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The year social media came of age in India

by Prasad Krishna last modified Dec 31, 2012 03:33 AM
Sambhavi Saxena, 19, was at Jantar Mantar on December 25 protesting against Nirbhaya's brutal rape when Delhi Police swooped down, rounded her up along with other agitators and took them to the Parliament Street police station. Sambhavi fired tweet after tweet even as she was bundled into a van.

The article by Javed Anwer and Rukmini Shrinivasan was published in the Times of India on December 31, 2012. Sunil Abraham is quoted.

She went on broadcasting to the world all that was happening around her. "Illegally being held here at Parliament St Police Station Delhi w/ 15 other women. Terrified, pls RT," she tweeted. It worked. In a flash, more than 1,700 people retweeted her SOS. Social media analytics firm Favstar later said the message reached over two lakh people.

Police later contested many of Sambhavi's claims. Yet, there was no denying it was her voice that was heard. Her tweets triggered a social media frenzy. The media reacted swiftly. Lawyers volunteered, activists landed up at the police station. Celebrities condemned the action. The police stood no chance.

For the government and keepers of law, it was a PR disaster. They had lost a battle they were accustomed to winning hands down. Now, there was a pesky entity — the public — seeking to change the rules of the game. A teenager armed with a smartphone had used the magic platform called social media to devastating effect, catching the agents of the state flatfooted.

India might have tasted the power of the smartphone first in 2011 when Anna Hazare's stinging anti-corruption message rode the social media wave. But this year saw social media creating a new phenomenon — the rise of the virtually connected Indian youth — which is likely to redraw the terms of engagement between the state and its urban population.

The networking tool that's now a weapon

Finance minister P Chidambaram recently tried to sum up the phenomenon by likening social media-driven snap protests to a flash-mob phenomenon. "Flash mob is a new phenomenon... sometimes they gather to dance and sing. But sometimes they gather to protest... I don't think we are fully prepared to deal with it." Going by the last fortnight, when the government fumbled in dealing with widespread protests over Nirbhaya, the minister's admission was an understatement. Let alone being "fully prepared", they didn't have a clue.

The unbridling of the power of the social media was undoubtedly a top, if not no. 1, trend of 2012 in India. In many cases, it set the agenda of public discourse. As in Palghar, where young Shaheen Dhada's Facebook comment on the shutdown of Mumbai after Bal Thackeray's death kicked off a storm, the virtual world triggered several real-world controversies.

In fits and starts, politicians and the government realized the folly of not joining the fast-unfolding revolution, the exceptions being the Twitter-savvy Shashi Tharoor and Omar Abdullah. The @PMOIndia Twitter handle was born, and today 3.5 lakh people follow it. A host of politicians soon hopped on, realizing the freedom the platform offered for comment on issues, which TV studios didn't.

For Bollywood celebs and cricketers, it became a great way to keep in touch with fans. But the real power of this irreverent and often insolent medium lay with the young aam admi who used social media fearlessly. They voiced their opinion and unsparingly ridiculed leaders with hashtags like #theekhai, making powerful headlines out of what otherwise would have been just whistling in the air.

What's the USP of the social media? On this platform, free speech is unhindered. It's a virtual megaphone with a global reach, as the numbers show. Whether it's Twitter or Facebook, India is a huge presence. Facebook has more than 65 million active users here, putting the country among the top five worldwide in terms of users. Twitter, which has 200 million active users globally, doesn't provide country-specific numbers. But SemioCast, a Paris-based research firm, said in a report in July that India had around 18 million Twitter accounts, placing it sixth among the biggest Twitter nations.

A lot of this social media boom happened in 2012. Research firm SocialBakers estimated in November that the number of Indian Facebook users swelled by 14 million in the past six months. While internet penetration in India is just 11% — three times lower than the global average — around 137million users make the country third biggest in terms of web-connected citizens. Most of these users are urban and young. A Comscore report says 75% of web users here are under-35.

Unlike youngsters in many other countries, Indians are politically active on the web. A Pew Research study this December established that nearly 45% of Indian web users, most of them from urban areas, connect on social media to discuss politics. Only Arab countries scored higher than India on this account. The numbers are backed by GlobalWebIndex, which noted in a September report that India is the third most socially active country with around 78 points.

But this unfettered, unfiltered flow of information and messages showed its ugly side as well. The mischievous rumour-mongering in the wake of the Assam riots was a case in point, as MMSs and incendiary text messages triggered an exodus of people belonging to the northeast from Bangalore, Pune, Chennai and Hyderabad.

Facebook and Twitter started off as friendship and networking tools. But, they have evolved into potent weapons of social mobilization. In a way, India Against Corruption can be credited with starting it in mid-2010. "If you have a worthy cause, social media provides you an unbiased, unfiltered avenue," says Shivendra Chauhan, social media manager for the outfit. "Without it, we wouldn't have got the kind of overwhelming support we received from the youth."

But Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society, cautions against being overly technologically deterministic. "Technology doesn't have agency; human beings do. Transferring energy from social media on to the streets isn't something that'll happen every time. It depends on whether the message resonates," he says.

While the anti-corruption movement ran on a sophisticated social media strategy and campaign, the ongoing anti-rape protests have no single organizer or banner, just a message that resonates, says Abraham. On the other hand, when Anonymous India called for boots on the ground at its protests against internet censorship, the turnout was poor, far lower than the number of hashtags on Twitter would have indicated, he adds.

Abraham points out there are close linkages between internet, text messages, social media and mainstream media. "These channels leak into each other and the causal connection becomes unclear," he says. Madhuresh Kumar, national coordinator of the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM), an umbrella organization of grassroots movements of the marginalized, agrees. "We use social media, not so much to mobilize people to come to our protests, but to mobilize the mainstream media."

The message determines the power of the medium. If it's something that connects viscerally, like the Nirbhaya protests, its power and reach can be beyond imagination. If it is a more niche message, like an SOS for a dwindling fish species, it will reach a smaller, targeted audience such as environmentalists. But it will reach — unhindered in the palm of your hand.

Look at it any which way, it is here to stay. So, it's time for the state to learn to deal with the new power of the ordinary citizen.

ASPI-CIS Partnership


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