Social networking websites, especially Twitter, have come under fire in India after provocative messages were posted online against migrants in the country’s south.
As the name suggests, social media were intended to connect people and bridge social gaps, however they can also be used to disconnect people and widen those gaps.
This became very clear in India last week when provocative content was posted online and anonymous threats sparked an exodus of migrants from southern cities, including Bangalore and Mumbai.
Some 35,000 migrant workers and students came home to the remote northeast as they feared attacks from Muslims in reprisal for recent ethnic clashes in the state of Assam.
However, on Thursday many Twitter users criticized the Indian government for blocking some 20 Twitter accounts that officials alleged were spreading “provocative material.”
The US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said the Indian government should respect the freedom of "online expression."
Removal of inflammatory content
On Tuesday, the government pressed the social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter, to remove "inflammatory" content.
When he was questioned about the role of the social media in sparking ethnic tension, Indian Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde told reporters there was "sufficient evidence. The whole process is in investigation mode."
Whereas Google, Facebook and YouTube had reportedly complied with the government’s requests by Tuesday, Twitter seemed reluctant to cooperate in tracing the source of the provocative messages and restrict them as much as possible.
Officials said that the government would seek its own course to address the problem and would keep a close watch on social media sites.
"In cases where there is no response in spite of lawful government directions, then the government will need to do whatever is possible," the telecommunications secretary R Chandrashekhar told journalists.
Rekindling the censorship debate
This will rekindle the debate on freedom of speech and Internet censorship in India.
Various tweets this week have speculated on a government plan to restrict Twitter in India, about which there have been rumors for some time.
"Concerns with Twitter started in June this year when the Indian government reported that fake profiles had been created on the pretext that the Prime Minster's Office (PMO) was fooling people with unauthorized information," Kanwar Wahid Naqvi, the former news director of the television news channel, Aaj Tak told DW.
The government complained that there was objectionable content on six accounts resembling the PMO's official account. These were later blocked after Twitter refused to immediately delete them.
Last year, social media sites also came under fire when offensive material was published against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the leader of Congress party Sonia Gandhi. There were calls then for online content to be regulated.
India is reportedly currently trying to seek help from the US Department of Homeland Security to monitor websites carrying objectionable content. Indian journalist Chandrakant Naidu told DW this was "a practical way of dealing with the situation."
"Politically too the ruling coalition loses more than it gains out of any ‘excesses’ on social media sites," he said.
However, he pointed out that speculation that Twitter might banned in India if it did not subject itself to censorship, had not been well received by the online community at large.
"I wonder if the Indian government can really afford to do that and be seen on the same page as China and yet proudly boast about its democratic dispensation."
Moreover, "it is doubtful whether a ban is technologically feasible," he pointed out. "Unlike Facebook and Google, Twitter doesn't have a physical presence in India to be arm-twisted by the government."
Anand Pradhan from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in New Delhi told DW it was generally very difficult to restrict social media where millions of posts are uploaded a minute. "The question is who will monitor and censor them," he said.
He said there was a need to "educate people on how to use social media. There should be social etiquettes. Self regulation plays a very significant role in this. We should not forget that social media sites provide users with options to report certain post as abusive, to block them, report about it or delete it."