Digital Mischief



Violence-hit Hailakandi is limping back to normalcy but the events leading up to Friday clearly show how agent provocateurs brought things to a head. Bike seats of worshippers coming for namaaz at a mosque in the town’s busy trading quarters had been found slashed days earlier. After lodging complaints to the police, surely these could have been followed up and the tensions nipped in the bud. Instead, some local politicians lost their head and called upon the faithful to take over the entire road in front of the mosque for prayers, even as the district administration rightly denied permission. But by then, their call was amplified over social media to those spoiling for trouble, and before long, clashes broke out between some worshippers and those demanding the road to be kept open. A life was lost in the ensuing police firing, several persons were injured and shops vandalised. Thankfully, peace meets were held to defuse communal passions even as the army staged flag march in the curfew-bound city. Internet services were suspended, a standard fire-fighting reaction these days. While tempers are cooling, mischief-makers elsewhere have been active on social media, particularly over the July 31 NRC deadline. Another concerted effort appears to be building up to foment trouble, judging from threats reportedly issued to several persons who had filed objections against suspect inclusions in the draft citizens’ register. That the NRC update process is apex court-monitored has not deterred the likes of Mamata Banerjee and Amit Shah from milking it cynically for electoral worth. With another hate campaign building up over NRC on social media, it is imperative that the State police administration tackles it on war footing in the coming days. After all, there is no knowing which way political winds will blow after the poll results are out on May 23, so it must be ensured that no vested interest quarters get to capitalise on the situation, NRC or otherwise. But it just goes to show how social media is losing its sheen as a magical communication platform. In the Easter serial blasts aftermath in Sri Lanka, one of the first things the government did was to suspend Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Youtube and others. Colombo’s hand was forced by the perception that these networks were unwilling to check the rising tide of hate speech on their platforms. More alarmingly, while rioters and vigilante groups have been known to coordinate their mayhem over social media, there is growing evidence that terrorists are also using it as a force-multiplier. As for India, it remains to be seen how social media behaves after the polls, having carried a surfeit of fake news and political propaganda as parties campaigned. The ad spend on social media in this election is likely to jump by a whopping 150% to touch Rs 12,000 crore, the lion’s share going to Facebook. Having used their digital spin doctors and troll armies to the hilt in this election, how parties deploy them subsequently will also be keenly watched. Policymakers must soon come to grips with monitoring content and financial transaction flows on social media, as well as devise a regulatory framework after getting the networks on board. There could also be good news on the fake news and objectionable content fronts, with several leading tech institutes in the country beginning to test artificial intelligence and machine learning solutions.