppression and over-reach. It turns out that the Indian government might be right to fear that technology, for all the very real benefits it's brought India, could also be helping to magnify ancient communal tensions in a ways that costs lives and, perhaps even worse, might destabilize the delicate social balance within the world's second-largest country.
The story begins, depending on how you look at it, either 20 years, one month, or one week ago. In 1993, two ethnic groups in the far-northeastern Indian state of Assam clashed over who had more of a right to the land: members of the local Bodo tribe won, and the Muslim Indians lost, fleeing into refugee camps. Last month, that conflict resurfaced, as it periodically does, when a few migrants from Assam got beaten up near the far-away city of Mumbai. No one really knows what happened, but the public perception seems to be that some of Mumbai's Muslims had attacked the Bodo migrants as revenge for the 1993 crisis. Then, last week, two sets of equally dangerous rumors spread across India: that Muslims throughout the country were about to attack northeastern migrants, and, in apparent response, that Bodo in their home-state of Assam were planning a pre-emptive strike on the area's Muslims.
That the two rumors appear to have been almost certainly unfounded is beside the point: they were mutually reinforcing. The more that people heard about them, the truer they became. Muslims, fearing their fellow believers in Assam were in mortal peril, staged a large protest in Mumbai. Northeastern migrants in the area, afraid the re-opening communal tensions could put them at risk, fled. Hearing about this back in Assam, some northeasterners perceived it as proof of coming Muslim violence, and, apparently enraged, attacked the region's Muslims. It's not hard to see how things spiraled out of control from there. By the end of the weekend, northeastern migrants were streaming onto trains to head home to Assam, and Muslims in Assam were fleeing en masse to refugee camps.
Technology didn't cause any of this, of course. But social media and text messaging, both of which are becoming increasingly common in reaches of India's enormous lower and middle classes, accelerated the flow of rumors and of inflammatory images. Some of the material turns out to have been fake: doctored images and videos showed anti-Muslim attacks that never happened. Because the rumors can be self-fulfilling, their lightening-fast spread across India's vast population, much of which is very newly connected to the web, can be costly. The original 1993 crisis displaced an estimated 20,000 people, but this most recent manifestation has already displaced 300,000, and killed 80. No doubt there are many factors that might explain the new severity of this old crisis, but with the spread of rumors apparently playing a significant role, the recent explosion in Indian Internet access rates (the 100 millionth Indian web users logged on in December) could be relevant. The government, unable to counter the destabilizing rumors, shut down some of the means of their dispersal.
Whether or not the Indian government's censorship does anything to calm this crisis, their apparent desperation is understandable. Still, India's readiness to censor the web is part of the government's longer-running effort to regulate the Internet, to which Western governments and web freedom advocates have strenuously objected. Some of India's sweeping restrictions compel web companies like Google and Facebook to self-police, and then self-censor, any content that could be perceived as blasphemous or offensive to ethnic groups. Protesters in India decry the restrictions as extreme, and they're not wrong.
When world governments in places like Ethiopia or China censor the internet, they tend to cite some version of the same basic idea: free discussion is a threat to "national stability." Typically, web freedom activists perceive this as little more than an excuse for online authoritarianism, and they're probably often correct. But what if, in India's case, the government could actually be right? Can Photoshopping up some "evidence" of ethnic attacks be akin to inciting violence? What about sending a text message falsely claiming such attacks, for which a Bangalore man was arrested? At what point does a Facebook rumor become a cry of "fire" in the crowded theatre of Indian ethnic anxieties?
Walter Russel Mead, writing on the ongoing crisis, called India's long-running communal tensions "the powder keg in the basement." With the already-dangerous risk of ethnic combustion heightened by a population with easy access to rumors and an apparent predisposition to believing them, maybe that powder keg justifies Indian censorship. Or maybe it doesn't; free speech is its own public good and public right, and, in any case, censoring discussion of such sensitive national issues could make it more difficult for India to actually confront them. This is just one of the many difficult questions that Indian leaders will grapple with as hundreds of thousands of their citizens flee their homes, chased out by "a swirl of unfounded rumors." I don't envy them.
On Monday afternoon the funeral for Freddie Gray took place in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray died last week from spinal injuries suffered while in Baltimore Police custody. After the funeral, against the wishes of the Gray family, some peaceful demonstrations took place, but other protests became violent, devolving into chaotic clashes.
Rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore—an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain. Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city's publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city's police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.
The citizens who live in West Baltimore, where the rioting began, intuitively understand this. I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today's riots began. My mother was raised in the same housing project, Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was killed. Everyone I knew who lived in that world regarded the police not with admiration and respect but with fear and caution. People write these feelings off as wholly irrational at their own peril, or their own leisure. The case against the Baltimore police, and the society that superintends them, is easily made:
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protestors taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
In Baltimore, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray died shortly after being taken into police custody, an investigation may uncover homicidal misconduct by law enforcement, as happened in the North Charleston, South Carolina, killing of Walter Scott. Or the facts may confound the darkest suspicions of protestors, as when the Department of Justice released its report on the killing of Michael Brown.
