Embrace Of Social Media Aids Flood Victims In Kashmir

12 September 2014
The New York Times
Nida Najar and Ellen Barry

Srinagar: Early this week, as the flooding in Kashmir was entering a new and terrifying phase, the Indian Army's public information office received a call from Raheel Khursheed, a former journalist and digital obsessive who serves as the director of news, politics and government at Twitter India. He had a proposal. Over the weekend, floodwaters had inundated ground-floor equipment rooms for most of the region's telecommunications service providers, crashing cellphone networks across the state. Local officials had no way to contact the federal government, or one another, or the army, which had been mobilized as part of a rescue effort. Though the army has satellite phones, they were of little help without knowing where people were waiting for rescue. There was one place where information was flowing at a nearly unmanageable volume, and that was on social media. So many messages were surging into Twitter under the hashtag *KashmirFloods that on Tuesday Mr. Khursheed's colleagues commissioned a piece of code that could winnow out those that identified stranded people. He then called the Indian Army - which has only two officers permanently assigned to monitor social-media postings - to offer the authorities a slimmed-down, organized feed that he described as 'a continuously updating stream of 'save me's.' ' Photo More than 400 people have died in the disaster in India and Pakistan, while some 130,000 have been rescued from the flood zone, authorities said. Credit Altaf Qadri-Associated Press 'We are always organizing data at Twitter,' said Mr. Khursheed, 31. 'It just seemed to me to be the most obvious thing to do: How is it that we can, as a platform, make it easier for the army to do what it needs to do?' In this week's frantic rescue effort, one unexpected development is the army's use of Twitter, WhatsApp, a messaging service, and Facebook to reach families. Twenty years ago, when social media first emerged, India's government - like its counterparts in Beijing and Moscow - regarded it warily, as a force that could undermine state power. In the restive, majority-Muslim region of Kashmir, in particular, state authorities have been swift to block access to material they considered incendiary. However, as this week's rescue efforts suggest, 'the government is now seeking to conduct its business through these media,' said Samir Saran, a policy analyst who worked as telecommunications executive in the early 2000s. One driver of this change, he said, is the new prime minister, Narendra Modi, who regards social media as a central link to the public. Mr. Modi's example has filtered through the system. 'If they see a man at the top embracing this form of communication - when you have someone who is bypassing traditional media and communicating this way - that is a sign,' said Mr. Saran, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a policy research group based in New Delhi. 'You don't have to be told more.' Relief efforts continued on Friday in Srinagar, where rescue workers described watching people tie bodies to trees and electrical poles to keep them from washing away. Facing mounting public anger, Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir State, told NDTV, an Indian news channel, that during the first days of the crisis, as floodwaters inundated the capital, 'I had no government.' 'My secretariat, the police headquarters, the control room, fire services, hospitals, all the infrastructure was underwater,' he said. 'I had no cellphone and no connectivity. I am now starting to track down ministers and officers. Today I met ministers who were swept up by the floods.' The authorities said Friday that 130,000 people had been rescued from the flood zone. More than 400 have died in the disaster in India and Pakistan. In a near communications vacuum, 3G Internet connections remained usable, and those lucky enough to have them found themselves inundated with distress calls. Manisha Kaul, 21, who was carried to safety on a raft on Tuesday, discovered that her telephone number had been published on Facebook. She receives five or six text messages a day from strangers, describing their relatives and asking her to let them know if she spotted them. She delivers a daily list to a search-and-rescue headquarters. 'Under the circumstances,' she said, 'this is the best we can do.' At Twitter India, the goal was to prune some 400,000 flood-related messages into a 'smartfeed,' something that has been done for sports, news and live events, but never for an emergency. The list of distress calls would then be sent in multiple directions, feeding into a 'Person Finder' built by Google and provided to the army's public information office, which had previously consulted with Mr. Khursheed about using social media. Maj. Gen. Shokin Chauhan, who leads the office, said the stream of information was reviewed by 'a dedicated team of two young officers who handle the social media,' and who were 'working practically around the clock.' He said the army had assisted about 12,000 people whose cases were reported over social media. This week, Mr. Saran recalled that some Indian leaders had inveighed against social media as recently as February. The home minister then, Sushil Kumar Shinde, who was upset by reports that the Congress party would perform badly in parliamentary elections, vowed to use state intelligence to 'crush such elements in the electronic media, which are indulging in false propaganda.' But that resistance faded as political parties adopted social-media strategies, again as a result of Mr. Modi's election. The number of Internet users in India is expected to surpass that of the United States this year, according to a study released by Google India and A. T. Kearney. It also predicted that the number of mobile-Internet users in India would triple by 2017, to 480 million from 155 million. As a platform, Mr. Saran said, social media is already integrated into India's often lively public debate. 'We enjoy it, because India loves melodrama,' Mr. Saran said. 'Unless we can hear people screaming and shouting and abusing each other, we aren't happy. We are bitter, we are angry, we are loud, and at the end of the day, everyone in his own way is loving to be an Indian.'