India struggles with social media after rape uproar

NEW DELHI — Protests against a gang rape have galvanized thousands of young Facebook- and Twitter-savvy Indians, and they once again exposed the Indian government’s beleaguered and often blundering efforts to join the social media bandwagon.

The government appeared completely caught off guard by the outrage that started online and spilled into the streets over the Dec. 16 rape of a New Delhi woman, who died two weeks later. Its slow but eventual response was a series of bland, scripted statements by ruling politicians, some embarrassing bloopers, and a heavy police crackdown.

Every misstep trended on Twitter, was liked on Facebook, and was amplified on YouTube, only exacerbating the image of a lumbering government that just could not match up.


‘‘The government is completely disconnected with the reality of the 21st-century urban India,’’ said Reema Ganguly, 44, who posted Facebook messages, photographs, and videos from a protest in New Delhi. ‘‘They can’t keep talking down to us, but they must engage with us.”

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‘‘Facebook is not just about making friends,’’ Ganguly added. ‘‘After the gang-rape incident, we aired our grievances, shared stories of our experiences of facing sexual violence daily in this city, and signed petitions. . . . Does the government even understand this anger?’’

But now, as it battles urban unpopularity and gears up for possible early national elections later this year, government officials are indicating a willingness to take steps — albeit baby steps — toward befriending social media.

‘‘The government is still stuck in an outdated platform from the 1960s and needs to reorient its thinking,’’ India’s recently appointed information and broadcasting minister, Manish Tiwari, 44, said in an interview. ‘‘Everybody is on a learning curve on this. We ignore social media at our own peril.’’

In the past year, India’s government has approached social media with deep suspicion. It has sought to require websites and search engines to screen content it considers offensive; taken down lampooning Facebook cartoons; and blocked sites it said were inciting hate.


Now the government is formulating a new policy and will appoint a core team to train officials about social media, which, Tiwari said, ‘‘needs to be embraced, not shunned, feared, controlled, or banned.’’

There are signs of a grudging realization among politicians that many younger Indian voters form opinions by consuming information online, not by listening to traditional political speeches.

The government held its first Twitter news conferences last year.

It remains uncertain, however, whether the nation’s entrenched, top-down political and government structures are ready to make a culture shift fit for an era of user-generated content.