In August this year, text messages and social media were blamed for riots in Bangalore and the exodus of Bangalore residents with north-east roots.
The speed at which the damaging rumours spread resulted in the authorities coming down heavily on the use of both text messages and social media. “The government has asked relevant agencies to scan all social media platforms to check for inflammatory and offensive content, following which, the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DIT) has issued an advisory to all intermediaries in terms of provisions of IT Act and Rules to take action for disabling all such content on priority. Cellphone operators have been told to block all bulk SMS-es and videos – so nobody can send a message to more than five people at a time,” NDTV had reported.
As with most news, bad news makes the headlines, while good news is ignored or given short shrift.
Yesterday morning, as rumours spread like wildfire on the ‘death’ of Shive Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, it was the very same text message and social media services that helped to calm the situation down. Twitter was full of messages debunking the claims of those who sought to suggest that Bal Thackeray had passed away; it was instead, full of messages saying the city was calm and that there were no problems anywhere.
Messages from Shiv Sena leaders, including Uddhav Thackeray clarifying that Bal Thackeray was stable and responding to treatment, were quickly amplified, again contributing to a diffusion of what might have become a difficult situation.
What was missing, though were messages of reassurance from the government or from the city police department. As we have argued earlier, social media can be a powerful tool for the government to communicate and reassure citizens in times of distress and panic.
The positive use of SMS and social media yesterday, was yet another example of how it might be a good idea for the government and various departments to figure out how these tools can be used for the greater good – as was demonstrated by the people of Mumbai yesterday.