By N Sathiya Moorthy
The revelation that most, if not all, of the SMS rumours that caused panic among North-East Indians studying or working in south Indian cities and towns originated in Pakistan should be cause for concern in more ways than one. It throws up possibilities of ‘cyber crime’ that had not been considered seriously by law-enforcement agencies across the world thus far, with the result, no ready solution can be thought of. The Government of India has since banned all bulk SMS transmission for 15 days, but it may also be time that Governments in the country and elsewhere too started looking at social media networks not as information and entertainment alone – but also as a source of mischief.
In the Indian context, the social media has been playing a very active role over the past decade and more, many of them becoming active around the time of elections to the national Parliament or various State Assemblies. The anti-corruption campaigns of social activist Anna Hazare and yoga guru Baba Ramdev has also witnessed heavy traffic on social media networks like SMS, which has since graduated to email and twitter, etc. At times of calamities like 26/11 blasts or floods in Mumbai in recent years, and also tsunami and other natural calamities, the social media acted with responsibility, commitment and patriotism in most cases, but violations of the ‘un-established norms’ were also often reported.
The beginning of the ‘social media’ influence and accompanying criticism owed to the SMS/email messages that clogged across India that idols of Lord Ganesha were ‘drinking milk’. Someone had the nerve to hurt religious sentiments in the name of promoting it possibly, but no action was taken. At the height of the ‘Godhra incidents’ and the post-Godhra ‘Gujarat riots’, sections of the evolving social media did as much damage as others did a good work. Today, what should have been dismissed as an isolated incident of a student from the North-East being killed in Bengaluru, the ‘IT capital of the country’ all the same, has enveloped the region in shock, and the nation again in shame. Worse still, unlike in the ‘Gujarat riots’, nothing of the kind had happened in this instance. Yet, rumours of the ‘social media’ kind were enough to unnerve tens of thousands from the region in South India and their families back home.
It is not as if youth only from the North-East, Bihar and Bengal are studying in educational institutions in the South. Parallel to increasing regionalisation of politics, the nation has witnessed larger migration of population across the State, upgrading their own skills and family incomes, and at the same time contributing to the economy of their ‘adopted home-States’ in more ways than one. Suffice is to point out that in a State like Tamil Nadu, which on the linguistic front is identified with the anti-Hindi agitation of the Sixties as with the historicity of Tamil literature, no town or village is exempt from the presence and contributions of labours, skilled and unskilled, and professionals whose mother-tongue is not Tamil. Rather, they are all conversant with Hindi, and at least until such time they are able to pick up the local language – which they seem to pick up quick and fast – Hindi is their medium of communication even with the locals. The ‘Bengaluru episode’ is not the first of its kind in recent times. This was preceded by a less publicised likewise incident only a few months ago. In the Tamil Nadu capital of Chennai, panic gripped the labour class from north India after five persons were shot dead by the police after a series of bank robberies. The message went around that the non-locals had to be double-checked for their background, and rumours spread that they were being targeted. Some reports also indicated that the City Police had asked all ‘outsiders’ working as skilled or unskilled labour to report to the nearest police station – until the Government clarified in double-quick time that no circular of the kind had been issued in the first place.
Sri Lankan experience
Elsewhere, to the social media has gone the credit for the ‘Arab Spring’ political changes in West Asia, over the past years. That rumour-mongering has been part of party politics and global conspiracies to topple governments have been known for long. In the era before ‘social media’ developed, matching with technology of the days, even the Government, particularly at the Centre, lacked the wherewithal to cross-checks claims and rumours and apply correctives. Today, technology has also helped Governments to intervene and ensure that anti-nationals and anti-socials do not enjoy a longer day than desired, that too without anyone having to fire a shot or blast a bomb. Rumours of the kind while not leading to disassociation from the State as an institution or the nation as an identity, they still have the potential to spread discontent, if not disaffection, wholesale.
For the social media to reflect and support popular sentiments is one thing. But for them to spread a motivated message, either of an adversarial nation or disaffected sections of the society and polity is another thing. Incidents of the Bengaluru kind belong to the latter category. The potential of such rumours would have a long-time and longer lasting impact on the psyche of the average citizen. Coupled with his own circumstances, influenced by increasing failure of the State to provide him with the services that he is entitled to as a citizen, and which is what civilisation and nationhood is all about at the starting-point, the misuse and abuse of the social media can have consequences that may not be fully appreciated by the defenders of free speech.
