Spreading Rumours On Social Media Not Freedom Of Speech: Omar

Spreading Rumours On Social Media Not Freedom Of Speech: Omar

21 March 2013
The Daily Excelsior


New Delhi: Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah today indicated that the spread of rumours with malafide intention on social networking sites could not be interpreted as freedom of speech. Speaking on ‘pros and cons of tweets’ being jointly organised by Google and NDTV, Omar said twitter in the present day’s political space “supplements and complements what we do” but added that the micro-blogging site could not be an accurate indicator of what people are thinking. “I can’t use twitter to gauge the mood of people in Kashmir as to how they react to a particular story. I can use it to get my point of view across,” he said. Asked about the use of micro-blogging site especially recently in the aftermath of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru hanging, he said use of the social networking sites is a classic example after the execution was done in the national capital. “No sooner had he (Afzal) been executed, we started seeing rumours on social media that his mother died because of shock and you saw people coming out to protest his mother’s death, which had not happened. “So, we ask service providers like Google and others to block sites and other things. It’s not an easy call to make for somebody who uses social media to get his messages across and then turn around and ask for blocking it,” he said. Asked whether this was the reason for blocking the Internet after Afzal’s hanging, Omar said with a smile “we did not block the Internet, we only shorteneed the bandwidth so that rumours do not fly from one part of the Valley to other.” Omar, who was flanked by Union Minister Shashi Tharoor and campaign manager for US President Barack Obama, Stephanie Cutter, said it created a “huge problem for us in drawing a fine line between free speech and something that can be hugely problematic. “I was hearing on TV channel that the answer to bad information is more information but the problem is that by the time I organise for more information to counter the bad information, the bad information has already spread so far and so wild and in a State like Jammu and Kashmir where society can be incredibly volatile, I could have already people dead on account of that bad information. “So, where do I draw a line as a Chief Minister between free speech and then to moderate so that it does not get misused”? the Chief Minister said. He cited another example of misuse of social site in 2010, and said there was a video showing that a pastor burnt down a scripture in the US. “We don’t know that whether he did or not but we had around 16 deaths as people protested on the streets. So, I really can’t sit back and wait for somebody to correct the information because the speed at which rumour spreads on social media has to be seen to believe it. He said that putting a picture of Afzal guru as display picture on twitter or Facebook was not problematic because that at least tells you about public sentiments, the problem starts only when the social media is used for spreading rumours and foment trouble, to provoke crowds. Asked whether twitter following could be measured as public opinion, Omar said “it absolutely cannot be. Majority of those present on the social media are not the ones who queue up to vote. “You cannot depend on the followers and like on Facebook page as an accurate indicator of what people are thinking. For us in political space, it supplements and complements of what we do but I can’t use twitter to gauge the mood of people in Kashmir, how they react to a particular story”, he said. Highlighting the importance of social networking sites in the US, Cutter said that in 2004, these sites were not taken seriously. However, 2008, there was a dramatic change in the number of people and in 2012 it was an “explosion”. “It helped us on three fronts - communicate in a very aggressive fashion, raise fund and organise what was happening online and offline,” she said. Tharoor said that with only 12 per cent penetration of the Internet in the country, the social networking site can never be a barometer for winning elections. However, he said it helped brand building and “an example of this is the gentleman who is following after this session.” Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was to attend the session after them.