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#4180, 14 November 2013
Social Media: A Study of the Northeast
Ruhee Neog
Senior Research Officer, NSP, IPCS
Email: ruhee.neog@ipcs.org

Social media, with its immediate and amplified reach, has transformed the way people interact with each other. Its use in the Northeast/by those from the Northeast, however, came into prominence in less then ideal circumstances.

In August 2012, there was a sudden exodus of Northeast Indians from the cities of Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore, and to a lesser extent, Chennai, Hydreabad, and Mysore, back to their native states. This en masse movement was triggered in two phases. The first of these involved bulk text messages (via phones) that warned of impending communal clashes in retaliation to the Muslim-Bodo riots in Assam. The second phase was through the social media platforms of Facebook and Twitter – people swiftly took to expressing their outrage at the alleged injustice against those from the Northeast; fanning the flames of a crisis that was only threatening to grow. Government responses were characterised delayed action, and belated attempts to bring down unsolicited content on the internet by serving notices to intermediaries such as websites, which are legitimate business concerns. Both examples record bureaucratic lethargy and a penchant for short-sighted band-aid solutions.

Two observations should be made first. In attempting regional analyses of the effective and/or harmful uses of social media, it must be acknowledged that the root of the crisis particular to the Northeast may not, in fact, have started in the Northeast ie its origin remains undetermined. While the source region hasn’t been found, the causal link between the use of social media and the mass hysteria it prompted can be found in the region - the preceding Bodo-Muslim riots in Assam. Strictly speaking, a study of the use of social media in the Northeast is not best served by the events of August 2012. This is for a number of reasons.

First, the source of mischief has not been confirmed or verified, meaning that it could have been an extra-regional occurence. Second, the whole event took on a highly political form, and this can of course be located in the Northeast. The BJP, Congress, regional parties, all took turns to take potshots at each other and make charges of imcompetence. The bulk texts and exchanges on Facebook and Twitter may have originated in the Northeast, but until this is proven, political bad-mouthing within the region can only be seen as having emerged from it. Holding a sinister political hand (of a regional nature) responsible for these provocations is only conjecture until it is establised with certitude. Third, it is difficult to ascertain the degree of responsibility that should be assigned to the phone messages and social media platforms – the bulk messages came first, and it is possible that their effects were much more widespread. Finally, people from the Northeast are relatively removed, both physically and psychologically, from the rest of India, partly because it has long been of peripheral concern to the centre and partly because of the region’s own volition. It is likely therefore that the level of panic and fear of persecution that was displayed in response to the supposed violence had much to do also with the feeling of marginalisation that is associated with the region.

Interestingly, there is no one outstanding positive example of social media usage in the Northeast to counter the negative one above (irrespective of whether or not it can be located in the region). There is therefore no case study with which to conduct this analysis. There has been no concerted effort by the state governments of the Northeast to capture the momentum and level of engagement that social media provides, although it stands to reason that they are of course aware of it. The same is also true of civilian appropriation of these platforms. The likelihood of a theatre of chaos stemming primarily from the use of social media occuring in the Northeast is not very high. The reach of telecommunications and level of connectivity across the region is limited, especially in comparison to the rest of India, perhaps barring only Jammu and Kashmir. This is given the remoteness of many areas. Moreover, the entire region is quite removed from mainstream discourses so it is likely that issues that dominate the conversation in the Northeast do not overlap with issues being discussed in other parts of India.

It is hoped that in time, state governments will act upon maintaining an active public image, and there will be a noticeable increase in civil society engagement through social media, if for nothing else than to provide a fuller picture for the study of social networking platforms with particular reference to the Northeast.

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