As access to the Internet grows, especially in small Indian towns and cities, social media has revealed a darker side as a hatred-mongering tool capable of setting off serious violence.
Malicious content, such as fake YouTube videos and morphed photographs, are usually spread rapidly to trigger rioting.
In UP’s Muzzafarnagar, a video clip purportedly showing a Muslim mob lynching two boys, which police now suspect is from neighboring Pakistan or Afghanistan, was used to stir unease, deepening hatred between Muslims and Hindus.
A series of rioting in western UP district has left at least 41 dead. The circulation of the video had led to violence spreading to new areas. The fake video that escalated clashes portends a new trend in India’s discordant politics.
“From word of mouth, communal polarization, especially by Hindutva organisations, is now moving online. This is a dangerous trend since the Internet is very potent,” said Prof Badri Narayan of the GB Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad.
Research shows social media sites, including sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, are more persuasive than television ads. Nearly 100 million Indians use the Internet each day, more than Germany’s population. Of this, 40 million have assured broadband, the ones who mostly subscribe to social-media accounts.
The country also has about 87 million mobile-Internet users, according to Internet and Mobile Association of India.
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UP’s police have blocked the video, invoking sections under 420 (forgery), 153-A (promoting enmity on religious grounds) and 120-B (conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code, along with section 66 of the Information Technology Act.
Section 66, however, is the heart of a free-speech debate. Activists say section 66 has been used at the drop of a hat.
Last November, two Mumbai girls faced arrests for questioning the city’s shutdown for Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray’s funeral. The arrests were declared illegal after being roundly criticised, including by the Supreme Court.
“In this case, the government has a legitimate reason to censor speech. However, this requires the authorities to very focused and action should be targeted, rather than sweeping,” said Sunil Abraham of the Bangalore-based The Centre for Internet and Society.
The government’s action, Abraham said, tended to be broad-based. He said in such situations, the government could use public-service messaging to present the alternate view.
“Legal provisions could be made whereby Twitter users from India, for example, (compulsorily) see the public service message by default when they log in,” Abraham said.