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.
Stories of gray areas are exactly what more men need to hear.
The story of Aziz Ansari and “Grace” is playing out as a sort of Rorschach test.
One night in the lives of two young people with vintage cameras is crystallizing debate over an entire movement. Depending on how readers were primed to see the ink blot, it can be taken as evidence that the ongoing cultural audit is exactly on track—getting more granular in challenging unhealthy sex-related power dynamics—or that it has gone off the rails, and innocent men are now suffering, and we are collectively on the brink of a sex panic.
Since the story’s publication on Saturday (on the website Babe, without comment from Ansari, and attributed to a single anonymous source), some readers have seen justice in Ansari’s humiliation. Some said they would no longer support his work. They saw in this story yet another case of a man who persisted despite literal and implied cues that sex was not what a woman wanted.Some saw further proof that the problems are systemic, permeating even “normal” encounters.
Allegations against the comedian are proof that women are angry, temporarily powerful—and very, very dangerous.
Sexual mores in the West have changed so rapidly over the past 100 years that by the time you reach 50, intimate accounts of commonplace sexual events of the young seem like science fiction: You understand the vocabulary and the sentence structure, but all of the events take place in outer space. You’re just too old.
This was my experience reading the account of one young woman’s alleged sexual encounter with Aziz Ansari, published by the website Babe this weekend. The world in which it constituted an episode of sexual assault was so far from my own two experiences of near date rape (which took place, respectively, during the Carter and Reagan administrations, roughly between the kidnapping of the Iran hostages and the start of the Falklands War) that I just couldn’t pick up the tune. But, like the recent New Yorker story “Cat Person”—about a soulless and disappointing hookup between two people who mostly knew each other through texts—the account has proved deeply resonant and meaningful to a great number of young women, who have responded in large numbers on social media, saying that it is frighteningly and infuriatingly similar to crushing experiences of their own. It is therefore worth reading and, in its way, is an important contribution to the present conversation.
The parents of teen internet celebrities get a crash course in a new kind of fame while trying to maintain boundaries for their newly rich and powerful children.
When then-14-year-old Jonas Bridges ran down the stairs of his Atlanta home shouting, “Dad, I’ve got 1,000 fans!” his father, Rob Bridges, hardly took notice. A few days later Jonas barreled into the living room again, saying, “Dad, I’ve got 3,000 fans now.” Again, his father brushed him off. Several days later, Jonas told his father, “I have 5,000 fans now and if I get to 10,000 I’ll get paid for it.” Finally, Rob Bridges turned to his wife and said, “Denise, what the hell is he talking about?”
What Jonas Bridges was trying to tell his father was that he was rapidly becoming famous on YouNow, a social video platform where he had begun hosting live-streams from his bedroom under the pseudonym “woahits_jonas.” Before his parents knew what was happening, Jonas had amassed an army of online fans for his vlogs and prank videos. Before they could grasp quite what his newfound fame meant, Jonas had begun raking in serious cash.
The mass death of 200,000 saiga provides a dark omen for what might happen to wildlife in a changing world.
It took just three weeks for two-thirds of all the world’s saiga to die. It took much longer to work out why.
The saiga is an endearing antelope, whose bulbous nose gives it the comedic air of a Dr. Seuss character. It typically wanders over large tracts of Central Asian grassland, but every spring, tens of thousands of them gather in the same place to give birth. These calving aggregations should be joyous events, but the gathering in May 2015 became something far more sinister when 200,000 saiga just dropped dead. They did so without warning, over a matter of days, in gathering sites spread across 65,000 square miles—an area the size of Florida. Whatever killed them was thorough and merciless: Across a vast area, every last saiga perished.
A viral story highlights the lingering difference between the language—and the practice—of consent.
It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said.
I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.
That was Aziz Ansari, responding to a story that was published about him over the weekend, a story that doubled for many readers as an allegation not of criminal sexual misconduct, but of misbehavior of a more subtle strain: aggression. Entitlement. Excessive persistence. His statement, accordingly—not an apology but not, either, a denial—occupies that strange and viscous space between defiance and regret. I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart.
