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India: A Critically Ill Marxist Leader Trends On Twitter

At 11.30am on Wednesday 6th January 2010, a medical bulletin from a private hospital in Salt Lake, Kolkata announced that Mr. Jyoti Basu, a 95 year old Marxist leader and former Chief Minister of West Bengal, who had been hospitalized on January 1st, following a bout of pneumonia had been put on the ventilator and was critically ill.

Mr. Jyoti Basu, a patriarch of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had served as the Chief Minister of West Bengal from 1977 to 2000, making him India's longest-serving Chief Minister as of 2009.

Soon, the word spread like wildfire and in the absence of a follow-up official statement/ medical bulletin regarding his condition, speculations began (both in the real and virtual world) as to whether Jyoti Basu was alive or had passed away. The arrival of a host of political leaders and other dignitaries, one after the other, at AMRI – the hospital where Mr. Basu was being treated, further fuelled the speculation regarding his death.

“Has he passed away?” A friend from Bangladesh asked me in the afternoon on Facebook Chat. “I don’t think so, have not yet heard anything to that effect”, I replied. “The news doing the rounds is that he has passed away but the government is not announcing it yet”, said another friend, an avid netizen.

As the day wore on, the crowd grew outside the hospital, more dignitaries visited and speculation gathered momentum. It also offered us an interesting opportunity to watch social media in action.

‘Breaking News’ of Mr. Basu’s ‘death’ was published on various websites, some of which, for example, SamayLive.com (an online news service from the Corporate House Sahara India Parivar) and kalponik.us claimed that they got the news from ‘inside sources. The ‘news’ was also discussed widely on blogger forums, social networking sites such as Facebook and of course, on Twitter.

By afternoon, Jyoti Basu was a hot search topic on Google, a lot of it being initiated from Kolkata. With all the buzz generated, he soon became one of the trending topics on Twitter, surely a first for someone from West Bengal.

lihkin – Jyoti Basu is dead and its all on Twitter. RIP Jyoti Basu.

paldibyojyoti with the number of tweets claiming Jyoti Basu dead, God himself would have been confused about Mr. Basu's fate!

anoopan (Anoop Narayanan) –  http://twitpic.com/x0xsk – Google suggests Jyoti basu is dead

twikewl (Sunny Sodd) > @atulchawla: Jyoti Basu was born b4 computers, he was against computers, and now he's a trending topic on Twitter. Funny how life works.

By around 2pm, ‘RIP’ messages were pouring in. Tweets were coming not only from ordinary citizens but from celebrity Tweeters associated with MSM. Shobhaa De, a well-known columnist and novelist tweeted:

DeShobhaa – Jyoti Babu's death is worth mourning. I remember our last meeting at the Bengal Club vividly. Intellectual giant and idealist. Rare today. RIP

The page on Jyoti Basu in the Wikipedia was also modified to accommodate the unconfirmed news of his demise.

Finally at around 3.30pm, the veteran leader’s long serving personal assistant Joy Krishna Ghosh issued a statement that the patriarch was very much alive, though critical. Biman Bose, the West Bengal Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) reaffirmed this message. Mr. Bose also stated that he was aware that rumours of Jyoti Basu's demise were being fuelled by ‘certain websites’ and that he had himself read some of them. He urged the people at large not to give credence to such rumours.

Gradually the message began seeping through all the buzz that Mr. Basu was still alive and responding to treatment. Those following the story online saw something interesting happening on the Web.

The pages on the websites that had initially cited ‘inside sources’ and announced the passing away of Jyoti Basu were curiously unreachable or blank. Wikipedia took quick action, removed all incorrect references and semi-protected the page on Jyoti Basu to prevent unauthorised editing.

On Twitter too, a section of Tweeters were already cautioning others not to re-tweet unconfirmed news without checking out official confirmation. There were tweets and re-tweets of news quoting the official statement and medical bulletin. @Shobhaa De drew quite a bit of flack for jumping the gun.

