In the Arab Spring, social media mobilized civil society the Middle East to topple entrenched dictatorships, but India offers another take on social media’s potential to disrupt a tenuous civil peace — as well as another reminder of governments’ impotence to control it.
In the wake of recent ethnic clashes and an ensuing refugee exodus in Assam province in northeastern India, the crisis went viral with rumors of reprisal attacks spreading over social media and sparking panic nationwide. So the Indian government attempted to ban bulk text messaging in an effort to stifle the spread of rumors, which were prompting ethnic minorities to mob train stations as far away as Bangalore seeking to flee expected attacks. The ban capped group SMS messages at just five recipients (later raised to 20), but technical issues limited the effect to pre-paid accounts. So, the move did little more than annoy texters and drive consumers to apps that work around the ban.
In the end, Muslim groups in Bangalore resorted to more old-fashioned forms of social messaging to reassure fleeing students and quell the panic, holding up signs outside the train station reading “Don’t leave Bangalore, dear Assamese friends. We love you!”
The Indian government doesn’t seemed to have learned its lesson about the futility of trying to control social media, however. Indian blogger Ahitagni Mandal recently twote that the government has even more ambitious plans ahead to “screen cyberspace.”
Yeah, um, good luck with that…