Coates says he is "mystified as anybody else” over West's critique.
If there’s real beef between the Harvard philosopher Cornel West and The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, Coates says he doesn’t understand it. West is a vocal critic of Coates and his status as a public intellectual.
Coates addressed the controversy at a panel Tuesday hosted by The Atlantic, saying he remains confused why the feud started in the first place, and that he can’t seem to find a huge difference in the things West has spoken about and what Coates himself has written.
Coates spoke about the first time he saw Cornel West 20 years ago, and found it surreal to have that same person “write critical things about you when they have so clearly not read your work.”
“I am mystified as anybody else” about West’s argument, Coates said, adding that he hopes people read Race Matters, West’s groundbreaking 1993 book.
Entertainment glorifying or excusing predatory male behavior is everywhere—from songs about “blurred lines” to TV shows where rapists marry their victims.
Edward Cullen. Chuck Bass. Lloyd Dobler. Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That guy from Love Actually with the sign. The lead singers of emo bands with their brooding lyrics. Many of the romantic heroes that made me swoon in my youth followed a pattern and, like a Magic Eye picture, only with a little distance did the shape of it pop out to me. All of these characters in some way crossed, or at least blurred, the lines of consent, aggressively pursuing women with little or no regard for their desires. But these characters’ actions, and those of countless other leading men across the pop-culture landscape, were more likely to be portrayed as charming than scary.
Romance often involves a bit of pursuit—someone has to make a move, after all. And there’s certainly a spectrum of pursuit: Sometimes supposedly romantic gestures in pop culture veer toward the horrendous or illegal; sometimes they’re just a bit creepy or overzealous. But revisiting some of these fictional love stories can leave one with the understanding that intrusive attention is proof of men’s passion, and something women should welcome. In a number of cases, male characters who were acknowledged to have gone too far—by, for example, actually forcing themselves on women—were quickly forgiven, or their actions compartmentalized and forgotten.
Google reveals the truth about people’s romantic insecurities.
Perhaps the aphorism should be changed to “In Google, veritas.” Where do people go with their most intimate worries, thoughts, and fears? Not the nearest water cooler or humblebrag app. More likely, they’ll seek comfort in the relative privacy of a search box.
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a former data scientist at Google, used his data-analysis skills to learn what was really on Americans’ minds. The result, a new book called Everybody Lies, shows how the terms and questions people type into search engines don’t at all match what they claim on surveys.
“So for example,” he told me recently, “there have historically been more searches for porn than for weather.” But just 25 percent of men and 8 percent of women will admit to survey researchers that they watch porn.
The president denies paying a porn actress not to speak about an alleged affair, but he’s often linked payments to confidentiality agreements in the past.
Breaking up is hard to do. A pile of money and some crack legal help can’t heal a broken heart, but they can go a long way to guaranteeing that whatever bad feelings emerge from the relationship don’t make it to the public. At various times in the past, Donald Trump has struck deals with women in his life, or formerly in his life, exchanging money for silence.
It’s not a perfect solution. Over the last week, a series of stories have focused on Trump’s 2006 interactions with Stephanie Clifford, an adult actress who performed under the nom de porn Stormy Daniels. Trump and Daniels reportedly met at a golf tournament in July 2006, more than a year after he married Melania, his third wife. At various points in the past, Daniels has given interviews to various outlets alleging that she had a sexual relationship with him.
Both men have receded to the political margins, but there's no telling if that's where they'll stay.
Steve Bannon and Nigel Farage are both populist figureheads known for championing their own brands of nationalism that had historic implications for their countries in 2016—in the U.S., the election of Donald Trump; in the U.K., the historic decision to leave the European Union. But two years later, these men, who rose from relative political obscurity to the center of power, appear to be falling back to where they started.
In the U.S., Bannon, the former Trump ally and White House chief strategist, has fallen out of the president’s good graces after it was revealed he had lambasted the president and members of his family to Michael Wolff, the author of the international bestsellerFire and Fury. In the U.K., Farage, the former U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) leader and vocal Brexiteer, has become a national punchline after calling for the U.K. to hold yet another referendum on EU membership, only to later retract the call.