ChinTweet (Chinmay Tadwalkar)  – @DeShobhaa What are you upto,ma'am? Jyoti Basu is critical but still ALIVE! Keep your “RIP” messages with yourself.

Unni1945 (P.N. Unni) – Shobha De's hurry makes good laughing. let Jyoti Basu recover soon

cosmichappiness – @DeShobhaa Jyoti Basu is not dead yet. Hold on to ur obits and check the news

By the next day, more dignitaries, including the Prime Minister had visited Mr. Basu in the hospital. His condition remained unchanged. Some of the Netizens who had keenly observed the frenzied discussions of the day before, were quick to express a critical view of the role played by social media in the entire episode.

Pradeep at Sands of Change wrote on his blog:

Democratization of mass media mechanism may have its good side, but definitely not without pitfalls. A good example of the latter was the way the rumour about Jyoti Basu’s death spread on twitter this afternoon. Like email forwards and sms forwards, this too got mindlessly retweeted. The extent of traffic could be gauged from the fact that Jyoti Basu was a trending topic on twitter for a while… Interestingly, now it was the non-journalists who jumped the gun with “breaking news”, and it was they who got it all wrong! I hope they have become wiser now, and will pardon, when next time round journalists slip.

Kanupriya at Mixed Expressions wrote:

We always speak of media irresponsibility and sensationalism but in this case aren't citizens responsible for this rumor? Yes, Mr. Basu is critical and is hospitalized too but the news of his death is not confirmed by any official sources yet. In fact as per the latest update from most of the official sources, he is still alive. .. Well, now I'm curiously waiting for any update from news sites to know if it is actually a rumor or twitter was the first platform to break this news…Till then the curious case of Mr. Basu continues…

Others urged social media users to be more responsible.

For example, Anirban Saha wrote on his blog:

It’s a plea, to all who uses social media (facebook, twitter, orkut…and the list is endless) to be responsible… we need to be more responsible, as citizens as netizens.. the social media is a powerful tool to educate. It is equally powerful to spread rumours.

According to Shivalika Raj:

Social media is a plat form where people can share ideas, news or information from around the world but that information need to be authentic and not just any useless piece of rumor. The problem with the social media is that we cannot find the authenticity of the person involved and he/she can write anything and that news is spread in two minutes like a wave of water. I reckon that its our duty to make sure that the information we are sharing with our networks is acceptable enough. Assorting such news is quite hectic and sometimes time wasting but spreading a untruthful piece of news is quite dire for the society.

On Twitter too, tweeples were sounding words of caution. For example,

SachinKalbag – Journalists on Twitter will have to learn to remain true to journalism fundamentals. Twitter is a medium not a free-for-all. @surekhapillai

anirbanmisra -Jyoti Basu is alive, it was a rumor, appolise (sic) for being a part of spreading the rumorSachinKalbag –  To those who perpetuated Jyoti Basu is dead myth, please be more responsible. Else Twitter will be under govt scanner.

SachinKalbag – To those who perpetuated Jyoti Basu is dead myth, please be more responsible. Else Twitter will be under govt scanner.

When asked to comment on the viral spread of unconfirmed news positioned as citizen journalism and the resulting criticism of social media as a vehicle of such rumors, popular Indian blogger Dina Mehta said that today the term ‘citizen journalist’ was being used loosely, leading to unnecessary controversies. According to her, “citizen journalists are typically folks who are talking to their communities” so not everything that is crowdsourced, or found on Social Media should be labeled citizen generated news/citizen journalism.

As of this hour, Mr. Jyoti Basu continues to be critically ill and is battling for his life. The rumor mills have died down as of now. In the final analysis, the moral of this incident (and others similar to this one, for example the one pertaining to Steve Jobs that appeared on CNN's iReport site in 2008) is perhaps that whether we are recognized/ professional journalists or simply ordinary citizens, it is each of our responsibility to ensure that we do not oil the rumor mills online or off it.

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