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Can the twitterati change the world?

by Prasad Krishna last modified Apr 01, 2011 04:30 PM
Whether it is the Ganapati immersion in Mumbai or a labour union dharna at Jantar Mantar or a hunger strike in Kolkata, India has had a rich history of people coming out on the streets. However, as cities are reshaped in the image of a 'world-class city', public spaces are being steadily appropriated into gated communities which cater to an elite section of the population.
Can the twitterati change the world?

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Although the shrinking of public spaces is not the only reason the younger urban population is engaging with cyber space, it has certainly contributed to the shift. The recent historic transformations that have taken place in Egypt and Tunisia show that the digital sphere, which cannot be wholly regulated or shut down, has become the platform for protest. 

When a 26-year old university graduate in Tunisia lost his only source of income after the police had confiscated his fruit and vegetable cart, he set himself on fire, setting into motion a nationwide protest which resonated through the internet. People poured into the streets and stood fast until the authoritarian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, left the country. "Without the internet, it would be possible for the massacre to happen in silence for us and for the outside world. Five years ago, without Facebook and Twitter, the same uprising would have been smothered, " says an anonymous Tunisian interviewed by @kyrah (Twitter). 

In Egypt, as well, technology was harnessed to spread the word across a huge and unprecedented section of the population within a short span of time, engineering the mob gathering we saw in Tahrir Square. 

In the vastly different political context of India, digital activism serves the purpose of increasing openness, access and transparency. 

Nishant Shah, the Research Director for the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore argues that the evolution of digital activism in India in the first decade of the 21st century can be seen through the emphasis on creating open structures of arbitration, justice, policy and jurisdiction. "The effort has been to grant access to the state, its governance and resources to the citizens, " he says. 

Initially, digital natives in India were considered programmers or techies who were not just web savvy but technologically aware. For example, Vote Report India, a citizen-driven electionmonitoring platform, was the brainchild of software developers, designers and other professionals. Maesy Angelina, whose research for her MA looked into understanding the involvement of youth in online campaigns in India, argues that the way in which digital natives are perceived has been changed, "Since the Pink Chaddi campaign, a new angle becomes more prominent: one that views digital natives as regular people who have grown up with the internet and are web savvy, but not necessarily techies. "

Campaigns such as Batti Bandh, Justice for Jessica, the 2008 Gateway of India rally after the Mumbai attacks, and most recently the group called "It's my Arunachal, Dream on China, " have leveraged the existing networks on social media websites.

However, digital activism when transplanted into a developing country such as India leverages its own forms of discrimination, excluding sections of the population without the cultural, economic and educational capital to gain access to these spaces. While the medium can be useful in generating public dialogue, it is not enough to sustain a movement if it cannot reach non-internet users. Though technology can be used to organise, these protests must then manifest into public gatherings. 

"The digital can help us in re-appropriating and reclaiming the fast disappearing physical spaces of public engagement, gathering and participation in our cities, " says Shah. "The technology is not an alternative, but is embedded in the physical worlds we inhabit and it becomes a powerful tool to fight back and demand the spaces that are central to the imagination of a coherent, responsible and sapient public. "

Fight-Back, an online gender equality campaign launched in 2008, now has about 4, 000 members on its Facebook group, who act as a volunteer database nationally. The group uses its website and social media to create awareness and start a conversation which then translates into events such as their Music for Equality concerts and Women's Day marches. The group's founder, Zubin Driver, 41, argues that digital activism is on the rise in India, "Mobile phone penetration in India is already 700 million. Once internet via mobile phones becomes more common, digital activism will cut across class, caste and geographical boundaries. " 

Parmesh Sahani, the founder of the Godrej Culture Lab and the author of Gay Bombay, says that even though the audience for digital activism is restricted to English-speaking, twittering, Facebooking people, congregating online often leads to people coming out on the streets. "There are great opportunities in the intersections between the digital medium and actual physical spaces. The overspill of the Mumbai Gay Pride parade into cafês near the official route goes to show that activism still persists in the peripheries of regulated spaces. " 

Though often vilified as armchair activism or slacktivism, digital activism has a role to play in facilitating community building in a changing urban landscape. The new forms of organisation and intervention have the potential to be more inclusive than older modes of social transformation, crossing geographies and communities. "Every medium comes with a promise and possibility of change when it's introduced - television, print, radio, loud speaker, " says Patheja. "The conversations on the internet don't usually end there;the participants of the movement hopefully carry these ideas and beliefs to their other linked communities or spaces. " 

However, all new platforms come with pitfalls. "The power of the internet and wireless social networks as tools of dissent is now well established, " says Rajni Bakshi, author of Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom. "What is not so well known is that the future of the internet itself is under threat - not just from dictatorships and repressive regimes, but from an assortment of private, profit-motivated entities. "

Read the original in the Times of India here

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