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Raising Our Voices in Protest – Online

by Vani Viswanathan

[box]The internet not just revolutionised our lives, it brought revolution to our doorsteps. How has activism benefitted from the internet, and what constitutes online activism? Is it effective at all? Vani Viswanathan speaks to two online activists, Kamayani Bali Mahabal of ‘Kractivism’ and Archismita Choudhury of ‘Being Feminist,’ in search for some answers.[/box]

Two Egyptian women tired of sexual harassment on the streets everyday join forces to create an online platform where other women can map the places where they get harassed. A revolution to overthrow authoritarian regimes in Middle East spread with assistance from Twitter. An online campaign against the illegal detention of a 22-year-old Kashmiri youth led to his successful release 277 days after his arrest.

To say that the internet has revolutionised our lives is an understatement, but the truth is it has also brought revolution to our doorsteps. At the click of a mouse (or several clicks, if you’re more into it), it is today possible to make a strong statement about a cause you are passionate about sitting in the comfort of your home. While this is not to take away the importance of being in the streets making your voice heard, the internet has given us the opportunity to take our causes to more people, faster and more efficiently – volumes of information can be shared at ease; multiple kinds of content can be featured together, be it videos, text, or audio, and it has the capacity to reach millions in a matter of minutes.

Two people who are extensively online in their approach to activism, talk to Spark this month. Kamayani Bali Mahabal is a lawyer cum activist, a rigorous online campaigner who coined the word ‘Kractivism’ as an attempt to bridge online and offline activism. Archismita Choudhury, founder of Being Feminist, relies entirely on the online medium to dispel myths about feminism. These two women are successful in their own ways in using the internet towards their ends: while Kamayani takes on specific campaigns – such as a movement to Free Waqar, the 22-year-old mentioned earlier – Archismita’s approach is a broader attempt to generate a positive discussion around feminism. Both of them, despite their different ends, swear by the strength of the internet, and specifically, the social media, in their jobs.

Kamayani Bali Mahabal

For Kamayani, it is the extensive reach of social media, and the possibility of information becoming extremely viral in a short period of time, both of which are not so easily accomplished through offline activism, that makes it vital to her job. To her, online activism is not creating anything new; it is simply enhancing offline means of activism by making it more effective towards creating social change. The rise of the internet and supporting new technologies – such as digital and video cameras, which enable easier recording or documenting – was accompanied by stronger political protests and mobilisation. “The new technologies, particularly social media, are both a catalyst for democratic reform as well as an instrument to aid more traditional methods of protest and civil resistance, for me,” she says.

For 17-year-old Archismita, however, social media is beneficial on a whole other level. As a student, this is the platform she can use to engage in activism, she says. Additionally, social media is what prompted her to start Being Feminist in the first place – as a recently enlightened feminist, she could not find a page that celebrated being a feminist – why wasn’t there one? “Was it because of the stigma associated to feminism that people were unwilling to like a page which was explicitly ‘Being Feminist’?” was a question that popped into her head frequently. She wondered why she couldn’t start a page that would seek to dispel myths surrounding feminism, and that’s how Being Feminist was born on the 6th of April 2012. “That is the power of social networking sites – anyone can create anything for their use.” A little over six months old, the page has amassed a large following, with over 13,000 fans.

Besides the ease with which she could start a discussion around feminism, Archismita considers social media a boon in terms of the vast amount of knowledge, ideas and people she has come across thanks to the various platforms. “I wouldn’t HAVE a job without social media, I’d just be another student and FAR more ignorant of realities around me. That is something I’m grateful for…” she says.

Which platform?

Of the myriad platforms online – be it dedicated websites, blogs, YouTube, or social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook – each has a unique purpose to it. Most activists use multiple platforms, with content in one feeding into or linked to the other. Also, most platforms allow embedding of content from different platforms – sample a YouTube video that can be shared on Facebook, or the ability to automatically convert every Tweet into a Facebook update. For Kamayani, the fight is led by her blog, which she supports with her Twitter and Facebook accounts. Additionally, she has recently started creating animated videos that give more information about her campaigns in a concise and visually engaging way. Given the importance of getting more information to more people in a short span of time in order to drum up attention on the cause, relying extensively on multiple channels is essential. Similarly, Being Feminist is led by the Facebook page, supported by a blog and a Twitter account. “I rely on Facebook the most because I’m mostly a Facebook person and also because it is the first thing I started – I have a different bond with the page,” she says. Facebook seems ideal in this case because of the extensive discussion needed to get more people to engage with the cause. She would also like to start a video channel, but she feels severely human-resource-strapped – the reason she says even the blog, with its huge potential, cannot be updated as frequently as she would like with own content rather than sourced content. Clearly, presence on just one platform is not enough anymore – even if one can lead, a decent presence on at least the major social media platforms is essential.

