NEW DELHI — India has blocked more than 250 websites after provocative online content spread panic among people from the country's northeast, prompting some of them to flee Indian cities. The crackdown has sparked a debate about how the country will cope with misuse of social media.
Officials say the websites that were blocked had posted edited images and videos of victims of earthquakes and claimed they were those of Muslim victims caught in recent ethnic strife in India's northeastern Assam state and Burma.
As the images went viral, rumors began about reprisal attacks against Hindu migrants from the northeast working in other parts of India. Hate text messages warning of violence circulated widely. Worried about their safety, thousands of the migrants fled Indian cities last week to return to Assam.
Taken aback by the mass exodus, the government says the "unity and integrity of the country is at stake."
Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde says that "elements" had used social networking sites to whip up communal sentiments. Shinde says a number of the sites had been uploaded from Pakistan. Shinde adds that the government has gathered a lot of evidence through the investigation, whether from Facebook communication or text messaging.
Officials have also blamed social networking sites such as Twitter, Yahoo and Facebook for not screening objectionable content.
Cyber specialists say the government needs to go beyond the blame game and learn how to manage misuse of social media on the massive scale witnessed last week. About 100 million people in India use the Internet, the third-largest number of net users in the world. About 700 million people have mobile phones.
Cyber law expert, lawyer Pawan Duggal says this is the first time the Internet and mobile-phone technology have been used to incite fear in a community.
"India has to wake up to the need of putting cyber security as the number-one priority for the nation," Duggal noted. "Unfortunately, India does not even have a cyber-security policy. The nation does not have any plan of action, should such an emergency happen again. India needs to have its own cyber army of cyber warriors."
The government has been involved in a dispute with web companies such as Google and Facebook for several months and has called for them to devise a voluntary framework to keep offensive material off the web. India routinely asks these companies to remove what it calls "objectionable content," which has led to fears India may be diluting web freedom.
Sunil Abraham heads the Center for Internet and Society in Bangalore, an advocacy group for net freedom. He says the government's recent crackdown on hundreds of websites is warranted, but says it needs to be more sophisticated and aggressive in handling threats and rumors emanating from the internet.
"Social media websites and other Internet intermediaries should have been asked by the government to run banner advertising or some other form of messaging that revealed the lack of truth in the rumors that were circulating," Abraham explained. "The best way to deal with misinformation is to produce more accurate and more credible information. By just blocking access to fraudulent information, you do not fully undermine the power of rumors because by the time the government had decided to act the photographs and videos had already gone viral. And even though the websites are blocked these images will continue to circulate."
The exodus of northeast migrants from Indian cities has slowed in recent days as India has moved to block multimedia and bulk text messaging, and panic has subsided after repeated assurances of safety by the government.