Several sections of the venerable Indian Penal Code (1860) prohibit the “unlawful assembly of five or more persons”. The objective is to prevent mobs reaching critical mass. Last Friday, the home ministry adapted the principle to mobile telephony in the hope of ending the rumour-mongering that has caused a panicked exodus from Bangalore, Pune and other cities of residents originally from the northeast. The transmission of five or more SMSes (short message service) at one go was prohibited. The size of each MMS (mobile message service) was restricted to under 25 kilobytes to prevent transmission of doctored images. The ban was confusingly phrased and interpreted differently by telecom providers. Some service providers banned the sending of more than five SMSes a day; others banned sending the same SMS to five or more recipients. In addition, the government blocked 250-odd webpages and assorted Twitter and Facebook accounts, saying they were disseminating rumours and doctored images. It was a late, ham-handed reaction to a situation brewing for weeks. It may prove ineffective in that it comes too late to stop the flow of disinformation — the images have already gone viral. The SMSes have been received by millions of people, many of whom don’t belong to the affected communities. The situation is calmer in Bangalore, at least. This is not because of tech blocks. It is because Muslim community leaders, and ordinary citizens, have reached out to reassure people from the northeast. Also, belatedly, some people have been arrested for spreading rumours, and others for physical assaults.
There are lessons to be learnt from this episode. Modern communications technology is effective at moulding public sentiment and co-ordinating mobs, as seen in the so-called Arab Spring as well as the London riots. Technology cannot be countered by bans. But it is ideology-agnostic. It can be monitored and utilised intelligently to counter disinformation. For example, instead of merely blocking websites, redirects could have carried messages warning surfers that the content was false and malicious. The same communication channels – SMS, social networks, email, MMS – could also have been used to spread messages of peace and communal harmony. Finally, preventive action could, and should, have been taken with greater alacrity. The arrests and site takedowns should have taken place a week earlier. The state signally failed to efficiently utilise the armoury of draconian laws and the huge surveillance network at its command.
Finally, the home minister and assorted authorities made multiple public statements dismissing the rumours and attempting to reassure people. Ordinary citizens chose to place greater faith in anonymous messages than in their appointed leaders. This underlines the lack of trust in the Indian state to maintain law and order and protect its citizens. Recognising the need to restore that trust should be the paramount lesson of the panic.