Tracking a Rumor: Indian Government, Twitter, and Common Sense

This morning, as I check in on the still-unfolding news about yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, I noticed a widely repeated rumor: allegedly, the Indian government asked Twitter users to stop tweeting info about the location and activities of police and military, out of concern that this could aid the terrorists.

For example, see Inquisitr.com: Indian Government trying to block Twitter as Terrorists may be reading it.

Rumors — even fairly innocuous ones — really bug me. Mainly because they’re so easy to prevent!

I’m trying to track this particular rumor down, but haven’t been able to confirm anything yet. At this point I’m skeptical of this claim. Here’s what I’ve found so far…

Newstrack India reports:

“[Yesterday] evening, there were suddenly a lot of ‘tweets’ reporting that the Indian government had asked that there should not be online updates of military operations against the holed-up terrorists, citing a BBC news source. But, the BBC actually quoted ‘tweets’, which in fact had no independent confirmation.”

BBC’s timeline of the Mumbai attacks (which is an excellent resource, by the way!) reported at 11:08 GMT:

“Indian government asks for live Twitter updates from Mumbai to cease immediately. ‘ALL LIVE UPDATES – PLEASE STOP TWEETING about #Mumbai police and military operations,’ a tweet says.”

The BBC included no link to that alleged tweet from the Indian government. A simple Twitter search for “please stop tweeting” showed the earliest occurrence of this phrase in connection to the Mumbai attacks came from the MumbaiUpdates account, which appears to be run by a Twitter user named Mark Bao — a high school junior based in Boston, who apparently is not in Mumbai at the moment.

Several hours ago, MumbaiUpdates tweeted: “ALL LIVE UPDATERS – PLEASE STOP TWEETING about #Mumbai police and military operations.”

Prior to that, he tweeted (in chronological order):

  1. Due to military action happening very soon, @mumbaiupdates may have little information to report to protect the rescue operations”
  2. I am not updating on any details about #mumbai operations until futher notice to protect the operatoin”
  3. Indian government is asking that the twitter search page #mumbai be shut down.”
  4. or possible clarification: to just stop live updating about the situation pertaining to #mumbai”

UPDATE: Bao just e-mailed me to let me know that his tweet was not the original report on this event. Here’s what he said:

“The rumour started on via another twitter post that retweeted from another person that was a trusted source IN mumbai. Later, it was confirmed on video that the police wanted live updates of the operations to be stopped, though they did not mention the hashtag #Mumbai, though they asked media outlets to stop reporting live.

“The purpose of [the MumbaiUpdates] stream was to disseminate info from the CNN-IBN, NDTV and those twittering from Mumbai. With any news reporting and re-reporting it’s possible errors got in the way. I’m sorry if it caused any confusion.

“If anything, even if NDTV and CNN-IBN were still reporting, it is best practice, and I think justified, to stop tweeting and disseminate more information on the operation that could be spread and could be useful to those that we don’t want to let know the info.”

Also, on Twitter he wrote:

It was confirmed by Mumbai police on video that they don’t want live updates. Don’t think they mentioned Twitter but it is possible that they did. If not, then that is the rumour that evolved, yet still good practice.”

I’m really glad that Bao elaborated on this, and I’d like to say that I think he did a good job with quickly starting the MumbaiUpdates account to aggregate information on the attacks in India.

Parsing out Bao’s response, it looks like we still don’t know the exact source of this rumor’s first report, but apparently it might have come from a Twitter user in Mumbai. He also said it was “confirmed by video” — but we don’t know where that video was, whether that confirmation was an on-camera statement by police, whether someone was relaying on video information they’d gotten first-hand from the police, or whether someone was simply repeating an unsourced rumor on video.

If you have any further information on this (especially specific links, cites, video clips, etc.), please leave that information in a comment to this post.

TAKEAWAY LESSONS

Media is increasingly unmediated. People are communicating directly, on a global level. We don’t all have to be journalists — but we’d all be better off by adopting stronger media-literacy skills.

Specifically, when you hear something that sounds surprising or important, CHECK OR ASK FOR THE PRIMARY SOURCE before you share the news. It’s not hard to do, and it’s a crucial step.

If something just sounds like common sense (like, “Hey, tweeting details of police movements here might endanger police and hostages, so don’t do that!”), there’s no need to appeal to authority (i.e., saying the police said so) to make people listen. A true common-sense message stands on its own — and in social media like Twitter, it could  carry more credibility as a peer recommendation than if positioned vaguely as an order from “above.”

In this case, many, many well-meaning Twitter users simply repeated the alleged government/police request as if it were established fact. This could cause ripple effects in future interactions between the Indian police and the public (in person and online). There’s a power dynamic in play here that deserves attention and care.

Of course, if an important primary source (like a government official) does offer crucial or interesting information, attribute it clearly. Just a like when professional journalists rely on source documents or press releases, transparency counts! It doesn’t take much time to include a link in your tweet, or just say you heard it firsthand.

