Politics of Social Media: A Case Study of ‘Kiss of Love’ protest
By Mahima Taneja
In the past two decades, a new form of political assertion has come forth in India focusing more properly on sexuality in the form of movement and demonstrations such as ‘Slutwalk’ (or Besharmi Morcha), ‘Pink Chaddi Campaign’, ‘Gay Pride Marches’, ‘Kiss of Love’ marches and ‘Pads Against Sexism’ campaign, which are often organized using the space of new social media. Taking the example of the ‘Kiss of Love’ protest, this paper explores some crucial questions: How is social media changing the repertoires of protest practices, especially those around dissident sexuality? What is the politics of the conflictual space of social media, and how is it being mediated? And what are the methodological challenges in archiving the social media?
Around the country in two weeks
In October 2014, members of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of the BJP vandalised Downtown Café in Kozhikode, Kerala, after a Malayalam news channel, owned by the Indian National Congress, telecast a report on alleged immoral activities at the café. Following this, Rahul Pasupalan, along with a group of friends from a Facebook page called ‘Freethinkers’, started the Facebook page ‘Kiss of Love’, to organize a ‘kiss protest’ in Kochi’s Marine Drive, in a bid to protest against the series of moral policing incidents in Kerala. The organisers did not expect a big response but the page went viral overnight. The Facebook page came under attack from several quarters with emotions and tempers running high, drawing immense media attention in a society that is adept at pushing inconvenient and dissident expressions of sexualities under the rug. On 2 November, 2014, a huge crowd of protestors, onlookers, and those opposing the protest gathered at the venue with 300 policemen, who were unable to manage the crowd and hence arrested members of the core group to contain it. Counter-protests were held at the venue against alleged ‘loss of Indian culture’ by members of Yuva Morcha, Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, Kerala Students Union, Bajrang Dal, and Muslim conservative youth outfits.
Soon enough, the protest spread to other parts of the country. Hyderabad University students, for example, organized a gathering on the same day at their campus with public lectures to show solidarity, but were attacked by right wing groups. It reached Delhi in the form of a protest march outside the office of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (henceforth, RSS) office in Jhandewala. A self-organized protest, with no explicit association with any political party, ‘Kiss of Love’ travelled across Indian cities and major universities, gained immense media attention, and just as quickly, lost traction, all within a period of two weeks.
The ‘Kiss of Love’ protest was criticized from several quarters. In the past, other similar campaigns, which bring the issue of sexuality and women’s mobility out of the closet, like ‘Slutwalk’ and ‘Pink Chaddi’ campaign, have been variously criticized for being anti-Indian, anti-feminist, and a project of urban elites. This criticism ignores the need to grasp the shifts within feminism from the discourse of dominance and safety to that of affirmation of sexuality. However, engaging with these criticisms and critically analyzing politics of sexuality within movements such as ‘Kiss of Love’ is a question for another time. My concern here is to investigate the role and nature of social media in contemporary movements concerned with feminist politics and sexuality.
The online archive of ‘Kiss of Love’
The ‘Kiss of Love’ Facebook Page was set up on 24 October, 2014 with more than a week’s gap for the event, which is a fairly long time in the age of social media. The Facebook strategy consisted of regular updates and reminders of the protest, pictures of supporters kissing their partners, friends and family, and posts celebrating the number of ‘likes’ the page recorded in order to demonstrate the support it was getting and, unintentionally, archiving the timeline. The Page administrators also engaged with the comments posted on the page, and remained active even after the Kochi event was concluded by sharing news reports around ‘Kiss of Love’ and following it up with ‘Kiss in the Street’ and ‘Kiss against Fascism’ protests, forming a part of what Wendy Chun (2008) calls the ‘enduring ephemeral’. This page was active even at the time of writing this paper and is raising other issues, ranging from beef ban to Rohingyas. However, the Facebook page of the Delhi chapter of ‘Kiss of Love’ was taken down after the event due to constant abuse and trolling.
Before one explores the potential and limits of social media activism, and the challenges of archiving therein, it is important to understand the particular quality of social media itself, that is, how it is shaping human experience and in turn getting shaped by it, instead of merely looking at the content that it hosts and its use as a tactical tool. According to McLuhan, the specific technical properties of a medium have a social impact on human experience at a broader magnitude than its mere content (Hansen 2010: 175). Media, and as a corollary social media, then should be understood as an ‘infrastructure of experience’ (Hansen 2010), and not merely as an instrument. Further, it is important not to give an over-determining role to social media, as it is itself constituted by social relations and individual subjectivity and is subject to political manipulation, exclusion, and appropriation. This explains why social media leads to a revolution in one context and not in others and why something goes viral. Once we understand social media as such, it becomes possible to conceptualise an agency of media, which in turn will help to determine its role in social movements today.
