Virtual reality

The riot that wasn’t: How Twitter spread rumours of communal violence in Kolkata

On Monday, a road blockade was portrayed as a full-blown riot by some social media users – part of a worrying trend of misinformation being spread online.

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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.