When I was working in a New Delhi newspaper, one morning we received an anonymous email that there would be a bomb blast in Connaught Place that day. The police were immediately informed. Very soon a cyber team visited the office and checked out the email in question.
After that, things moved pretty fast. Thanks to the IP address, the police tracked down the email to a cyber cafe in New Delhi itself. Based on the time it was sent out, the owner who had kept his records updated was able to pinpoint a regular customer and soon the police were knocking at his door.
The stunned man immediately confessed to his crime and said that he was just playing a prank and never thought that he would get caught. This was one case the police cracked in a matter of hours from morning to evening of the same day. As a side they had also sent sniffer dogs and an investigative team to Connaught Place just in case a bomb had indeed been planted.
This is the kind of swift action that is required if one is to scotch rumours like the one that led to an exodus of North Easteners from Bangalore.
But that didn’t happen at all. Violence took place in Mumbai and Lucknow. There was tension in Pune while rumours spread like wildfire all across Bangalore and Hyderabad. However, not much action was taken for many crucial days when things got out of hand.
Authorities and social networking status messages urged the North Easteners not to believe rumours and stay put, but this country cannot rest on mere assurances. Everyone knows that when a riot actually takes place in India, things get totally out of hand and most of the times police end up as powerless spectators.
That way the railway authorities did well to arrange for extra trains to ease the rush on the regular trains.
In fact, it was only after the rush from Bangalore abated that there were breakthroughs made in the case. People were arrested and the Home Ministry alleged that there was a Pakistan hand in the whole issue.
Fake images and videos had been circulating on social networking sites for ages. What took the authorities so long to wake up and point them out? Even the mainstream media has been guilty in that regard.
The same is the case with SMSes. Instead of going after the origin of these SMSes, authorities waited for many days before introducing the 5 SMS per quota per mobile. It was done after the horse had bolted from the stable. Had the crackdown come immediately, then there may have been some effect.
And what happens after 15 days when the limit is removed? Rumour mongers can have a field day again. It is a typical knee jerk reaction and that too quite delayed.
Actually the problem is the way in which governments and authorities view the entire social media. It is just seen as something which is evil and should be clamped down upon. Politicians keep calling for bans and go after entities like Google. That will yield zero results.
The second point is that the focus is more on criticism of the government rather than mischief making. A lot of websites play mischief but get away with it. However, sites which have been criticizing the government have been cracked down regularly. All the efforts are being made towards quelling perceived dissent. That’s where government's energy is spent.
The problem with the online world is that once any photo, video, blog or message goes viral, then there’s very little one can do about it. The trick lies in acting fast and trying to get to the source of any rumour or mischief making as soon as possible. That is the best form of damage control.
If authorities are more active on social networking sites, then it gives them a greater chance to counter rumours. Acting from the inside is more powerful than attacking from the outside.
Another matter is that even if doctored images and videos do appear on the internet, then does that give any group the right to indulge in violence as happened in Mumbai and Lucknow?
It is a regularly occurring feature of the governments of the day in India. Being slow and ineffective in the online world and showing absolutely no political will in the offline world.
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The author is a Bangalore-based journalist and blogger.
He blogs at http://sunilrajguru.com/