Manipur Violence: Do internet shutdowns curb spread of misinformation?

By: anurag baruah&
July 24 2023

Share Article: facebook logo twitter logo linkedin logo
Manipur Violence: Do internet shutdowns curb spread of misinformation?

Essential healthcare services, local businesses, children's education —these are some of the victims of the internet shutdown in the Indian State of Manipur, if media reports are anything to go by. Residents in the northeastern State have stayed digitally isolated for more than 80 days — arguably the longest shutdown outside Jammu and Kashmir in India. 

Internet services in Manipur were first suspended on May 3 when violence broke out between the Kuki tribe and the Meitei communities. As the ethnic clashes continued to keep the State on boil, the Manipur government passed a new order periodically to extend the internet shutdown. When the Manipur High Court ordered the partial restoration of services (Internet Lease Line (ILL) and Fibre To The Home (FTTH) connections ) on July 7 in response to several public interest litigations, the Manipur government was quick to challenge the high court's decision in the Supreme Court. While the court proceedings go on, the Manipur government has meanwhile ignored pleas by political parties, NGOs, and human rights bodies to restore internet services.  

One of the justifications used by the State government to keep internet services shut is to "curb the spread of false news, rumors, and misinformation through social media platforms which have the potential to disturb law and order situations in the State."

But do internet shutdowns really help keep a check on the spread of mis/disinformation? Expert opinion and anecdotal evidence suggest otherwise.

‘No evidence to support the argument’

Speaking to Logically Facts, technologist and public policy researcher Rohini Lakshane said, “There is no evidence that intentional internet shutdowns stop the spread of mis/disinformation that further fuels public unrest or violence, or other threats to law and order."

Echoing Lakshane's assertion Gayatri Malhotra, associate litigation counsel at the digital rights organization Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), told us that internet shutdowns that are imposed on the grounds of preventing the spread of "fake news," "misinformation," or "rumor-mongering" are neither absolute nor foolproof in achieving their intended means. 

"Scholars argue that as people observe the "leaks" and inefficiencies in infrastructure implementation, they discover innovative ways to navigate (the restrictions) and construct information ecosystems," she added. 

Mis/Disinformation spreads unabated 

The alleged trigger of the harrowing May 4 Manipur incident—where two Kuki-Zomi women were stripped before being paraded naked and sexually assaulted by a mob in Manipur's Thoubal district — appears to lie in the want for revenge fuelled by misinformation. One of the survivors told The Print that the perpetrators of the sexual violence said it was "revenge for the Churachandpur case." 

Screenshots from the May 4 incident. (Source: Twitter/ Satish S Sharma)

 Back in May, a claim went viral which stated a Meitei nurse was raped and killed by Kuki men in Churachandpur district. The claim was supported by unrelated and old pictures. The government's inability to keep the spread of such mis/disinformation at bay is underlined by the countless viral false and misleading claims around the violence in Manipur debunked by fact-checking organizations. 

Some of the other claims debunked by Logically Facts can be read here, here, here, and here

Similar trends were also observed in 2016 in Jammu and Kashmir, where, a research paper by Jan Rydzak, found "rumors and disinformation continue to spread with or without access to digital communication networks, whose primary role is that of accelerators of information diffusion." Since 2012, Jammu Kashmir has witnessed at least 422 internet shutdowns, according to a tracker maintained by SFLC (Software Freedom Law Center), a legal services organization that advocates for digital freedom. 

Are internet shutdowns counterproductive?

Experts worry internet shutdowns can create information silos and amplify misinformation and rumor-mongering. 

"When people don't have access to the internet, they don't have access to diverse sources of information or ways to share verified, accurate information. This information vacuum, in fact, impedes the ability to fact-check and prevent the spread of mis/disinformation," Namrata Maheshwari, Asia Pacific policy counsel at international digital rights advocacy group Access Now said. "The U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights has also observed that internet blackouts meant to contain violence and misinformation often have the opposite effect of fuelling fear, confusion, and conflict," she added.

