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.
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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.