What's crucial to understand, as Baltimore residents take to the streets in long-simmering frustration, is that their general grievances are valid regardless of how this case plays out. For as in Ferguson, where residents suffered through years of misconduct so egregious that most Americans could scarcely conceive of what was going on, the people of Baltimore are policed by an entity that perpetrates stunning abuses. The difference is that this time we needn't wait for a DOJ report to tell us so. Harrowing evidence has been presented. Yet America hasn't looked.
Does Adam Sandler have an expiration date? Does his particular brand of slapstick—humor that's infused with a wan self-deprecation, that manages to be simultaneously silly and sociopathic, that once found Sandler punching Bob Barker in the face while informing him that "the price is wrong, bitch"—hold up? Is Sandler's own price now, finally, wrong?
Recent events would suggest yes. Late last week, in the course of filming Sandler's newest project, the made-for-Netflix Western spoof The Ridiculous 6, a Native-American cultural advisor and several performers and extras walked off the set in protest. (Sample characters: Beaver Breath, No Bra, Sits-on-Face. Sample line: "Say honey: how about after this, we go someplace and I put my peepee in your teepee?") As Allison Young, a Navajo actress who quit after being asked to do a scene "requiring her to fall down drunk, surrounded by jeering white men who rouse her by dousing her with more alcohol" told the Indian Country Media Network, “We talked to the producers about our concerns. They just told us, ‘If you guys are so sensitive, you should leave.’”
In a recent dispatch from Ferguson, Missouri, Jelani Cobb noted that President Obama's responses to "unpunished racial injustices" constitute "a genre unto themselves." Monday night, when Barack Obama stood before the nation to interpret the non-indictment of Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, he offered a particularly tame specimen. The elements of "the genre" were all on display—an unmitigated optimism, an urge for calm, a fantastic faith in American institutions, aneven-handedness exercised to a fault. But if all the limbs of the construct were accounted for, the soul of the thing was not.
There was none of the spontaneous annoyance at the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, and little of the sheer pain exhibited in the line, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." The deft hand Obama employed in explaining to Americans why the acquittal of George Zimmerman so rankled had gone arthritic. This was a perfunctory execution of "the genre," offered with all the energy of a man ticking items off a to-do list.
Police say that intentionally banging a suspect around in the back of a van isn't common practice. But the range of slang terms to describe the practice suggests it's more common that anyone would hope—and a roster of cases show that Freddie Gray is hardly the first person whose serious injuries allegedly occurred while in police transit. Citizens have accused police of using aggressive driving to rough suspects up for decades in jurisdictions across the country. Though experts don't think it's a widespread practice, rough rides have injured many people, frayed relationships, and cost taxpayers, including Baltimore's, millions of dollars in damages.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency and called out the National Guard on Monday night, "to address the growing violence and unrest in Baltimore City." Later Monday night, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced that a week-long curfew would be imposed on the city. Maryland State Police said they would request an additional 5,000 officers from the mid-Atlantic region to restore order.
Earlier in the day, police clashed with demonstrators during protests over the death of a young black man in police custody. Video footage showed a handful of protesters and bystanders throwing rocks and bottles at police officers in full riot gear, who responded with pepper spray and tear gas. City officials said at a press conference on Monday night that 15 officers had been injured and two were hospitalized, including one officer who was reportedly “unresponsive,” although further details about his or her condition were not immediately available. "Too many people have spent generations building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs," Rawlings-Blake told reporters.
Take a walk along West Florissant Avenue, in Ferguson, Missouri. Head south of the burned-out Quik Trip and the famous McDonalds, south of the intersection with Chambers, south almost to the city limit, to the corner of Ferguson Avenue and West Florissant. There, last August, Emerson Electric announced third-quarter sales of $6.3 billion. Just over half a mile to the northeast, four days later, Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. The 12 shots fired by Officer Wilson were probably audible in the company lunchroom.
Outwardly, at least, the City of Ferguson would appear to occupy an enviable position. It is home to a Fortune 500 firm. It has successfully revitalized a commercial corridor through its downtown. It hosts an office park filled with corporate tenants. Its coffers should be overflowing with tax dollars.
“People skills” are almost always assumed to be a good thing. Search employment ads and you will find them listed as a qualification for a startling array of jobs, including Applebee’s host, weight-loss specialist, CEO, shoe salesperson, and (no joke) animal-care coordinator. The notion that people smarts might help you succeed got a boost a quarter century ago, when the phrase emotional intelligence, or EI, entered the mainstream. Coined in a 1990 study, the term was popularized by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book . Since then, scores of researchers have shown how being in touch with feelings—both your own and other people’s—gives you an edge: compared with people who have average EI, those with high EI do better at work, have fewer health problems,and report greater life satisfaction.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.