Rumors and misinformation, even if well-meant, don’t help. In this case, what if the Indian government made no such request regarding Twitter? What if this call for social media restraint actually arose from concerned Twitter users? Actually, that might be far more interesting than a governmental request.

Imagine the precedent that a true government or police request regarding live tweeting might set for possible future police policy or requests during other events, such as political demonstrations, natural disasters, or a food riot.

Finally, if there was a police or government request, it may have had nothing to do with social media. It’s possible that any official move to get people to stop tweeting details of police/military location and actions, or victims’ locations and circumstances may have actually been a side effect of incautious TV coverage. Many people in India and around the world were watching network TV coverage (especially NDTV and IBN) and tweeting what they saw.

I think in this case it would be useful to know whether the police were mainly requesting cooperation from TV news organizations, or from individuals with cell phones. If the latter, that might mark an interesting turning point in the intersection of government, public safety, and free speech.

——————

NOTE: The original version of this post included the following information about my initial assessment of the situation and attempt to get clarification:

So far I can tell, the source for this alleged request by the Indian government is someone based in the U.S. who is monitoring the situation by remote online. He did not cite or link to a primary source for his allegation. It’s unknown whether he got this news firsthand, is repeating what he heard secondhand, or simply made it up. (I’m not saying he would fabricate that info; I’m just saying it’s possible that he could have done so — and that possibility needs to be ruled out before making this news worthy of repeating as fact.) On that basis, I personally would not repeat this rumor as fact.

That’s why, just now I asked Bao about his source: “@mumbaiupdates: What’s the source of your info that Indian government was seeking to curtail tweeting about #mumbai? Link or cite, please?”

UPDATE: I just received this response from Bao:

MumbaiUpdates: “@agahran ~14 hours ago police were asking that the live updates (incl from media) stop. not sure if it is still in effect.”

…Which really doesn’t answer my question. So I just asked for clarification:

@mumbaiupdates My question is, did you get that info 1st-hand? If not, what’s yr source? Also, did the police specifically mention Twitter?

…Soon after Bao transmitted his “PLEASE STOP TWEETING” request, he noted via MumbaiUpdates:

  • Requesting that if live updates are stopped, that when operations are happening, that NDTV and CNN/IBN stop broadcast also. #Mumbai”
  • This is exactly what #Mumbai doesn’t need: a certain tv station following the configuration of the police. That’s what I’m getting at.”
  • SUCCESS – the NDTV website is no longer broadcasting live video from the #Mumbai front. Thank you NDTV.”
  • TV MEDIA, BE RESPONSIBLE. RT @MumbaiAttacks CNN-IBN just gave out a room number from a guest that called them. What are they thinking?”
  • If in #Mumbai pls call +91-120-4341818, or if anywhere email editor@ibnlive.com to tell to stop broadcstng operations info.”

27 thoughts on Tracking a Rumor: Indian Government, Twitter, and Common Sense

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  5. To clarify: I was NOT the first person to report this. Reported from another RT twitter source, who was reportedly one of those who were IN Mumbai.

  6. I saw those “please stop tweeting” tweets yesterday as well, including the one from MumbaiUpdates, and wondered about their source. I’m glad you looked into it. While tweeters perform a valuable service in reporting what they see and hear, you’re doing journalism – analyzing and explaining.

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  11. Hey Amy — Thanks for this thoughtful analysis. We as journalists clearly need to keep building our analytical muscles when turning to Twitter and other social media for “source” material — even if it’s just to emphasize to our readers/listeners/viewers that something is currently unconfirmed, and that we’ll tell them as we learn more.

    As bloggers, this is a bit easier — I’ve updated my post on globalwarming.change.org that built in part of your work of the past two days, with similar comments from Bao: Local Crises, Global Emergencies, and Networked Civil Society

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  13. I’m glad you “updated” your story, but PLEASE make sure you get all of your information straight before you share your story. I don’t like people getting sued for slander or libel, it’s such a simple thing to take care of.

    Just check your sources. To quote one of my mentors, Helen Smith, “When it doubt, check it out.”

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  15. The world would be a better place in general if everyone heeded this:

    “If something just sounds like common sense (like, “Hey, tweeting details of police movements here might endanger police and hostages, so don’t do that!”), there’s no need to appeal to authority (i.e., saying the police said so) to make people listen. A true common-sense message stands on its own — and in social media like Twitter, it could carry more credibility as a peer recommendation than if positioned vaguely as an order from “above.””

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  17. Well, what I did was an act of journalism — journalism is a process, not a product. If other people had also track more info down, raised questions, and shared all that via any means, those also would have been act of journalism even if they weren’t packaged into a narrative.

    IMHO, of course. Others may disagree

    - Amy Gahran

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