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Effective Activism: The Internet, Social Media, and Hierarchical Activism in New Delhi

Posted by Sarah McKeever at Jul 16, 2015 08:25 AM |
This post by Sarah McKeever is part of the 'Studying Internets in India' series. Sarah is a PhD candidate at the India Institute, King’s College London, and her work focuses on the impact of social media on contemporary political movements. In this essay, she explores the increasingly hierarchical system of activism on the Internet, based on Western corporate desire for data, and how it is shaping who is seen and heard on the Internet in India.



I will preface this post by stating that as an American, my personal experience of the Internet has been shaped by nearly 18 years as an active user. My experience with digital interfaces, websites, and social media has been formed through my experiences during the Internet revolution in the United States. Academic and personal training have shaped what I determine to be trustworthy, useful, and credible when searching for information. This post is based on field research I am conducting in New Delhi from January through June 2015.

With these preconceptions and standards in mind, I began to research organisations that I felt were credible enough to approach for interviews in January 2015. My current research project investigates the impact that social media has had on the issues of corruption and violence against women in New Delhi, following the social movements on these issues in 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 respectively. I started at an organisational level in order to research the impact that social media and the movements themselves had on organisations working on these issues. Areas of interest include any changes in issue engagement and discourse around gender violence and corruption. I focused exclusively on organisations that have an office in New Delhi and engage in activism in an urban context. Many of these organisations also have a presence in other states and include rural as well as urban projects. I conducted semi-structured interviews in order to engage with the changes wrought by the digital on a qualitative rather than quantitative basis.


Activism and Digital Hierarchy: A Divided Internet?

While conducting initial research, I began to investigate two separate but related areas of inquiry. The first was relatively straightforward: what type of differences were there between groups which actively engaging with the affordances of the Internet and Web 2.0? In my research I examined online awareness groups and campaigns as well as more traditional advocacy and awareness groups that were struggling to translate their work onto the Internet and on social media.

While engaging with the first question, I quickly discovered that the divide between how organisations leveraged the affordances of the Internet - and social media in particular - was stark. Earl and Kimport (2011) write that organisations that directly translate previous advocacy on the ground onto the Internet fail to fully leverage the affordances of the Internet. Organisations that effectively utilise the strengths of the Internet - including flash tactics, crowd-sourcing, and networked leadership - have in fact transformed the world of activism. They have created a new type of “digital activism” through the use of an increasingly digital networked society (Castells 2010, Rainie and Wellman 2012). While this is a simplification of the overall argument – and I personally would argue that in actuality organisations work on a range of digital capabilities and the idea of a spectrum rather than a binary division would be more appropriate at this point – it was clear that both sides were struggling to reach some sort of equilibrium between each other’s capabilities when I conducted interviews with them.

The second inquiry stemmed from my engagement with the first: how was the “active” use of the Internet and social media by an organization translating into an interpretation of their effectiveness? In other words, was an “active” social media presence and a slick website contributing to an impression that they were somehow more impactful than the organisations which lacked these features and is this phenomenon creating a new hierarchy of activism in Delhi?

Many of the organisations that I spoke with who used the Internet and social media “well,” attracted foreign attention and funding. It is clear there is a monetary incentive for organisations to be present and easily accessible via search engines and social media platforms. And while social media has become a huge selling point in India - including in last year’s Parliamentary elections - much of the funding and attention appears to come from outside of India in these particular cases. While social media has become a popular tool for outreach in New Delhi, the emphasis placed on it is possibly being driven by forces outside of India in the activist sphere.

Organisations that had been involved in advocacy and grassroots activism before the Internet boom in India discussed the struggle to make effective use of the affordances of the Internet. My participants unilaterally expressed a desire to engage with the digital audience in India – an audience of approximately 310 million users according to Internet Live Stats (2015) – but were often ill equipped to do so. Stated difficulties included a lack of a dedicated communications and media strategist, lack of experience with social media and web design, and difficulty translating nuanced discussion onto social media sites which are not necessarily designed to facilitate complex and controversial discussions. Some participants directly stated that an online presence, whether it was effective or not, had become essential to obtaining foreign funding and attention, as a digital presence represents a tangible deliverable when applying for foreign grants.

It is clear from any cursory examination of social media sites that the mediums demand an increasing amount of content from its users. Simply put, the more you post, the more you are seen and heard above the increasing noise and chaos of social media. And if being seen and heard represents success, the message itself can get lost in translation. Click bait, sponsored posts, and buzzy headlines attract far more attention and gain more traction than any post attempting to create nuance and demand deeper engagement, at least in the cases I have personally observed and in my experience with activist groups.

The growing popularity of social awareness campaigns and organisations designed for the online world were quite obviously far more successful in utilising social media and web pages to draw attention to a specific issue. These campaigns especially were extremely popular with Delhi youth in particular and effectively used visual displays - such as crowd-sourced images and provocative posters - to highlight issues of gender violence and corruption. Occasionally some participants were outwardly dismissive of older advocacy groups, which they felt were out of step with the times and content to stay in their comfort zones.

