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The Indian government is turning its glare onto a number of social networking sites which it feels are responsible for widespread panic and mass evacuation in Northern India, as residents flee the strife-torn province of Assam.
Sectarian violence, allegedly between Muslims from neighbouring Bangladesh and the native Assamese, has led to scenes of tens of thousands of people fleeing the province in panic. The fear was fed by inflammatory mass text messages which spread rumours and innuendo about recriminations and violence.
According to Time.Com, “Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who represents Assam in the Parliament’s upper house, condemned those spreading rumors on Friday, saying they “should be brought to book as at stake is not the just unity and integrity of the country, but also communal harmony.”
The Washington Post reported on Monday that “The government’s blame list ranged from Facebook to fundamentalist Pakistani sites, Twitter to text messages, and Google to YouTube videos. Authorities also barred the sending of text messages to more than five people at a time for two weeks.”
The government is now facing the dilemma of whether to crack down harder on the free flow of information that connects so many in these parts and around the world, as China has done so successfully, much to the scorn of many Western nations.
Fox News reports that Google and Facebook have already complied by removing content which is inflammatory, but the nature of Twitter and its widespread usage means that the government may have to block it in its entirety.
Meanwhile, the Twitter hashtag #Emergency2012 has exploded in protest against what people are calling censorship, dictatorship and the beginnings of a police state.
A user called @DilliDurAst tweeted that “The Internet is the new Pakistan, the all-season enemy you can blame anything on”, while @TheSainaNehwal writes “They can block my twitter, my FB, my Blog, my Email BUT They can NEVER EVER block my mind.”
General consensus on social networks seems to be that this is a knee-jerk and utterly over-the-top response from a government with its own agenda to curb middle-class protest and quell a groundswell of criticism.
According to the Google Transparency Report, India topped the list of countries that routinely ask internet companies to remove content, and experts fear that a perceived national security threat could be just what the government needs to crack down hard without facing major protest.
There does seem to be good reason to worry about the use of social media to fan the flames of hatred and monitoring of the situation needs to be very stringent. But a blanket ban may do more damage than good as a lack of solid, local information can lead to even more wild rumours and fear. FoxNews quotes aU.S State Dept spokesperson as saying that “As the Indian government seeks to preserve security we are urging them also to take into account the importance of freedom of expression in the online world”.