Last week, in the wake of rumours of impending violence and hate messages that led to a mass exodus of northeastern people from Bangalore and Pune, I had called for s-governance — the social media equivalent of e-governance. Under this, government agencies can systematically and directly engage citizens, bloggers and mainstream media to counter and quickly put down rumours, hate messages or disinformation.
It turns out that the problem is deeper. After the column appeared, the Centre went on to block hundreds of Twitter or YouTube accounts in what appeared to be a late but knee-jerk reaction. While its desire to counter those who spread morphed videos that spread communal tensions cannot be questioned, it cannot be denied that the bogey of media censorship or anti-democratic behaviour rises alongside.
It becomes more complicated when you realise that some of the disinformation and threats emanated from Pakistan. In a borderless cyberspace, it is now becoming a purely academic point in discussing whether it was a state agency or an individual group across the border that creates, fans or manages such campaigns.
The hard reality of cyber terror is upon us. This involves text messages, hacking of computers, disinformation and morphed videos. Small, committed groups of any hue can get into this low-cost business but have high impact in sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Last week, as the government faced allegations of censorship, its tough position was made more difficult by its own doing. Government arms, which include the information and broadcasting ministry, the home ministry and the ministry of information technology did not appear to be acting in a coordinated manner while social media was abuzz.
The sad part was that Indians were mocking the goverment while fellow citizens were in panic (they were leading a Twitter trend called #blameitonPakistan). The simple fact is that the government has to choose between curbing democracy and letting hate mongers have a free hand, unless it thinks creatively to get out of the devil-and-the-deep-sea choice with some inspired measures.
India, with a democratic tradition to uphold and a real threat of borderless campaign that threatens its security, needs to treat the new threat like it was AIDS. There is a National AIDS Control Organisation. The least the country deserves is a coordinating agency that can act fast to quell rumours, shoot down disinformation and spread messages of assurance. Social media is the opposite of bureaucratic red tape.