In spite of the success of many online campaigns on the issues I researched, few were able to translate the momentum generated by the campaign into a broader discussion and deeper engagement on their chosen issue. While some participants stated this was not necessarily what they desired to do - some chose to remain purely as an awareness campaign without moving into advocacy - other participants stated a desire to do more and engage with the complex cultural, societal, and political constructs surrounding gender and corruption in India. When they attempted to engage in this more nuanced conversation, they often lost momentum on social media and occasionally stopped their campaign efforts altogether.

The rift was clear, and the struggle to merge worlds and effectively translate a variety of skill sets into effective advocacy was fairly well delineated. What troubled me was the implicit assumption that was being made around “effective” and “good” use of the Internet and social media. Why did a glossy website and an “active” social media presence appear to translate into organisational effectiveness? What was driving that assumption? It was an assumption I occasionally found myself making when researching organisations and even in some of my earliest interviews. Why did daily Facebook posts, likes, multiple Tweets, and followers translate into an interpretation of success and impact?

As Western, and in the case of Facebook and Twitter, American publically traded companies, there is a clear business prerogative in encouraging ever-increasing usage of their sites. More posts and tweet equals more data, which can then be analyzed or sold to a variety of different entities that want to utilise this data to create wealth. Facebook and Twitter also happen to be sites that can be used to generate conversation around key issues and act as an easy way to aggregate thousands, if not millions, of users behind a cause. The Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and the Delhi Rape case mobilisations are only some of the hundreds of cases where social media sites have played a key role in mobilizing political, social, and cultural change.

However there is a corporate prerogative at work that is often ignored in these narratives. It is in a social media companies’ best interest to encourage frequent usage, as this is how free services generate revenue. Those who post the most win the race to be seen and heard. Those who do not - or do not have the funds to pay for sponsored posts or tweets - get lost in the shuffle, viewed as out of step and struggling to adapt to modern urban India, regardless of the quality work they may be doing offline. The “good” user is the most active user, regardless of what the content actually is. It can easily be termed as a binary between quantity versus quality, but this diminishes the extremely effective and thoughtful work of some digital media campaigns, which demands a different type of quality to actually become an impactful movement. It is therefore a more complex phenomenon than blindly generating massive amounts of content, but this is certainly a critical piece to digital success.

My conclusion, and one which was discussed and inspired by an early participant, was that it was the social media platforms – including key sites like Facebook, Twitter, and to a lesser extent YouTube - were partially generating and multiplying the aura of effectiveness around organisations and groups which had heavily emphasized social media as a core part of their outreach strategy. This is not to deny the very real success that several of these campaigns have had in generating conversation and change around critical issues in India. It instead questions why our notion of success and effectiveness has been altered so quickly, especially in an urban and digital context.

Based on my fieldwork, I encountered a digital hierarchy in three different aspects in activist groups. These divisions emerge at the level of search engines and ranking, web page aesthetics, and finally social media usage and statistical data. I will briefly examine these levels in the following sections.


Level I: Search Engines and Page Rankings

The first was generated at the level of the search engine. Higher ranked and frequently visited websites appear higher on any search engine page, based on the search algorithm. In the first searches I conducted, several organisations with well-developed and easily navigable websites always appeared high on the search page, and were the first organisations I made contact with. As I began to dig deeper into partner organisations and get recommendations from my participants, I discovered new organisations that had never appeared in any search I had conducted, in spite of their clear links to the issues I was researching. These organisations have less of an audience and less of a digital voice from the very beginning. This is not even engaging with the issue of language on the Internet, as all of my searches were in English and not in Hindi or any other language spoken in India and were focussed initially only on organisations with an office in Delhi.

A second issue at the level of the search engine was that the organisations that appeared highest on the list had links to larger partner organisations in Europe and the United States, and occasionally had head offices in New York or London. The larger global presence may have had an impact on page ranking, as they were more likely to be searched for and recognised globally. The dominance of English on the Internet may also play a role, limiting the potential set of results, though again I made this decision consciously. Language choice has had a demonstrable impact on what a person sees on the Internet and what appears using the same search term. The burden of visibility influencing potential digital impact is clear, and practically forces some organisations to invest in a digital presence without a clear digital strategy. This can prove extremely detrimental – especially if the web page proves difficult to navigate and use, which I discuss in the following section - and move investment away from advocacy and programmes on the ground. Visibility is also a key concern for groups that exist purely as a digital campaign, as their potential success is based almost solely on how easy they are to find. Failure leads to diminished searches and lower rankings outside of the first results page from a search engine, which few people click beyond, thus dramatically limiting the impact an organisational webpage can have from the very beginning.


