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Social media is being used as an alibi by a government that failed to prevent the Muzaffarnagar violence.
When a local administration and police fail to control spiralling violence, anywhere in the world, they now have a readymade line of defence. From Brazil to Turkey, the UK to the US, scapegoating social media has proven to be the easiest thing to do — and the most useless. After the Muzaffarnagar situation escalated, the Uttar Pradesh police and the state home secretary said people were using social media and fake videos to disturb communal harmony. I&B Minister Manish Tewari has spoken darkly of regulation of the "ungovernable" internet in times of crisis.
It is claimed that a video of a lynching in Pakistan was circulated in Muzaffarnagar and surrounding areas to misleading effect, that newspaper headlines were morphed and posted on social media sites. Certainly, social media can vastly amplify messages, and instantly diffuse information. Last year, thousands of Northeastern migrants fled home in fear, from across Indian cities, after incendiary rumours were spread through MMS and text message, using images that originated in Myanmar. Social media also, in concept, makes sudden and coordinated acts of violence possible. This is why governments often apply temporary brakes on bulk messaging and put third-party providers like Google, Facebook etc, on alert during times of violent disorder. Equally, social media can be used to identify and monitor who is spreading misconceptions through the network, and to allay fears.
But even last year, during the Northeastern panic, it was clear that images and words were being deliberately distorted to create a scare. A rumour is a statement on the social tensions it plays off, and the technology used is ultimately irrelevant. In Muzaffarnagar, there was reportedly a degree of planning in the riots — unknown people had entered villages, armed with guns, knives and petrol bombs. Circulating inflammatory images would be another tactic, whether through the internet or through pamphlets and posters. But human beings are not automatons, spurred to violence by a piece of hate media. Obviously, inter-community tension had been seething below the surface in Muzaffarnagar, and state officials had not been vigilant enough to stanch or manage it. Self-serving, divisive mobilisations by political parties have not helped either. Addressing these episodes requires a willingness to confront the social and political equations that readily flare into violence, rather than assuming technology is the tinder.