By Praveen Swami
Sep 10, 2013
They say these images killed. They’re wrenching and awful, but it’s important you watch them. You can watch the video here but please note that it is graphic in nature.
It’s important, because police and politicians in Uttar Pradesh have been blaming the video for fuelling communal violence in Muzaffarnagar. It was claimed, by fringe Hindu nationalist groups, to show the killing of two Hindu men.
In fact, as police point out, the video’s been online since 2010—and actually records the lynching of two Pakistani teenagers in the city of Sialkot.
Now you’ve seen it, too, are you planning on starting a riot? Probably not — and that has some important implications, not just for our national debate over communalism, but for the future of digital media in India and our free speech rights.
In recent years, we’ve seen a growing chorus of commentators asserting that the social media is fuelling political violence. The largely-unregulated digital world, it is claimed, is now India’s principal vector for hate — a proposition that at first seems borne out by the mixed nuts who flourish on Twitter, or the little poison-gardens that have sprung up on Facebook. Kapil Sibal has long been calling for greater legal regulation, as well as police action.
This argument is spurious, for two reasons.
First, there is zero evidence on causality. No one has data to bear out the claim that the Muzaffarnagar perpetrators — or any other communal perpetrators — killed because they saw the video. There’s no way of even knowing how many people have even watched the video, which is alleged to have circulated through CDs, nor how many took it seriously. There’s no way of knowing whether it was a cause of hatred, or only found credible because of the charged climate.
Second, there’s no evidence at all communal violence has become worse as a consequence of the growing reach of social media. The Ministry of Home Affairs’ annual reports, the sole official data-set on communal violence, don’t suggest there’s been any kind of trend in violence since 2002, as the social media has expanded.
Last year’s exodus of North East-origin residents of Bangalore and Mumbai shows how multiple forces collude to create crisis. In early April, 2012 graphic — if fabricated—images of anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar and the North-East began to circulate on internet websites. The images fuelled anger among some young Muslims. In Mumbai and Allahabad, the targets were the police and the state. Bangalore and Pune witnessed brawls. Mysore saw a stabbing.
It isn’t clear, though, if the killings had anything to do with the online campaign — or even, in fact, if there was a campaign. For all the dark hints of a cyber-jihad, investigators who ploughed through some 5 million text messages and tens of thousands of websites found no hint of single-point authorship or direction.
Nor is it clear that the messages were the driver of the exodus: panicked phone calls from loved ones back home, local tensions linked to lifestyle differences between Muslims and North-East migrants, the absence of a credible police response — all these may have had a role.
In a thoughtful commentary, Sandeep Unnithan and Kiran Tare noted that the Mumbai violence of August, 2012, was preceded by a deluge of propaganda about the killings of Muslims in Myanmar and Assam. This flood came not just in ones and zeroes floating through cyberspace, but in the form of conventional pamphleteering and street mobilisation. They noted that the more bizarre stories on Assam became credible because the old media — print and television alike — did a terrible job of reporting what was actually going on.
The Kashmir youth-led violence of 2010, similarly, saw an aggressive campaign of online propaganda, but there’s no evidence at all it was the force behind events on the streets.
Little of the “newness” being attributed to the social media’s role is in fact new. In 1963, the historian Ramachandra Guha has recorded the disappearance of a venerated relic from the Kashmiri shrine of Hazratbal led to anti-Hindu violence in Bangladesh. In Kolkata, refugees from this violence soon sparked off anti-Muslim violence; 400 people were killed, 300 of them Muslim. In Rourkela and Jamshedpur, over 1,000 were killed—again mainly Muslim.
It bears mention that in Kashmir itself, there was no such killing — the only damage was to a hotel and movie theatre owned by chief minister Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad, which were burned down along with a police station.
Historian PK Dutta’s superb account of the 1926 Bengal riots, all sparked off by the playing of music before mosques, notes that the local cause of the conflict existed within a wider context of chauvinism. The riots came among others, as far dispersed as Kohat, Meerut and Ludhiana. Each of these, Dutta notes, were “commemorated as images, which either singly or strung together, became incantations that gestured at the need for revenge or self-congratulation”.
Indians, C Christopher Bayly has recorded, were rapidly transmitting information — false or correct —rapidly across the sub-continent ever since the eighteenth century, if not earlier. Facebook and Twitter might have speeded up this process of dissemination, but they’re not a cause of lethality.
Human stupidity is the most global of things. In the United States, there’s a vibrant 9/11 conspiracy theory culture that holds the government rigged the Twin Towers with explosives to bring them down—providing an excuse for war. Popular Mechanics, among others, examined—and comprehensively debunked—the claims, but it hasn’t stopped them from continuing to flourish.
There’s a London resident I know of who was considering selling his home and shifting to a village in India because he thinks his government is seeding the skies with chemicals.
The power of rumour has long been evident. In 1999, tens of thousands of workers fled the ship breaking port of Alang, after an astrological magazine predicted doomsday was nigh. There’ve been gods who drink milk; aubergines with the name of Allah embossed in them; Jesus statues which weep blessed tears.
In the digital age, rumours’ just found a new media—a new village square, if you like, where information is exchanged and interpreted. Irrational interpretations, the scholars Mathijs Pelkmans and Rhys Machold have argued, flourish not just because people are stupid, but because the institutions around them have become non-credible and opaque.
That’s the real lesson from Muzaffarnagar ought be that we have a police system that can’t ensure order, and politicians who thrive on encouraging violence. Ending the cycle of hate would be the easiest thing to do if Facebook was the problem. The truth is, sadly for all of us, it isn’t.