How does a government counter panic triggered by SMS messages followed by spontaneous alerts via social media like Facebook? Last week, a scare among Northeasterners in Bangalore, led to thousands fleeing from the Garden city and from other parts of Karnataka to their home states. The railway stations in Bangalore and Mysore were jam packed with the exodus of people who believed that they would be the subject of attacks following the ethnic violence in Assam.
Soon, the alarm spread to other southern cities—namely Chennai and Hyderabad—where there was a similar scramble to board trains to the northeast. What was surprising was that it only took a few text messages for an entire community to be gripped by paranoia. One Facebook message allegedly from the Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena warned northeasterners to leave Bangalore before August 20 or put their lives to risk.
Unfortunately, the Karnataka government was unable to quell the fear which quickly touched a feverish pitch. Home Minister R Ashok’s appeal to those thronging the Bangalore Central railway station not to flee the city fell on deaf ears. Even Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar’s assurance that the northeasterners would be adequately protected and that those responsible for spreading the canard would be dealt with severely, failed to instill confidence.
What happened in Bangalore can happen anywhere. And this is reason enough for governments, both in the states and at the Centre, to come up with strategies to counter false alerts. The predictable and rather intrusive course of action is to monitor social media and mobile text exchanges. In today’s information age there are countless ways to circumvent any form of surveillance.
Also, there is every possibility of the police, or the agency tasked with keeping tabs, over-reacting to innocuous messages. For example, a text message from a friend to friend complaining about the loud music being played by northeasterners in the neighbourhood could lead to a police party rushing to investigate and taking its own time to conclude that it was a case of barking up the wrong tree.
In the good old days (not really that far back!) before mobile telephony took over our lives there were rumours. But all it took was a statement from the government or the police to quash them. I remember during the frenzy of the 1993 riots in Mumbai (then Bombay) there was the buzz that a Pakistani fleet was on its way to Maharashtra and that commandos would be landed at Juhu to take over India’s commercial capital. It took the state government less than six hours to rubbish the false alarm. It managed to do so because the communication channels were well defined and limited. A press statement sent out to the media was enough. But in today’s internet and cellphone age things are not so simple. People responsible for letting out false information into the public domain and those forwarding the alarming news do not factor in the government clarification.
To put it in simple terms, no one would want to alert their friends about a looming danger which has been denied by the authorities. They would rather spread the alarm without any contradictory riders. Also, those who swear by the internet and their mobiles do not always go to Doordarshan or other private news channels for information.
Incidentally, the latter are known to “stay with the news” and like to cash in on public panic to raise their TRPs rather than rush to set the record straight and take the wind out of the sails of a `good’ alarmist story.
Given the situation what can the government do? It should set up a dedicated team which can respond to a Bangalore-like situation using the very medium used by those spreading the rumours. And this team should not be pieced together through inter-department transfers of laggards who are likely to fail in executing the task given to them. What is required is a small group of individuals who are passionate about info tech and can monitor and respond to false news being put out through the social media. They should not be those who write PR profiles of the government or maintain blogs for our netas.
That said, there are other aspects that contribute to panic and lower the credibility of government denials and assurances of providing security. Take the case of Karnataka. There have been several cases in the recent past of the moral police being allowed to let their writ run. Everyone knows what has been happening in Mangalore where Hindu right wing groups have been targeting women who frequent pubs.
The more recent incident was the shocking ‘raid’ by activists on a birthday celebration in a company guest house which was thought to be a rave party. The funny thing was the teenagers attending it had the permission of their parents!
In Bangalore, where a northeastern student was recently found murdered, there is an alarming and growing campaign against outsiders. This xenophobia is very visible and felt by those in the IT industry and by students who have come from other states. With the mushrooming of private universities and educational institutions the problem has only amplified. Worse still is the fact that among sections of Kannadigas the outsider is seen as a corrupting influence destroying the local culture and westernising the youth.
A few years ago I happened to be in Bangalore on New Year’s Eve. By all accounts I was lucky to be in India’s most happening city. Imagine my surprise when I read in the papers that all bars and restaurants on Brigade Road, in the heart of the city, would down their shutters by 8pm on December 31. Reason: many owners expected violence later in the evening from those opposed to the party culture.
Given such intolerance, xenophobia and the government’s reluctance in the past to act against the moral police and those who target outsiders, it was but natural for northeasterners to repose more faith in anonymous text messages forwarded to them rather than a government statement.
An overall change in attitude is required from those governing the state. And yes, every state government needs to open better and more updated communication channels. Remember, one is living in 2012 and not 1992.
(The writer is a senior Delhi-based journalist.)