On Monday, close to midnight, a storm hit Twitter.  A number of handles started to tweet about a major communal riot that Kolkata was apparently experiencing right at that very moment.

Talukdar is an editor at news website, Firstpost.
Talukdar is an editor at news website, Firstpost.

Matters reached a point where even veteran journalist, Kanchan Gupta rushed in, tweeting of mobs running “amok” and buses being "torched". An ominous if inexplicable connection to Yakub Memon's execution was bought up as well.

This alarming social media bulletin, of huge mobs going around indulging in arson, surprised most people actually in Kolkata at the time. Far removed from the frenzy in cyber space, the analogue city was quite normal.

Within some time, even the people who had raised the initial alarm, calmed down. Only 30 minutes after his tweet which had announced that there were “thousands in [the] streets”, Kanchan Gupta suddenly revealed that, “crowds in Sealdah-Rajabazar-Park Circus areas have dispersed. Roads cleared”.

What actually happened

On Saturday, August 1, the Railway Police detained 62 madrassa students in Sealdah station and sent them to a child welfare home in Barasat on the outskirts of the city. The children were from Bihar and on their way to a seminary in Maharashtra. The police held them for allegedly travelling without proper identity documents.

On Monday, hundreds of Muslims from the Rajabazar area, close to Sealdah station, had mobilised in protest against this police move. By around 2.30 pm, a blockade was put into place, shutting off one of the city’s major streets, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Road, on a five-kilometre stretch between Rajabazar and Park Circus.

This threw the city’s transportation out of gear, leading to major traffic congestion. A heavy contingent of police was deployed in the affected areas and Acharya Prafulla Chandra Road was cordoned off to traffic.

Did this turn violent?

The situation was quite tense by around 8.30 pm, as protestors increased the urgency of their demands. However, Amitabha Ghosh, office-in-charge of Amherst Street Police Station – under whose jurisdiction the main protests took place – denies that there was any actual violence, as portrayed by some Tweeters.

“It was a road blockade; there was no danger,” said Ghosh. “A few protestors did resort to some stone pelting, but only for a little while, with no serious damage."

Ghosh denied that any acts of arson, on buses or property had taken place.

Ghosh’s account was corroborated by other police stations in the nearby neighbourhoods, affected by the protest.

At Sealdah, locals were caught unawares when asked, on Tuesday, about any violence. “The road was shut down by the protestors and I didn’t get any business but no one burnt or destroyed anything,” said Dibakar Mondal, who runs a tea stall by the road.

By midnight, just as Twitter was buzzing with rumours of a riot, in fact, the crowd had started to disperse, as the authorities had agreed to release the detained children. The students were sent back to Bihar late on Monday and by Tuesday, things were back to normal.

Not the first time

This is not the first time social media has indulged in fanning a potential communal conflagration. In 2012, thousands of North Easterns had fled Bangalore driven by online rumour mongering without a single incident actually being reported in Bangalore itself. Here's an example of how the panic was spread.

A year later, the Muzaffarnagar riots were preceded by the frenetic circulation of a video clip allegedly showing a Muslim mob from the area lynching two boys. While the video was found to be fake – it showed an incident in Pakistan – the subsequent riots resulted in 62 deaths and left more than 50,000 Muslims displaced.

In June 2014, a young Muslim man in Pune was beaten to death by a mob, incensed by derogatory images of Shivaji and Bal Thackeray circulating on Facebook and WhatsApp. In March 2015, in Dimapur, Nagaland, accounts of the rape of a college student spread across social media. Online rumours held Syed Sharif Khan responsible and portrayed him as an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant. An enraged mob dragged Khan out from jail, beat him to death and hung up his body for public display. Khan was later on found to hail from a family of Indian Army personnel in Assam.

The latest such incident happened in Uttar Pradesh, where a protest gathering on the rail tracks by a group of Muslims was provocatively portrayed on Twitter with the hashtag #GodhraAgain. Without any substantiation, many social media users drew parallels with the 2002 incident in which a coach of the Sabarmati Express was set on fire in the town of Godhra, followed by weeks of Muslims being killed across Gujarat.

Bumbling government response

Given the amorphous nature of new age communication, there are few options available to the authorities to clamp down on this sort of scaremongering. For the 2012 Bangalore panic, the police had banned bulk SMSes for a fortnight. However, given that most rumours are now spread via online instant messaging services such as WhatsApp or social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter, a ban is not a feasible solution.

Now struck down, Section 66A of the Information Technology Act gave the police vast powers to penalise hate speech on the internet. But in reality, the authorities mostly used the provision for petty political ends. While Section 66A remained unused for incidents like the 2014 Pune lynching, it was brought out for the relatively minor matter of Shaheen Dhada's Facebook post that simply questioned the total shutdown of Mumbai after the death of Bal Thackeray in 2012.

What the authorities should do

Given traditional top-down controls do not work with the internet, the authorities need instead to combat misinformation with information. For the Kolkata riot case, for example, malicious rumours could have swiftly been refuted by the Kolkata Police on Twitter itself, rather than leaving them to swirl for hours.

In 2014, Onook Oh, an assistant professor of Information Systems at Warwick Business School, conducted a study on the use of social media in three major incidents, including the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack. He concluded that authorities “need to put in place prompt emergency communication systems to refute the misinformation and provide citizens with timely, localised, and correct information through multiple communication channels”.

Given that in India, internet users have crossed the 32-crore mark – close to the entire population of the United States – this is advice that the country's law and order authorities need to take up on war footing.