Level II: Webpage Aesthetics

The second area consisted of the content and ease of use of the website. As a researcher, I was compelled to look into every recommended organisation that engaged with the issues I was researching. That being said the organisations with more developed websites caught my attention and implicitly created the impression that it was a more desirable contact. This is quite obviously not the case in reality, and often the organisations that had less advanced websites and appeared technologically less capable proved to be highly credible sources doing commendable work. However the difficulty of navigating some of the websites, which included issues such as broken hyperlinks, difficult interfaces, and offered very little information on the activities of the organisations would prove deeply unappealing to an observer with less motivation than myself. Going against my own training and experience and trusting the power of the network of recommendations on the ground proved to be just as useful as fairly random web searches. In terms of first impressions, it is difficult to move beyond these issues of navigation for an outside observer which expects a quality organisation to have a quality website.

Again, organisations with head offices based in the United States or Europe often were easily navigable and had high quality webpage design, representing a clear trend and highlighting the emphasis placed on the digital aboard. It was also very clearly which organisations had started on the Internet, based purely on design and functionality, though there was a certain bias as the Internet campaigners I spoke too had all had had great success as an online campaign. Finding failed campaigns would have added a key counterpoint to my work, but the difficulty of doing so proved insurmountable for this particular project. Design and navigability are key indicators of skill and investment in digital presence from an outsider’s perspective. It is less than representative of the story on the ground and the success of an organisation, especially if it is not a purely digital entity.


Level III: Social Media Use and Statistics

The third and final level I encountered was determined by social media use. For every organization or participant I met I did cursory research on the various social media platforms they used, how many likes or followers they had near the day of my interview, and roughly how often the organization posted and tweeted. About 90% of my participant organisations had a least a Facebook page and a Twitter account. The number of followers varied widely, from about 200 to nearly 200,000 on Facebook and Twitter. Daily posts and variety of content was a key component to the success of the more widely followed groups online. It was immediately clear that groups that posted sporadically and without immediately stimulating content did not generate or gain nearly as much digital attention.

Many organisations discussed the struggle to move beyond a closed and familiar network, to reach out to the audience they know is there. But without a clear strategy, and even more importantly without a dedicated communications position, their digital engagement often mirrored their offline audience; a closed network of individuals already dedicated to change in the area the organisation was working in. They often failed to meet the incessant demands of the medium for easy content and had difficulties expanding their reach or message beyond their previously established networks of influence.

Those organisations which were able to attract digital attention on social media, while feeling it was an important tool for outreach – especially for youth in Delhi – and places where conversations on key issues could take place, also discussed the importance of social media statistics as a measurable deliverable. Donors, especially foreign funders, placed an emphasis on growth on social media sites as an indicator of success and growing influence. Whether social media growth can actually be an indicator of influence is still up for debate, but it is indicative of the notion that success means quantity, rather than quality, similar to the Western corporate prerogative of growth. That this is the new measure and standard of success for an activist organization is a troubling trend, and one unlikely to change in the near future.



I have argued that corporate strategies and imperatives are creating this new class system of activism in India. I labelled it a “Western” corporate strategy, based on the American origins of the main players Facebook and Twitter, which are the predominate mediums my participants engaged with and have some of the largest audiences in India. Facebook had 108 million users of May 2014 Twitter has around 19 million users (Statista 2015) in India, though these are estimates and in all likelihood there has been an increase in users. The new hierarchy masks the reality that impact and results cannot be measured by likes and retweets. While there is indeed power in these particular sites, the difficulty in documenting what influence actually translates into in the offline world is a well-documented debate. I do not doubt that the Internet and social media, in urban and increasingly in rural India, have great affordances. But these advances do not have to come at the expense of equally important organisations whose ability to translate these messages digitally is more limited than others, especially when this hierarchy is partially generated by corporate sensibilities whose sole aim is profit generation.

While this hierarchy has been explored as an issue of second-level digital divide- where the issue is not lack of access but lack of training and knowledge of the digital world – I do not believe this is the only issue at stake. The increasing power of large companies to determine the way we interact and the rules of effective communication and transmission are deeply troubling, and leaves little room for alternatives. Collaboration can be an effective way of mitigating some of the differences, but this option is not always available to every group.

While these are questions that require further examination, it is clear that there is a divide between organisation’s digital strategies and whether they are able to leverage the affordances of the Internet and social media applications. I have argued that the operational aspects of social media sites increase this divide in particular, as they demand increasing amounts of data to generate profit. A strong digital presence is increasingly linked to an idea of effectiveness and impact, without investigating offline realities. This in turn can lead to a new hierarchy of activism, which limits the voices of some and magnifies the digital voices of others who are clearly better at manipulating the advantages of the Internet. I do not wish to say that offline activism is more effective than online activism and that we should not engage with digital mediums to promote. I only seek to question how this increasingly digital reality is creating a hierarchal system that is not reflective of offline reality, question what knowledge might be left behind in the process, and critically examine the underlying structures and platforms underlying the growing field of digital activism in India.



Castells, M. (2010) Networks of Outrage and Networks of Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age, Cambridge, MA: Polity Press

Earl, J. and Kimport, K. (2011) Digitally Enabled Social Change: Activism in the Internet Age Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Internet Live Stats (2015) Accessed 23 May 2015

Rainie, L. and Wellman, B. (2012) Networked: The New Social Operating System, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press Statista (2015) Accessed 25 May 2015


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