Fuelling change via social media activism

Fuelling change via social media activism

Social media includes all those who seek to be part of a movement without having to eng-age in public protests.

It is not without reason that we are unable to discount the importance of the court of public opinion in contemporary life. This is especially true since this court now operates from multiple fora: news media, television and of course social media and social networking sites.

The intensity with which public opinion is aired and decimated through trolls and other forms of abuse and opinion-making is testimony to how we now live in the age of unreason. Multiple opinions may be aired, but are not tolerated, making discussion and debate a truly haloed practice.

But what is more important in these times of social media opinion courts, is the emerging social activism which has gone from the street to the web.

One of the most intense public demonstrations emerged from social media in December 2012 in the wake of the Delhi rape of the young trainee-physiotherapist Jyoti. The public anger garnered on the web led to an outcry on the streets becoming one of the most iconic spontaneous fights for gender-based social justice in India.

Many suggested that such a protest was the ripple effect of the Arab Spring which began in Tunisia and extended to Egypt, and also to the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, all of which had emerged from aggressive social media activism.

The power of social media forcing a public opinion has taken different forms. Recently, during the intense fight to protect indigenous rights over land in Dakota, which was threatened with the building of a pipeline, social media activism became an important tool to get attention and support for the rights of native American Indians.

Eventually, the pipeline was cancelled by the US Army with veterans from the US Army apologising for the atrocities committed against the American Indians over many centuries. This event was played over and over again on social media and consumed by many people across the globe.

This form of consumption and public activism becomes even more important within the processes of repeated sharing of posts, videos and news report-age that travels across space and time bringing people together on shared goals and aspirations.

In the crisis of war and death that has affected Syria’s Aleppo, culminating in international media beaming through the video the plight of the five year old boy who injured and in shock—social media was alive with anxiety. That didn’t stop the war, but got the residents of Aleppo attention.

Recently, desperation and an escalation in violence led to the residents posting farewell videos on Facebook, almost screaming for help to an otherwise disenchanted remote world. Has social media displaced the real world desire to fight protest and scream? Or has social media become an active precipitator to new forms of social activism?

Many would note that the fickleness of social media activism is nothing compared to the kind of effort, time and sacrifice that goes into long-running street activism. Sharing points of dissonance and activism from the comfort of your home and in front of the computer hardly qualifies as activism in the real sense.

The history of social movements in India is testimony to the form of institutionalised torture that people have undergone to seek justice and rights. And frankly, the street protest is not gone. It exists and thrives today with even greater force.

Then what does social media do? What do we fulfil by sharing stories, news of protests or acti-vism? Most importantly, can we discount the effect of social media on activism on the streets?

Rebellion and protest

Social media began with and continues to be a space for the young and restless — perfect ingredients for rebellion and protest. Of interest will be the changes that have followed from the kind of revolt-rebellion that were part of the 1960-70s to present day social unrest. For instance, university activism today remains in essence the same but involves mass mobilisation through social media networks.

Much has been written about the influence of social networks and social media, but as we begin to become nostalgic of things that may only be a decade-old, the millenials are remaking the old into the new.

In that sense, social media is more inclusive encompassing all those who seek to be part of a movement without asking for them to participate in more public protests. That may not necessarily be an easy way out, but instead encourages people to participate and voice their involvement. ‘Armchair activism’ is not a derogatory term anymore.

The mode of rebelling has changed as we change our ways of social engagement. Whether this is in anyway superior or inferior to the old mode of ‘doing revolution’ is debatable—but the fact that social media activism fuels change and conversations cannot be discounted. This is beyond just mobilisation, but truly involves public opinion at varied levels of conversation.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, School of Liberal Arts, Indian Institute of Technology-Hyderabad)