India has become home to numerous mob-killings based on the use of social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook. This has led to people in civil society directly asking for the government to intervene and temporarily ban these platforms. While there is merit in limiting access to communication tools that do not directly filter information from disinformation, banning the social media would ultimately be a detriment in the government’s efforts to curb religious or caste-based violence.
It is important to note that India is not the first country that is dealing with the ramifications of unfiltered social media on its society. Overall, since the Arab Spring began in 2010, governments have carried out at least 400 shutdowns across more than 40 countries. Those include hundreds of short-term shutdowns in India, where they first emerged as a localized response to unrest in the northern region of Kashmir and subsequently spread to most other states. The rise in shutdowns is exhibited in the figure below.
However, two major questions still remain:
- Was the internet shutdown effective in quelling localized violence? If so, what best practices can be applied in this current context?
- Can specific social media platforms be banned as opposed to the internet as a whole?
In order to explore both questions, we also have to analyze the counterfactual: would mob killings exist without the platforms. The figure below highlights how the Indian government has explicitly targeted Muslim-majority northern Indian regions (with the largest focus being on the disputed region of Kashmir) for its internet shutdowns. Yet the shutdowns have resulted in limited success towards quelling violence.
The most violent rioting took place in Gujurat 2002 under the governance of PM Narendra Modi. The riots happened without major internet infrastructure in place and was fueled by community driven rumors and false accusations. If the country is actually interested in stopping violence against minorities, it has to fundamentally look at the platform of its ruling party as opposed to targeting platforms that many people use for vital communication.