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Converting Indian Slacktivists Takes (Offline) Time

by Prasad Krishna last modified Aug 04, 2011 09:07 AM
No matter how much attention an online protest campaign might appear to be getting in terms of likes, fans or retweets, it’s rarely likely to be able to draw even a fraction of its Internet supporters to a street protest. That’s as true in India as anywhere else in the world, it appears.
Converting Indian Slacktivists Takes (Offline) Time

New Delhi held its Slut Walk on Sunday.

The New Delhi Slut Walk, also known as Besharmi Morcha (Shameless Protest), publicized itself in good part through websites that generated a lot of media coverage, including on this site, as well as through debates. But it apparently didn’t live up to expectations, some Indian news reports said. 

A story in the business daily Mint said over 2,000 people pledged on Facebook to show up. Police put the turnout at 700 people, including 400 police and 200 reporters, but protest organizers put the number of people who were there, including cops and the press, at around 1,000. Mishika Singh, a coordinator for the demonstration, said perhaps 500 people actually did the walk. The campaign said that they got about as many people as they were expecting.

So what does it take to turn "slacktivism" — as some call online support that extends largely to clicking on a petition, forwarding an e-mail or “liking” something on Facebook—into activism?

Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Bangalore-based Center for Internet and Society, says "conversion" — getting passive online supporters to graduate to the next step, such as customizing an email to an MP — takes additional time and organizing, and at least some of this must happen offline.

He said the perception among many that the Arab uprisings earlier this year were Twitter-driven was oversimplified and happened in part because it was harder for reporters outside the country to be aware of on-the-ground organizing efforts.

"Social media organizing was more by the diaspora population in order to keep international attention on the issue," he said. “If the Internet was so important, when they blocked Internet sites it would have seriously undermined the offline organizing but it didn't."

With causes that are viewed as more difficult—or that have a higher personal cost to the participant perhaps—conversion can be even more difficult, Mr. Abraham said, saying he wasn’t surprised by the numbers reported at Slut Walk.

"It’s a new cause. It’s not an established organization," he said. "They didn’t have a lot of time."

Mr. Abraham offered the Anna Hazare-guided Indian Against Corruption campaign as one of India’s better online organizing efforts.

"I think the Anna Hazare campaign is so far the most effective” online, said Mr. Abraham. “If you notice they are much more organized in terms of designing the funnel of incremental actions."

He said they had laid out obvious next steps for those willing to do a bit more, like calling an Indian Against Corruption cellphone number to register for updates and information.

"They also have offline activities and meetings in other cities as well," he said.

Yet even on days in April when the India Against Corruption protest Facebook page was racking up 100,000 members, the number of people at the sit-in site in Jantar Mantar in New Delhi during Mr. Hazare’s fast against corruption were roughly a twentieth of that each day.

Still, Mr. Abraham said that politicians probably shouldn’t dismiss online activists, even if they can’t muster the numbers that traditional protesters like farmers groups or trade unions can.

Mr. Abraham suggested that while India’s broadband users may number less than 10% of the population, many of them are probably well-connected—both technologically and politically speaking—and influential on others they communicate with.

"Even a small number on the streets should count as an important political signal,” said Mr. Abraham. “Some of us are more connected than others."

He also said India’s slacktivists didn’t appear to be greater slackers than their counterparts in other countries, noting that getting a person to graduate from thought to action is extremely difficult in most cases.

"If 1,000 people read your newspaper, 100 will say I should write to the editor because I really disagree with the columnist, and one person will actually write," said Mr. Abraham. "Conversion is very low for these kinds of altruistic activities. For a discount sale perhaps you would get more people."

Note: Correcting the statistics about broadband penetration.

This article by Tripti Lahiri was published in the Wall Street Journal on August 2, 2011. The original can be read here.

Photo courtesy Manan Vatsyayana/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

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