Ethnic clashes in the Indian state of Assam have prompted panic nationwide, causing hundreds of thousands of people to flee from the south of the country where they work.
Wary of social networking sites' ability to spread rumors, New Delhi has asked websites including Facebook and Twitter to come up with IP addresses suspected of spreading rumors. Pressed by the Indian government, these websites have signaled a willingness to "cooperate." Opinions in India vary from urging the government to strengthen Internet censorship to concerns over freedom of speech.
The scene is familiar to Chinese. What happened in India can help us understand more objectively whether the Internet can foment social instability and how it does so. The exodus was a result of public panic that was easily ignited by rumors. It takes more than working with social networking websites to appease the agitated public and prevent this from happening again.
But New Delhi's worries that the Internet promoted the rumors didn't come out of nowhere. As the inventor of social networking sites, the US has experience in regulating them. But these websites have caused disturbances in other countries. The unrest in the UK last summer exposed the side effects of these networking sites, prompting the government to ponder blocking Internet information flow in times of emergency, a decision that led to an outcry.
Social networking sites were also thought to have played a role in the Arab Spring. A revolution is unlikely to happen in India, which is regarded as the world's largest democratic country. But the recent disturbance in Assam showed that unrest stirred by rumors is unrelated to a country's political system. The Indian political system can withstand great uncertainty, but its public sentiment is very fragile when facing an emergency.
India is a poor country. Survival is top priority for the majority of the population. Every piece of information carried by the Internet or cell phone looks real to grass-roots people.
China's situation is relatively good. It is hard to imagine rumors causing an exodus. The government's reaction and public's ability to discern false information are much better. But the mass of information flowing through the Internet still presents a challenge to governance. The Internet has become deeply integrated in Chinese society, but can still create a disturbance.
It is difficult to blame any single factor for the exodus in India. Now the problem needs to be fixed. It is difficult to ask India to make big changes immediately, compared to the adjustments made by social networking sites. These sites should be more active in dealing with local realities.