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Devangshu Datta: Switching off sense

The madness of crowds and the irrational things mobs do have been documented since time immemorial. A riot or a stampede can arise from nothing; a tulip flower can become more expensive than a diamond necklace.

Why do rational individuals behave strangely when aggregated into crowds? The underlying causes are unknown but the roots of such behaviour are presumed to lie in evolutionary biology. Say, a predator is stalking a tribe of apes. When the tribe goes into attack mode, individual apes don’t need to know why. Any hesitation on the part of individuals figuring out whys and wherefores could be fatal. Similar reflexes can explain human behaviour, going by the way lynch mobs and rioters act.

Crowd behaviour also owes something to network and bandwagon effects. Every node in a network becomes more powerful as the network grows in size: every node can message a larger number of nodes. A message can also be echoed more often, and by more nodes, as the network grows.

When a message is echoed multiple times, it is reinforced. It is more likely to be believed and, therefore, to be echoed even more times. Such bandwagon effects help to explain the spread of nationalism and religions, and also account to some extent for electoral voting patterns. The bandwagon effect is one reason why exit poll results are held back until all polling is over.

Modern communication networks can take a message viral fast. Note that this is independent of the content. Flash mobs can be assembled very quickly. Such a mob might sing patriotic songs, dance the salsa, or burn buses and beat up passing strangers.

This poses interesting new challenges for the state. As communication systems achieve higher penetration, both network effects and bandwagon effects will inevitably get stronger. The Arab Spring, Iran’s short-lived Green revolution, the Occupy protests across multiple nations, the riots across England in 2011, Ukraine’s revolution and the ongoing Hong Kong “Umbrella protests” have all seen protesters marshalled via mobile. Take it for granted that any mass civilian action more or less anywhere in the world will involve coordination via mobile networks.

Last week saw communal tension in Vadodara, with Gujarat suffering its first riots since 2002. The local administration switched off mobile internet and SMS/MMS services, supposedly in order to counter rumour-mongering. The lock-down of mobile and internet services has become a reflex action for Indian administrations. It is endemic in Kashmir and also resorted to in the Northeast.

This drastic action has multiple downsides. First, it means huge losses incurred by normal businesses. It also makes it impossible to disseminate authentic information via the same networks to counter the disinformation. This is crucial – it is the most effective way to counter fake rumours.

It also makes it impossible for people stuck in the situation to get information about near and dear ones. Finally, cutting off electronic networks allows nasty rumours to continue proliferating via other means. Indians are very ingenious at spreading rumours – look up “rotis in 1857″ for one pre-telephonic example.

What prevents the administration from using the impressive surveillance system built over the past 10 years to locate and punish rioters? The system exists, the draconian laws exist. If the system can locate and arrest 14-year-old girls who “like” the wrong Facebook update, it should be able to nail people inciting murder and mayhem.

There are doubts about the legality of the Vadodara cut-off. Cyberlaw experts say due process wasn’t followed. That’s by the way: certainly, a review of protocols is required to manage mobile networks in riots and other emergencies. But don’t let either the police or rioters off the hook by allowing the mindless switching off of networks. The administration must learn how to use these effectively instead.


Twitter: @devangshudatta

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