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From streets to tweets: Surveying the impact of online activism
Despite being criticised as being ‘convenient’ or ‘lazy’ — online activism makes a significant impact. It has become an integral part of activism in the 21st century.
The atmosphere of protest that brought in the new year in January 2020 continues to hang in the air eight months later. Since March, however, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen dissent in India move, almost entirely online.
In late 2019, Indians took to the streets to protest against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC). Central to these protests was the use of social media, which protestors relied on to amplify their voices and gather support. Many who could not attend the protests in person used the information being shared online constantly to educate themselves and follow what was happening on the ground. Social media was used by both sides of the CAA/NRC divide to show support and push their own narrative through platforms such as WhatsApp and Twitter. For instance, petitions to the government through platforms such as Change.org and Jhatkaa, both in support of and against the Act, were shared in large numbers.
By looking at protests and dissent in India, this writeup seeks to show that despite being criticised as being ‘convenient’ or ‘lazy’, online activism makes significant impact, and has become an integral part of activism in the 21st century.
‘Slacktivism’ and making a difference
The power and impact of social media in the Indian context is clear to see and cannot be denied. However, experts have long argued about whether online dissent is actually useful and able to make a noticeable difference. Some assert that it is merely convenient and lazy act, and does not actually achieve anything that it sets out to. Often referred to as ‘slacktivism’ (a portmanteau of ‘slacker’ and ‘activism’), this type of online dissent relies on users’ desire to make a change without engaging with substantial, tangible measures to do so, through ‘feel-good’ measures such as liking posts for causes, signing online petitions, or changing one’s profile picture to a certain colour. Writing for the New Yorker magazine in 2010 at the cusp of the social media revolution, Malcolm Gladwell was confident that “[Online] activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.” In other words, online activism is high-engagement but low-effort, and does not lead to much fruitful results beyond token ‘solidarity’. Its impact is not significant enough to attract people’s attention for longer than an instant.
"Due to the shifting nature of the internet and the emergence of social media as a genuine source of information, many still contend that sharing posts on social media is not the same as actually protesting in the streets as part of a collective."
In the ten years that have passed since Gladwell’s anti-slacktivism article, social media platforms have exploded in popularity. With their massive user bases, democratised nature, and capacity for information virality, they have become integral in shaping public opinion. Citizens often turn to them to educate themselves on social and political issues. However, the activism/slacktivism debate continues to be relevant in 2020. Due to the shifting nature of the internet and the emergence of social media as a genuine source of information, many still contend that sharing posts on social media is not the same as actually protesting in the streets as part of a collective. But it is difficult to overestimate the power and reach of social media and the activism that its users engage in. In India, WhatsApp has become the most efficient and influential way to reach out to people in order to raise awareness and gather support for causes. The messaging app has become infamous for being the purveyor of inaccurate and politically-charged information, allowing users to ‘forward’ this information to thousands of others. While it may not promote a strong sense of collectivism as Gladwell envisioned it, social media is absolutely instrumental in removing barriers to credibility and allowing greater access to information.
Online activism is often seen in a very Western-centric way — the impact it has in the West, where stable democracy is taken for granted, is completely different to the way social media is used and mobilised in other parts of the world. Dr Courtney Radsch, writing in 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring, disagrees with the assumption that online activism is ‘lazy’ and ‘convenient’. Radsch maintains that “Social media are not a panacea to the political, economic and social problems plaguing the region, but are potentially powerful tools for organising, mobilising, communicating and putting domestic issues on the international agenda.”
"While the use of social media is significant, what matters more is the human effort that goes into mobilising people on such a large platform and using it to one’s advantage."
In states where conventional media is manipulated by the ruling government, social media acts as an avenue to circumvent the propaganda of state-controlled traditional media and ensure that multiple voices are heard. Media coverage of online dissent focuses predominantly on the platforms being used. But while the use of social media is significant, what matters more is the human effort that goes into mobilising people on such a large platform and using it to one’s advantage. Radsch also argues, “Pithy, reductionist labels like ‘Wiki Revolution’ and ‘Twitter Revolution’ attribute to a technology what is in fact the reaction to broad disenfranchisement and economic despair along with disgust over presidential corruption.”
Online activism in the time of Covid-19
In light of the pandemic, journalists and citizens in India turned to social media to condemn the government’s treatment of migrant and daily wage workers and oppose the improper planning with which the first phase of the national lockdown was announced. They argued that the lockdown left many of the country’s poorest stranded with no avenue to return to their homes and the very real possibility of food insecurity. On Twitter, concerned netizens continue to demand that migrant labourers be provided sufficient funds and the means to go back to their home states safely. Online petitions have received thousands of signatures on a variety of issues, demanding attention and action.
"‘Twitter storms’ — i.e., flooding the Twitter timeline with hashtags and tweets about a pressing issue — have also gained traction as an effective method of raising awareness, and can often pressure authorities into paying attention and responding to people’s concerns and outrage."
This outpouring of online dissent has met with significant success: through extensive media coverage and online outrage, the central government allocated funds to remunerate workers and resumed limited train services, while state governments began bus services for migrant labourers. According to the Ministry of Railways, more than 60 lakh migrant workers have travelled on the specially-commissioned ‘Shramik Trains’ since they began operating in May. Several individuals have also used social media to collect funds through online fundraising platforms like Ketto to personally distribute provisions and book flight tickets for workers.
‘Twitter storms’ — i.e., flooding the Twitter timeline with hashtags and tweets about a pressing issue — have also gained traction as an effective method of raising awareness, and can often pressure authorities into paying attention and responding to people’s concerns and outrage. This was seen in the case of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) 2020 draft — Twitter storms and successful online petitioning led to the extension of the deadline for public consultation for the draft until 11 August instead of 30 June, as was initially proposed. Online resources allowed citizens to email the government in large numbers, demanding accountability and a rescission of the problematic aspects of the EIA. Online activism has demonstrated that people are willing to fight for what they see as right and just, and it seems to have come full circle. Eight months since they began, the anti-CAA protests have shifted fully online, with protestors gathering in small groups in their localities to show their opposition to the Act and posting pictures of their protests online.
Thus, what many still consider to be lazy activism is today able to engage thousands, if not millions, of people to support causes that require attention. The rise of social media and the Covid-19 pandemic have shown that online activism is not merely a sidekick to conventional street protests, but is able to hold its own in the 21st century.
Rutvi Samre (ORF)
11 September 2020