Social media: Sowing the seeds of panic?

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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  • rajatgarg79

    Monitor and respond – Quickly!!!

    Rajat @ SocialAppsHQ

  • I think this shows that there’s a great onus on Govts and other institutions to realise that to counter the fake messages that go about, they need to be on the channels and building up a reputation for fast, accurate content. They also need to be monitoring so that they can counter the false stuff as soon as they see it.

  • miasmeds

    You definitely put your finger on the pulse – and the challenges governments and organizations face today vs social media and how to efficiently monitor and respond – quickly, calmly and clearly. Which demands a crisi management plan.

  • useradvocate

    Mark, you perhaps feel badly for posting on such a ‘morose’ topic but I think this is an important area to include on you blog. Clearly we will see more of this now as destructive individuals seize on the idea of using social media as a weapon – or even just dangerous tomfoolery. It’s the digital equivalent to yelling ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater.

    I’m curious to know, does this affect readers’ assessment of the ‘value’ or ‘meaning’ of social media? Personally it doesn’t affect mine much because I try to always keep an eye open on the double-edged nature of technology in general. Social media is the same sword. It just makes certain things happen more quickly, good or bad.

  • Amanda

    Obama signed an Executive Order recently that takes similar action. Not sure how I think about it though. Many articles on this and these are just a couple….. and

  • Many thanks Mark for an inciteful post – as always. I wasn’t aware of what was happening in those parts of India.

    I think I have mentioned to you before the experience with the London riots of last year. After basically 2 days of rioting, office workers were tweeting like mad on the third day about “imminent” riots in the area of their own office, on their routes back home and much more. Many of these tweets had very specific details “there will be riots in Victoria in 15 minutes”. Many offices shut down early and sent their teams home, whilst it was still safe.

    However, this actually was the day that sanity returned and riots almost ceased. There were no riots in the places where they had been announced as imminent. Almost everyone (possibly aside from those living where there had been riots in the previous days) could have carried on, worked a whole day and got home perfectly safely.

    I didn’t have the impression that this was largely malicious but it was disturbing, in much the same way as the situation you have described in India.

    How should a government react ? Closing down social media and texts is the last thing – these can carry good news as well as bad. Most government offices in the U.S., European countries etc. have their own social media accounts and should have a plan in place to use them to spread the truth. To make the good news a. convincing and b. go equally viral takes foresight and planning and cannot be managed on the hoof.

  • Dr. Rae

    Mark… these challenging times call out for finding a common ground! ~Rae?

  • Mark this is going to happen and we will see this more not only in India but all those countries who have kept a distance from social media. We all know SM is a double edged sword but can we use SM as a tool to kill rumors. yes we can but there should be an urge to do so. At present this is missing and today itself GOI had blocked 6 parody a/c of Indian PMO on Twitter but in few hours they have resurfaced. blocking of sites is a quick fix that we are looking for but its not a solution.
    Wrote a similar guest post where I have debated the move of Indian govt. fancy a look 🙂

  • Hollis Kara


    I think this situation reflects the need for governments and NGOs to cultivate credible social media presence. “Voices of Authority” need to monitor social media and respond promptly in crisis situations – be the crisis real or rumored. It is impossible to defuse the power of panic, and I don’t think anyone want a choke hold placed on the free flow of information in social channels.

    As consumers, we have the burden of making informed decisions on the information we choose to pass on through our social channels. As “trusted sources” that burden increases considerably. I think you are exposing an important issue that needs to be addressed – how do you instill the “buyer beware” mindset among the masses? Things move so fast across social networks. How do we instill the notion that all sources are not equal, and how do we protect our reliability?

    Truly, there are more questions than answers and LOTS of fodder for conversation. Thanks for bringing this up!

  • Wow. Sobering. It can help us in a crisis, but it can amplify things in unnecessary ways. We consume it so fast that maybe some forget to take time to judge what really is happening. Does our BS meter (on the web) still need some sharpening? I’d like to think we’ll be able to contain myself and wait for an authoritative message but probably not. Ultimately our instinct will be probably to take no chances and protect ourselves. This blog is a good reminder for us and should be a message to many more.

  • Greg

    Excellent post – clearly an area of need! – It’s far too easy to spread false information – and in this case panic.

  • Great post. What is amazing about social media can also create harm. We all want to see freedom of speech, but even here in the U.S. you are not allowed to yell “Fire!” in a crowded movie house. What we have seen in India is much the same; an online inciting of fear and potential riot.

    Every great tool has with it the danger of improper use by those who are reckless.

  • Well said Seth. Thanks.

  • Thanks for sharing Prasant. I have seen a lot of finger-pointing today between the government and the social media platforms. There is definitely a lesson here for homeland security for all nations.

  • This bring up many great points that would be great to debate Matthew. Foremost is a company’s liability in interpreting what information is credible or not and possibly sending employees to work in the face of rioting. I’m just thinking through my own corporate experience and an inherent unwillingness — rightly so — to any risks with employee safety. We have so much to learn about this issue! Thanks for the excellent contribution to the debate!

  • I think that is a wise position to take. Be realistic about the benefits and the potential dangers.

  • Thanks for sharing this! I hadn’t heard about it, but I’ve been thinking
    about this issue a lot lately. Imagine if someone like Hitler had
    access to social media. Or what if social media had been around during
    1000 A.D. when (whether it be true or not) 20,000 people supposedly
    committed suicide because they thought the world was going to end when
    the clock struck midnight on 12/31/1000? And what if these people had
    top level Klout scores and the ability to influence countless others into believing the same thing? Either way, it’s important to
    realize that social media channels are a powerful communication tool. I can’t tell you how many email forwards I have received from
    people, as I’m sure we all have, with information that they perceive to be fact that they then forward along to their entire address books before having ever even checked Snopes or run a Google search. With that being said, the scarier thing to me is seeing a monopoly on information. I don’t ever want to see access to information controlled by just a couple of entities.

  • … or the government?

    That’s what’s really getting crazy. Governments taking control of the channel. Thanks Tiffany.

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