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The exodus to the Northeast, perhaps the biggest mass displacement in peacetime, reads like the dark side of the Arab Spring or the reverse of a flash mob. The social and SMS media, which accumulate forces for positive change, were leveraged to spread rumours and disperse minorities by the fictitious threat of violence. And the response is totally inadequate.
Social media shifted the balance of power from governments and formal media towards individuals. A positive development, it provides dispersed, perceptual support to events like the Arab Spring, Pussy Riot's challenge to Vladimir Putin and Julian Assange's standoff in London. But the picture turns grim when malicious communicators use the same levers of power. In 1995, Ganesha was force-fed milk to test-fly a rumour campaign run over mobile phones. That proof of concept with a global footprint, orchestrated from Delhi, harmed no one. But now, we have experienced the real thing.
How easy is it to start a viral rumour? At what point do recipients suspend disbelief? Earlier this month, the Stockholm communications group Day4 decided to find out. They drew a CAD diagram of a tamper-proof, "asymmetric" screw, emailed it to themselves, took a screenshot and posted it anonymously on Reddit, claiming that Apple had developed it to prevent customers from prying inside their products.
It was blogged and reported by mainstream media within 12 hours, with the caveat that it was unverified. But the tale developed a twist when readers commented on the "news" on social media. The caveats vanished, 90 per cent of recipients swallowed the gag unquestioningly and the rumour began to spread at light-speed. Google "asymmetric screw" to see how far it's travelled.
This was a harmless rumour, like a computer virus without a payload. Add a malicious payload, push it out on Web and SMS networks and you have a social engineering weapon capable of triggering or sustaining unrest. If the payload is a fake picture, satisfaction is guaranteed. Pictures speak far louder than words. Faked photos of the 9/11 attacks still circulate in the xenophobic, nationalist fringe in the US. They were pranks but they help to maintain a climate of fear that encourages hate crimes like the gurudwara attack in Wisconsin. The most disturbing image showed passengers falling out of a damaged airplane's fuselage. It was actually a grab from the TV serial Lost.
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