Other experts cautioned of even more dangerous effects that internet shutdown could have on misinformation. "Rather than countering misinformation and fake news, internet shutdowns may actually exacerbate and amplify the spread of malicious and harmful information by depriving individual users of tools for verification and fact-checking," IFF's Malhotra said.

Advocates for digital rights and freedom also opine that internet shutdowns pave the way for the State to establish its version of events. 

"Internet shutdowns enable the State to establish itself as the primary authority for information, leaving valuable fact-checking tools inaccessible. Consequently, the State assumes the role of the arbiter of truth, allowing carefully crafted information, manipulated data, and propaganda to circulate unchallenged," Maheshwari said. 

Statements by Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh have done little to counter the concerns about his government using the internet shutdown as a means to curtail the spread of information that throws light on the ground reality in the strife-torn State. In an interview with India Today on the May 4 sexual assault incident in Manipur, Singh said, "There are hundreds of similar cases that are happening here. That's why internet is banned in Manipur right now."

Beyond mis/disinformation

Internet shutdowns have other far-reaching effects apart from aiding the spread of mis/disinformation. "My own research on the issue showed that shutdowns have several short-term, medium-term, and long-term effects, especially on disadvantaged populations: from hampering disaster relief and rescue activities to women reporting that they feel less safe when they do not have reliable access to mobile communications," remarked Lakhane. 

Concerns like these had prompted the United Nation Human Rights Office to urge states to not impose internet shutdowns in a 2022 report. The UN body had further warned, "the real-life effects of internet shutdowns on people's lives and human rights have been vastly underestimated."

"They (Internet shutdowns) prevent people from being able to communicate freely, share and access information, negatively impact employment, daily income, and the economy, and often make education and healthcare inaccessible. All of these consequences, and the adverse impact on fundamental rights, have been proven," Access Now's Maheshwari said.  

In fact, Rydzak in his paper on internet blackouts suggests that the information vacuum caused by an internet shutdown can actually encourage violent responses rather than quell them. "This (increase in violence amid shutdown) is because the absence of online platforms, which facilitate the organization and coordination of peaceful demonstrations, may compel individuals to react spontaneously and without a premeditated plan, potentially resorting to acts of violence," Malhotra explained.

According to Access Now's Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project (STOP), India implemented the most number of shutdowns for the fifth consecutive year in 2022. 

The country shut down the internet at least 84 times in 2022, the highest in the world. Since 2016, 58 percent of all documented shutdowns worldwide have taken place in India. The Internet Shutdowns tracker maintained by SFLC has recorded a total of 690 shutdowns in India since 2012, the first being a shutdown imposed in the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir on January 26, 2012. 

The way ahead?

Manipur might serve as the latest case study that shows how sudden internet shutdown can add fuel to the fire in a crisis. Just before internet services were suspended in the State on May 3, unverified videos of violent attacks circulated rapidly, sending the State into turmoil. 

"Silence can be dangerous too, as it creates a vacuum that can breed rumors and conjectures, and in the absence of authentic information to cross-check, these can feed the conflict more," Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and senior journalist from Manipur said.

Calling an internet ban a double-edged sword, he said, “The danger is not so much about hate messages, but of public sharing gruesome images and videos which can appeal to someone more than just text.”. "During a crisis, the government should make internet available but, perhaps, at slower bandwidth, like 2G, so that people can communicate but not share large file videos and images," he suggested. 

While some, like Phanjoubam, are on the fence regarding the internet shutdown, others believe that the solution is to communicate more during times of unrest.  

"A more effective remedy, in my opinion, would be for governments to fight misinformation with information and to communicate more, not less, with the public in times of unrest or while tackling law and order problems," Lakshané said.

Would you like to submit a claim to fact-check or contact our editorial team?

Global Fact-Checks Completed

We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before