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Future is Now, Part 58

It's always a bit unsettling when reality has the temerity to confirm a speculative scenario. It's rarely a 100% match; more typically, it's a parallel event that reinforces the underlying logic of said forecast. Better still, this one, as it turns out, is a two-fer.

In India last week, as-yet unidentified individuals sent mass text messages to Hindus in the north-east of the country, sparking a panicked evacuation of thousands from the state of Assam. The text messages -- which were entirely false -- told people that Muslims were attacking Hindus in retaliation for violence against Muslims earlier in the year. According to New Scientist, one typical message read:

"Madam, do not get out of your house. There is a lot of trouble. People from your caste are being beaten. Seven women have been killed in Yelahanka [a suburb of Bangalore]."

As of recent reports, the refugees are returning to their homes -- but slowly.

This story underscores the power of networked social media as a medium for political rumors, one of the key points from my previous post Lies, Damn Lies, and Twitter Bots. Although in this case the specific medium was text messaging rather than Twitter, the larger argument fits: in a social environment primed to treat rumor as fact, properly coded and targeted messages can prompt a mass upheaval.

It also fits with an argument from a few years ago, in my Fast Company article "The Dark Side of Twittering a Revolution." The genocide in Rwanda was driven, in part, by the use of local pirate radio stations targeting particular ethnic communities. The broadcasts reported tales of rival communities killing helpless individuals of the target ethnicity, encouraging (in this instance) people to rise up and kill their neighbors while they still had the chance (the ambiguity of my language here reflects the fact that both Hutu and Tutsi ethnic communities used this method, apparently).

I wrote:

This shouldn't be read as an indictment of social networking technologies in general, or of Twitter in particular. As I said at the outset, I'm thrilled at how critical this technology has been to the viability and potential success of the pro-democracy demonstrations. […] What I'm arguing, however, is that we shouldn't see the positive political successes of emerging social tools as being the sole model. We should be aware that, as these tools proliferate, they will inevitably be used for far more deadly goals.

In India, the text messages prompted an evacuation; next time, the results may be much worse.

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