Sunday, September 9, 2012

Communal Cyber Distortions Campaigns and Social Networks

Social media can be effectively manipulated to create a sense of panic among citizens on communal lines, since rumors spread virally leaving little time for Governments to clamp down on such communications.

Nation states’ which lack effective cyber enforcement and harbor radical elements enable members of these group to post distorted information on social networks and websites, without the fear of law. Such posts are intended to create conflict and communal strife in their own and other countries.

In India, the recent communal clashes between two communities in the North Eastern State of Assam, gave an opportunity for radicals within other countries to post morphed images of the supposed violence on social networks while instigating local sleeper cells to send SMSes designed to trigger panic among people of North Eastern origin working in large Indian cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad and Pune. This resulted in mass panic and triggered an overnight exodus of over 50,000 people from these cities, forcing the Government to take the extreme step of banning bulk SMSEs for a fortnight, in an effort to curb the panic.  

There are four lessons to be learned from this incident. 

The first is the obvious efficacy of such mass cyber hate campaigns and their ability to fuel ideological cyber wars which affects the safety and security of citizens directly. In the recent past, most of the state sponsored cyber war related activities were for espionage or to take down industrial units.

Secondly, it exposed the hurdles in speedily taking down hate posts and tweets through popular sites like Twitter, and Facebook, in the viral phase of such campaigns.  Steps involved identifying hate sites, reviewing them, finding consensus on blocking these sites and later trying to get social networks outside of India’s jurisdiction to remove them without court orders.  India, is now formulating an incident response mechanism to counter future hate campaigns.

Thirdly, India realized that it did not have the ability to block hate posts on a state or regional basis. This ability would be useful in putting out local conflicts.  India currently has the ability to block URL’s at a national level and not at state level.  Trying to build networks capable of regional blocking requires reallocation of the ip schemes based on individual states, and large investments in filtering technology.

Fourthly, there is the need for a neutral international agency which solicits an appropriate response from nations that are not keen on or unable to act against hate actors operating from their soil, based on international treaties or agreements.

Balancing the need for a secure cyber space, while respecting the privacy and individual freedom of cyber citizens and ensuring that the Internet remains open for innovation are increasingly stressed in such situations.  To prevent Governments from being forced to enact regulations that prevent free use of the Internet, future collaborative working between social networks and Governments is vital, as what they do or do not do has an impact on people lives and safety.

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