“Twitter storm at 9 PM with #BringMigrantsHome”. “Please share #EndSARS”. Hundreds of thousands of hashtags like these are being used to protest on social media. The most recent of these is the hashtag #DalitLivesMatter in the wake of a brutal rape and murder of a Dalit girl in Uttar Pradesh.
The past decade has seen an exponential increase in the number of social media users world over, with Facebook, Instagram and Twitter being the most popular few. A McKinsey report states that India had around 294 million social media users in 2018, with this figure only increasing. Anna Hazare’s Anti-corruption movement was one of the first to use social media as a tool for social movements and protests. With the COVID induced lockdown, physical protests are no longer possible and social media has become the primary protest medium.
Protests earlier required careful planning and organisation with people sometimes having to go door to door to raise awareness. Social media has greatly accelerated this process. The December 2019 attack on JNU students saw immediate protests on the same night, mobilised through social media. More importantly, social media has helped movements reach wider, sometimes international audiences without having to depend on traditional media outlets. Hashtags are an important tool — the more they are used, the more popular they become. The #MeToo movement highlights the immense potential of online protests. Not only did women feel more empowered to come forward with their own stories, governments and companies world over instituted sexual harassment policies and began to take reports much more seriously. The story is a little different in India.
Multiple reports state that two years after the MeToo movement gained traction in India, little has changed. Most of the accused continue to live their lives unaffected by the movement. While the immediate movement saw an outpouring of anger, the storm died down quickly and things were back to normal. It had all but disappeared from the media and national conscience alike. The movement lasted for roughly 3 months since it took off in October 2018. Many companies created Internal Complaints Committees and sensitisation workshops, but it was mostly lip service. MeToo continues to exist in the online space, primarily due to its prominence in the western world.
The infamous “Bois Locker Room” group chats that surfaced in May 2020 met a similar fate. Screenshots of a private Instagram group chat consisted of teenage boys from National Capital Region schools sharing intimate images of teenage girls, sexualising and body-shaming them. These screenshots were widely shared on social media. The police soon caught wind of these and conducted an investigation. What followed was dubbed mini #MeToo movement with people coming out with similar stories of online harassment that they had faced. After the news of police action spread, social media users and a few newspapers and television channels were preoccupied with this case for two weeks, debating the causes and correctional measures before interest fizzled out.
Similar trajectories can be observed for movements like the anti-CAA protest, the attacks on JNU students, the new Environmental Impact Assessment 2020 and Indian occupation of Kashmir. People still share occasional reminders that things aren’t normal yet, but most information and activism remains confined to a few accounts.
The Dalit Lives Matter is the most recent iteration of this cycle. The usage of this hashtag peaked on the 3rd of October, a few days after news broke of the events, following which its use declined steadily. Physical protests were impossible during this time due to COVID-19 restrictions, so people improvised by posting pictures of themselves holding placards in their own homes, from Mumbai to NYC, Toronto and Berlin. Today, in the final week of the same month, the hashtag continues to experience spikes on days when new similar cases come to light but is otherwise rarely used.
So, what is responsible for this life cycle of social media protests in India? Can the same not be said of protests around the world since people generally have a limited attention span? The Hindu quotes a 2019 report by Kantar IMRB, a market research, survey and business consultancy firm, as stating that internet penetration in rural India is just 25%, compared to 66% in urban regions, even as it continues to grow rapidly. Caste and religion demographics further complicate this divide. A study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) has found that Upper castes have the highest exposure to social media, followed by Muslims and then Dalits and tribal communities. Men were found to have more internet access than women. A primary issue is that of access. Many of these protests are for minorities, whether Dalits and Dalit Lives Matter or Muslims and the Anti-CAA protests. The people amplifying these voices online very often aren’t the stakeholders in these movements and can thus afford to lose interest or forget about them. An upper-caste male, however sympathetic to the cause of caste-based violence, will have the luxury to choose his battles. This is one reason for this cycle.
The rhetoric of social protest online is complicated. The medium, more often than not, is English. According to a joint report published by KPMG India and Google, the total number of English language internet users in India in 2016 was just 175 million, compared to 234 million Indian language users. Online protests try to reach a wider audience across the country and the world, for which English is the most convenient medium. This further limits the reach of the posts. The issue of partisanship is worldwide, but people in other countries do not always have to cross language barriers in hundreds of languages. Thus, even when the other party may not agree with you, they can at least be exposed to your point of view.
Anti-CAA protests continued like the Black Lives Matter protests in the US continued long after media houses had stopped reporting on them. The reason the former fell out of online public consciousness and the latter did not was the levels of exposure they received. BLM was sustained by prominent figures like Hollywood celebrities. Artists like Zendaya Coleman and Shawn Mendes, who have a large young following would regularly hand over their online platforms to leaders of the BLM movement. Indian celebrities also have a large and diverse following, but most were unwilling to speak up on the issue. These movements thus lost out on harnessing the power of millions for their sustenance.
A woman in a Tamil Nadu village stated that most people around her dismissed MeToo as being associated with “trouble-making” feminism. The MeToo movement was dominated by upper-caste, upper-class women. There was little space for Dalit women, the maids and nannies that worked for these women. Many might not even know about this movement, which had an English name and rarely appeared in translation. While Dalit women disproportionately face caste-based sexual violence, they were left out.
These movements do not fade away entirely. Long after news media and the public have moved onto the next sensational news, certain groups keep working. In addition to on-ground work, online accounts like “standwkashmir” and “fridaysforfuture” continue posting about issues. The final culprit is social media algorithms, which customise your newsfeeds to your tastes. Someone who has not expressed any interest in these causes will never be exposed to them and a large audience is lost. The #EIA2020 successfully got the deadline for the EIA pushed by a few months. MeToo did bring about limited positive change. This article isn’t to discredit social media protests. It is simply to examine why we haven’t harnessed their full potential
For the online world, power is in numbers. When a majority of the population is unaware of the existence of movements, movements cannot be sustained. When stakeholders themselves do not have a voice, little progress can be made. The limited life cycle of social movements in India is not a matter of a lack of interest but one of access.
Isha is a student of Psychology, English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.
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