After the ‘Arab Spring’ for instance, there is a growing sense of doubt about the mood of the local populations that had caused change of governments in their respective nations through peaceful street-protests or violent battles. In some of these nations, post-democratisation elections, effected through public protests, aided as they were by the social media, have shown that the perceptions of the population are at variance with those of the protagonists/perpetrators. Questions have also been raised about the identity of those that employed social media networks to effect these regime-changes. Foreign Governments and their agencies are suspects, as used to be the case in the forgotten ‘Cold War’ era.
In a first of its kind, only months after the conclusion of ‘Eelam War IV’ in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora lost no time in floating a ‘trans-national government of Tamil Eelam’ (TNGTE), through the virtual world. Through the internet, they conducted elections among the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora population across the world. Through video-conferencing they conducted ‘parliamentary proceedings’. They have a ‘prime minister’, too, V Rurdrakumaran, resident in the US. What is true for Sri Lanka could happen elsewhere, and it is unlikely that the world would take notice of such transgressions until the West has been affected, in ideological terms, though not possibly in terms of identifiable nations from among them.
The TNGTE concept raises questions on issues of sovereignty and national identity. It seemed to have flowed from the perception that in a ‘virtual world’ you do not need traditional identities like ‘territory’ and ‘sovereignty’ to assert ‘national identity’. Nor do you require the customary recognition by existing nations or international organisations, to be accepted and acknowledged as a ‘State’ — in the traditional sense of the term, however. This mismatch could have consequences that have not been fathomed since. In recent days, a former US Attorney-General, Ramsay Clarke, is reported to have been made a ‘member of the TNGTE senate’. Recognition of the kind for the TNGTE may not mean anything in the traditional sense of ‘Statehood’.
The ‘LTTE experience’ has also shown that the leadership’s obsession with possessing territory and a conventional army capable of fighting a conventional war were among the causes for its debacle. This could prompt such elements elsewhere to look at the ‘TNGTE model’ to promote concepts that may have undesirable consequences for the traditional State structure in a world linked by traditional principles. In a world where the protagonists and promoters of concepts such as TNGTE do not seek such recognition, a ‘virtual government in a virtual world’ could serve their limited purpose, with host governments being unable, or unwilling to arrest the trend at the bud.
By expanding the scope and meaning of the ‘social media’ to include all material that inform, educate – and at times instigate, too – to include ‘separate state’ concepts, it is becoming increasingly clear that Governments and nations have to be eternally alert to abort rumours of the ‘Bengaluru kind’ nearer home, and the ‘creation’ of ‘virtual governments’ otherwise. It is not about what can be achieved through such efforts. From the standpoint of the traditional State structure, which is what is available to humanity, it is what they cannot control but have to control, nonetheless. It is a dimension of ‘cyber crime’ that goes beyond the limited application to which that term has since been employed.
It is much less than the ‘cyber war’ that nations are capable of fighting, now or later, but it is much more than is understood, appreciated and acted upon. If ‘virtual States’ can exist, the can also be expected to wage ‘virtual terrorism’, an euphemism for ‘virtual wars’ State actors are now said to be preparing themselves for – and which terminology is not associated with non-State players. That would not change the context of such threats, though in terms of depth, they may not be comparable. Terror groups, for instance, may not target State actor’s satellites in outer space, but they may still consider hacking into data transmitted through that space, though on the ground level – and literally so. Hacking for the sake of hacking, as involving the ‘Wikileak expose’ is considered ‘terrorism’ of a kind, but when organised non-State actors claiming to be ‘virtual States’ or otherwise, when they target the data-bases of the central banks, individual banks, intelligence agencies and defence establishments, could not only play havoc with the system. They actually would be ending up sowing seeds of disenchantment, if not outright disaffection in the larger population, too, after a point. The civilised world has to address the issue in good time without having to chase ghosts all over again. Often, these ghosts have been their own creation, as otherwise, too.
The Indian ban on mass SMS, coupled with the Government’s insistence on Blackberry makers sharing the code with Indian agencies are steps in the right direction, however conservative they may be. So is the recent decision of Skype to record transactional matter and retain it for a month, for security agencies to tap from, in times of need. While social media may serve a limited purpose in sharing information and knowledge, the consequences of its possible misuse – apart from the obvious ones – can be more disastrous in terms of reach and impact. Responsibility and accountability, which the social media preaches to government, is not something that those who are responsible among them and feel accountable, too, cannot guarantee. The State structure may be archaic and slow, but it may still be better to work on fast-tracking its work than overtaking it in unconventional ways, whose consequences are beginning to hit and hurt, all the same.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)