Pushing them towards their goals

The strength of the medium aside, how effective has online activism been? Kamayani cites a number of instances where online campaigns she initiated or was part of have successfully contributed towards ending oppression. Key among these is the protest against mining giant Vedanta’s controversial social responsibility program ‘Creating Happiness’ that invited student filmmakers from across the country to document a success story from Vedanta-supported community initiatives such as schools. Known for a number of issues surrounding illegality of their operations, the company was accused of masking its actual activities by sponsoring programs such as these, by many activists. Activists also alleged that the company was sponsoring some 114 students of popular film schools in India, in what was considered a ploy by the company to manufacture its opinions and “control the ‘could be’ voices of future.” An open letter written by Kamayani led to celebrated filmmaker Shyam Benegal withdrawing from the judging panel for the competition, followed by Gul Panag, leaving behind only celebrated ad filmmaker Piyush Pandey – who had created a 90-second film about a student who had benefited from studying in a school supported by Vedanta, that formed the core of the ‘Creating Happiness’ campaign. Similarly, a holistic campaign to free Waqar, supported by a website, Facebook page and Twitter hashtag #FreeWaqar, helped gain international attention on the human rights violation that Waqar had to face with his illegal detention. With pressure coming from Amnesty International, which gave its stamp recognising this detention as an instance of rampant police and state repression in Kashmir, Waqar was finally released in June this year, after nearly a year in detention. In both cases, the internet was key to raising public awareness in the issue – in the Waqar issue, Urdu newspapers picked up website screenshots to publicise the issue.

Archismita Choudhury

With Being Feminist, success is a reflection of the number of people who visit the site and admit to their (mis)conceptions of feminism being challenged: “I’m glad people are rethinking the propaganda of patriarchal media branding feminism as a sexist movement, even if they do not say it – which was (and is) one of my major aims – that people do not reject feminism outright on the basis of tired, old stereotypes,” says Archismita. She cites as an instance a letter she received from a lady who had considered herself an ‘anti-feminist’: “I took a look through some of your posts and photos and read many comments. I really feel like my eyes have been opened to the idea that I might actually myself be a feminist! Maybe closeted, but a feminist nonetheless. I mean I don’t feel like any less of a woman BECAUSE I make the best roast beef, but I certainly don’t feel that it will define me any longer.” This, to Archismita, is proof enough that attitudes can be challenged through social media, and that, to her, is a success that the medium has helped generate.

Obviously, the next tricky question is what defines success itself. Archismita has an interesting response: the number of carefully planned and orchestrated troll attacks executed on their Facebook page. “This is a sign that this page is annoying a lot of people – and they usually happen after our page links sexist, disgusting, exploitative, slut shaming pages which need to be taken down, to our members,” she says – a sure indication that the page is reaching more people.

With Kamayani, there are two important criteria to consider: engagement and activism. Engagement looks at how often individual members engage with the issue/ cause, measured by considering, for instance, how many comment on or share a blog post, ‘Like’ a Facebook update, favourite a video or re-tweet messages. The activism criteria, on the other hand, look at the number of people who are affirmatively taking the action that the cause espouses. The activism criteria are a reflection of the influence a cause has to move its online followers and friends to action, says Kamayani. “Both the engagement and activism measurements will obviously be contextual, and can only be understood within the context of the cause and the linked online community.”

Is it activism?

This leads us to question, then, what exactly activism is these days. Does clicking ‘Like’ on a page make the person an activist, or is the person a ‘slacktivist,’ feeling comfortable thinking they have ‘taken part’ in campaigning for a cause? “I certainly think that it is quite possible that many people are simply being ‘slacktivists’” says Archismita, although she adds that if someone reads something linked and thinks about it and ‘likes’ it, she doesn’t really see a problem – “not everyone has the time/inclination to do what we do.” For her, Being Feminist was itself the result of her ‘discovering’ feminism on Facebook through the discussions and ‘Likes’ on the page ‘A Girl’s Guide to Taking Over the World’ – therefore, she says, “I definitely think it is and has a huge potential of bringing genuine interest to the fore.”

Kamayani certainly agrees that online activism cannot be dismissed as having no impact. What happened in Tunisia and Egypt is an example of where online activism which came on streets, “so let us not wash away the impact of online activism…” she says. Not one to be swayed by labels such as ‘slacktivists,’ she says that things such as signing petitions online should be looked at not in isolation but together with the other strategies being used to raise awareness, for every campaign needs a multi-pronged approach. Technological advances have enabled easy documentation of human rights violations, government negligence, or police violence, which can be very quickly shared to a vast online community – where it’s hard to stop it from spreading. “Bascially, Twitter accelerates the energy promulgated by social activism; bloggers think, analyse and interpret the news in a deeper way than mainstream media; the Facebook-ers build strong social networks based on personal credibility. It all comes together in what’s been called ‘crowdsourcing’, where the minds of many people work together in a virtual environment to come up with ideas bigger than what individuals can generate. This is where social media derives its power.”

While online activism isn’t the be-all-and-end-all solution – it is certainly not foolproof – the sheer reach potential that the internet and social media have is unmatched. This reach, combined with the platform provided by social media to critically engage with and discuss the issues at hand, makes it a very powerful medium to espouse a cause.

Vani Viswanathan is often lost in her world of books and A R Rahman, churning out lines in her head or humming a song. Her world is one of frivolity, optimism, quietude and general chilled-ness, where there is always place for outbursts of laughter, bouts of silence, chocolate, ice cream and lots of books and endless iTunes playlists from all over the world. Vani was a Public Relations consultant in Singapore and decided to come back to homeland after seven years away to pursue a Masters in Development Studies. Vani blogs at http://chennaigalwrites.blogspot.com

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