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With the option of physically coming together for large gatherings or protests unavailable, a lot of campaigning and activism has moved online.

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news Activism Friday, September 04, 2020 - 20:07

Just a few weeks ago, the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) 2020 made the news for the furore it caused in proposing dilution of the country’s environmental laws. According to Sandeep Anirudhan, who runs Green Tweet Army, an umbrella coalition of citizens for social Media Action on Green Issues, as many as 20 lakh emails were sent by people to the government as a part of the campaign against EIA.

“Even before the pandemic, digital space was playing an important role in amplifying what we were doing offline,” Sandeep tells TNM. “What’s changed now is the discussion being generated online. Earlier, to get people into one place, to organise and attend workshops was also a task. Now, we just have to get people on Zoom or another platform to join a webinar at the click of a button.”

Tweetathons, hashtag and social media campaigns are not new at all. However, activism and campaigning on various issues has seen a significant shift online in the last few months, thanks to the pandemic preventing large-scale gatherings and protests in person. This is likely to be the scenario in the months to come as well. However, in a country where internet penetration is neither universal nor uniform, can digital activism go beyond ‘keyboard warrioring’?

Digital activism is not being a keyboard warrior

Sandeep admits that an in-person protest with even 10 people is more likely to gather media attention than hundreds having a discussion on social media. “And for any sort of protest or campaign to pick up, we do need the attention of traditional media.”

However, the protests against EIA didn’t lack creativity, despite the absence of momentum that comes from physical gatherings. For example, one protest involved a virtual human chain, where people posted photos of themselves standing with their arms spread out on either side with the hashtag #HUMANCHAINFOREIA. When you look up the hashtag, it appears that people are indeed standing hand in hand, like they would in a protest.

Sandeep also argues that to believe that digital activism is simply keyboard warrioring is a false narrative. “If you think about it, most of the people who’re destroying the environment – conglomerates, bureaucrats, politicians – they’re also sitting in front of their desks or computers and making those decisions. Then why is it wrong for people to sit behind their screens and campaign to save the environment? It’s not being slack, because they’re taking out time beyond their regular work to do that as well.”

He adds that people can have various kinds of pressures and obligations that could prevent them from coming out and protesting, but if they have access to the internet and are able to navigate it, they can participate from their homes.

An increase in online petitions

There are platforms like Change.org and Jhatkaa that have been focussed on digital activism from the start through online petitions. However, right after the lockdown, these platforms saw a surge in the number of petitions being started too. From under 8,698 petitions in May 2020, the number rose to around 18,490 the next month. And while this number dropped to 8,366 again in July, it was still slightly higher than March (7,616) and April (5,746).

Some of the petitions the platforms consider successful are – regulating the sale and pricing of masks and sanitisers (started in March), asking the Prime Minister to make a statement condemning racial attacks on people from the North East, after a young woman in Delhi was tauntingly called “corona” in March, among others.

“While the lockdown restrained people from stepping out, it couldn’t stop people from demanding change. And that explains the sharp spike in the number of petitions during this period, as concerned citizens took to Change.org to raise the most critical issues affecting them, be it domestic abuse, attacks against doctors, holding online classes and exams for children, relaxation of school fees and house rents among other,” says Nida Hasan, Country Director, Change.org.

Similarly, Jhatkaa’s Nimisha Agarwal also told TNM that the kinds of partners approaching them to run campaigns have also increased since the pandemic.

While Jhatkaa’s major focus is on gender and sexuality, air pollution and climate change, several campaign ideas they have received in the recent past are diverse, and are manifestations of the “a wake-up call towards sustainable living due to the pandemic,” Nimisha says. “There is a 30% increase in the kind of issues that we are focusing on now, because the nature of activism is moving online. In that sense, the increase in digital campaigning has also provided a space for intersectionality, allowing us to work with issues we may otherwise not have.”

“Since it wasn’t possible to do things offline, a lot of issues that people reached out to us with were different from our core areas. For example, the migrant worker crisis, personal protection equipment for doctors, pay hikes for ASHA workers in Maharashtra or making cycling popular were all issues that became popular on Jhatkaa and some even saw victories,” she adds.

More collaboration and to an extent, inclusion

Kavita Ratna, Director-Advocacy, The Concerned for Working Children, is one of the people who has been participating and organising discussions on why the Centre’s potential move to increase the minimum age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 could do more harm than good. She was also one among the facilitators of a report – Young Voices, which collated the findings from discussions and surveys with over 2,000 young persons, including adolescents, across 15 states to get their opinion on the matter.

Read: Centre looking at raising women's age of marriage to 21: Will it help?

While she admits that campaigning on the issue digitally deprives them of a sense of unity and being together, she observes that there is some advantage to civil society organisations which are now able to connect across cities and countries digitally.

Karthik Bittu Kondaiah, member of the Telangana Hijra Intersex Transgender Samiti, says that to an extent, digital activism and campaigning can even result in more inclusion, especially when it comes to people with disability, or those who cannot afford to be out in the open protesting fearing violence because of their identities.

“The advantage is that this shift to digital has made more people aware of platforms and how to use them. It has allowed more people to meet and plan across borders at the click of a button. In terms of involving those with disabilities, digital platforms have a lot of potential, with tools like those converting speech to text, providing translations and so on,” Bittu says. “But we can reap the benefits of these fully only if access to the internet is a fundamental right.”

Kavita adds, “Despite some advantages, for those of us who want to involve communities and voices, this is a tough situation. For example, the criteria for deciding who gets to represent a young person’s voice on the age of marriage issue online are now whether the person has access to the internet and can attend a Zoom call. So, in the long run, unless access and right to the internet becomes the norm, digital campaigning and activism is going to be inequitable,” Kavita says.

The problem of access

Like Bittu and Kavita, Sandeep also points out that it is largely the urban and semi-urban populations that find a place online. “And though they are the minority in terms of the overall national demographic, they control more resources and are more influential, hence their voices get more value.”

This digital divide is not just playing a role in activism, but in other aspects, such as education, Kavita says, in reference to not all students having internet or devices to access the internet for online classes. She also warns that the campaigning and activism digital space also means a higher risk of surveillance and censorship. “The digital medium can connect across borders, but for many of the communities that we work with it’s not an organic space.”

There are also fears that the curbs on gathering and protesting could lead to the government pushing forward laws and agendas. In April, the Centre had released the draft Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Rules, 2020 for comments and suggestions. However, at a time when the transgender community was reeling under reinforced stigma, lack of food, shelter and livelihood, community members and activists questioned the timing of the move. They pointed out that not only did the draft come at a time the community could not gather to protest, but it also excluded a large section as it was published only in English, and with the requirement for comments to be submitted online.

Both Sandeep and Bittu also say that while digital activism has potential, the pandemic and its fallout has also left people exhausted, making it difficult to mobilise now as compared to the beginning of the lockdown.

Bittu adds that at such a time, any kind of activism, including digital, is faced with another challenge. “What do you do when a majoritarian, democratically elected government is unwilling to listen to people, especially on minority issues?”

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