I don’t know if you have kept up with the rather bizarre panic that is occurring in India but there was a line in a New York Times news account that sent a chill down my spine:

BRAJAKHAL, India — Like a fever, fear has spread across India this week, from big cities like Bangalore to smaller places like Mysore, a contagion fueling a message: Run. Head home. Flee. And that is what thousands of migrants from the country’s distant northeastern states are doing, jamming into train stations in an exodus challenging the Indian ideals of tolerance and diversity.

A swirl of unfounded rumors, spread by text messages and social media, had warned of attacks by Muslims against northeastern migrants, prompting the panic and the exodus. Indian leaders, deeply alarmed, have pleaded for calm, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appeared in Parliament on Friday to denounce the rumor mongering and offer reassurance to northeastern migrants.

Social media, a technological lifeforce that unites, inspires, informs, educates, and delights us, clearly also has the power to maim.

Social media and the seeds of terror

Here in America, the greatest panic of my generation, and hopefully of my lifetime, was the 9/11 terrorist attack.  I’m so very glad we didn’t have Twitter back then.

“Nine eleven” was a day of complete chaos.  Planes were falling out of the sky. We didn’t know what was happening or why.  Agents of terror had seemingly used the nation’s infrastructure at will to kill thousands of innocent people on our own soil.

What would be the next target? The water supply? A nuclear power plant? The air that we breathe?  Did we need to lock ourselves up in our homes? Run? Prepare for a nuclear?

What would Twitter be like in the midst of that brand of terror and chaos? Certainly social media connections can help in an emergency and maybe even save lives, but it can, and sadly will, magnify terror.

When every confused eye witness with a cell phone becomes a reporter and the most ridiculous innuendo can become a viral “fact” today, I shudder to think how much more emotional and psychological damage could have been done had we been following a Twitter stream that day.  How are terrorists plotting to use social media to spread misinformation to make a future situation even more dangerous?  Are the seeds being planted right now?

Amid the horror of 9/11, we had to rely on “traditional” media.  And for all its faults, there was probably some psychological and emotional advantage in waiting for official statements from emergency services and the government.

Can anything be done?

Here’s the part that is most unnerving to me.  In the moment of the next crisis, I can think of no way to effectively blunt social media’s rampant contribution to chaos. Here’s what India did about it, in this account by Rama Lakshmi for the Washington Post:

India blocked about 250 websites and social networking sites Monday, accusing them of spreading inflammatory content that triggered panic among thousands of workers and students from the country’s eight northeastern states last week.

The government’s blame list ranged from Facebook to fundamentalist Pakistani sites, Twitter to text messages, and Google to YouTube videos. Authorities also barred the sending of text messages to more than five people at a time for two weeks.

In other words, the government is shutting down social media sites almost a week after the fact. Probably not a very timely or effective response but what COULD they do?

Sorry for the morose post, but the article from India touches on an issue we will probably all have to deal with at some time, in some way, in our own homelands. If social media were fueling panic where you live, what would the government do?

This situation and the suffering that occurred from the panic made me sad and I very much wanted to hear your thoughts.

Image: Reuters

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