Can social media add fuel to a riot? Well, this questions has raised its head again in the aftermath of the violence in Bengaluru and other parts of Karnataka. And we can all agree that non-judicious use of social media can contribute to a situation of unrest. However, we also need to accept that allowing a free hand to people to want to retaliate violently against social media posts is a situation of equal concern as well.
How an individual packages information on social media leaves an immediate impact on the societal fabric, so there is a line that needs to be drawn in discourse on sensitive issues and direct attacks. Recently, Bengaluru-based engineering student Santosh D was thrashed for posting derogatory comments against some Kannada actors on social media for protesting against the Supreme Court’s directive on the Cauvery river water issue. After the 22-year-old’s post went viral, he was tracked down by a bunch of locals to his college located in a Bengaluru suburb and beaten up. The assault was filmed and the video was posted online, resulting in more violence.
In stark contrast, the state police has been using the online domain to advise people on the situation on the ground and to help them avoid unrest hit areas. Some individuals have even created a Google Map highlighting areas suffering from protests and riots in Bengaluru city.
The Supreme Court on Monday modified its earlier directive to the Karnataka government to release a quantum of 15,000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu over a period of 10 days. The apex court has now directed the government to release 12,000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu per day till September 20 this year. What followed the order was a string of protests from various Kannada groups. Several incidents of violence and vandalism accompanied a shutdown.
In court, the Karnataka government contended that the agitation by farmers, particularly in South Karnataka, is causing a loss of Rs 500 crore per day to the state. Farmers in districts of Hassan, Mandya and Bengaluru have been squatting on roads demanding that the quantum of water for dry crops in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu be equalled.
In this backdrop, the Cauvery water dispute has commanded public attention. Social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, has become the battleground for thousands of people who dare not step on to the troubled streets. In cosmopolitan Bengaluru, the two sides have gone head-to-head offline and online. Hundreds of hate comments on these platforms have inevitably drawn a spree of trolling and done little to ease the tension.
Social media has long transformed from a bubble to an extension of our personal space, only with a much larger audience. With opinions and reactions tending towards the extremes, passions run high on online communities. So the free hand afforded to individuals raises questions of accountability and responsible conduct. While Bengaluru Police has maintained that derogatory comments in the matter of Cauvery unrest will not be taken lightly, no complaints were filed against Santosh or his assaulters.
Social media has been full of visuals showing the situation on the ground in Bengaluru, with videos of vandalism and violence. While it is easy to share stuff without double checking the authenticity or gauging the impact, prudent behaviour would be exercise more responsibility with each click on a social platform, especially when things are going awry outside.
Like in the case of the Bangalore Police, social media and the Internet have proved to be a tool for empowerment of the people struggling from the state’s apathy towards ensuring basic rights. However, the onus has to rest on the individual to avoid flaring emotions that escalate unrest.