New social movement theory is recognizing cyber space, cyber activism, and transnational activism as providing new spaces of collective action (Buechler 2011: 220). Scholars like Merlyna Lim (2014) argue that social media by virtue of being place-less can act as an opportunity to build ‘subaltern counter-publics’ by providing and nurturing hidden transcripts and opening up possibilities of resistance. The participatory culture nurtured by social media plays a vital role to establish and sustain social movements, by creating a network of activism, which escapes control and repression by the virtue of being invisible. This particularly applies to use of social media during ‘Kiss of Love’ and other contemporary movements of sexuality such as ‘Pink Chaddi’ campaign and ‘Pads Against Sexism’. When any expression of women’s mobility and sexuality is attacked, social media by virtue of being place-less provides the opportunity to build a space for counter public. The sheer sociality of the social media means there is a possibility of engaging in dialogue with people who are not politically active but might support the movement. This goes beyond the cyberfeminism of the 1990s, which could reach only a limited circle of activists. Furthermore, joining a protest or showing support on social media itself becomes a public act, spiralling into more support and equal backlash. During ‘Kiss of Love’, for example, the increasing number of ‘likes’ and ‘going’ on Facebook pages garnered huge media attention and upped the anxiety of opponents as a result of which they did not brush it off as trivial but arrived in huge numbers.
Like Lim, Brosius (2013), who investigates formation of shifting publics and counter-publics with respect to romantic love and sexuality in India, also characterizes movements like ‘Pink Chaddi’ campaign as an illustration of a counter-public, or a smart mob constituted through digital media in a semi-public space to stage an action. However, the problem with this line of analysis is that it assumes digital space is a participatory, open, and equal space. The experience of Gamer Gate hashtag, labeling of women active on the internet as sluts and rape threats to activists suggest otherwise. Instead of discounting the importance of social media, this suggests that it is even more crucial to study the digital spaces, while trying to understand contemporary movements in the city. There is a need to locate consensus and dissensus within the space of social media, while locating its agency and role in activism.
Today, anxieties around the internet and demands to regulate it are aligned specifically around online abuse and trolling. Women, who are using internet for feminist ends, are specially facing the wrath of misogynists. During my conversation with one of the organizers of the Hyderabad Chapter of ‘Kiss of Love’, she shared her experience with trolls, abusive comments, and cyber bullying. Her morphed images were circulated on social media and the West Bengal page of the RSS put up her picture saying she is a victim of love jihad. Apart from abusive comments and allegations of destroying Indian culture, the trolls also posted bikini clad pictures of one of the organisers from Kochi in an attempt to delegitimize the protest. A key organizer of the Delhi Chapter of ‘Kiss of Love’ shared how she took down the Facebook page after the protest because she was constantly getting rape threats and abusive messages. In the past, organisers and participants of movements like ‘Slutwalk’ and ‘Pink Chaddi’ campaign had also reported cyberbullying on social media, but the abuses seem to have become more systematic and hateful now.
Urban dictionary defines trolling as the ‘art of deliberately pissing people off’. It is a manifestation of a conflict of values, but the trolls hold the values of the target in much lower esteem than their own, and hold the potential to disrupt the discourse by impeding the use of social media (Fuller et al 2013). This ability of trolls to disrupt dialogue poses a real danger to the participatory potential of social media. However, instead of giving into arguments that social media fosters no real dialogue but only relentless blabber (Lovink 2011), it would be interesting to look at the mitigating strategies employed by organizers of ‘Kiss of Love’ protest. Faced by trolls and abusive comments, the Facebook page of ‘Kiss of Love’ started putting up pictures and screenshots of the trolls in an attempt to publicly shame those responsible. For example, the screenshot below outs a ‘sanskari’ (cultured) man, who issued rape threats, with graphic obscenities, openly on Facebook to the participants of ‘Kiss of Love’.
Apart from this, Farmis Hashim, one of the page administrators, wrote down a manifesto for all trolls posting abuses on the ‘Kiss of Love’ Facebook page in the form of ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ answering the attacks premised on breakdown of culture and family value. The FAQs addressed questions such as ‘Will you be bringing your mother or sister to the protest?’ and ‘The reason for adopting only kissing and not ‘other’ cultural performances’ in the form of witty replies underlining the independent subjectivity of ‘mother’ and ‘sister’ and the difference between kissing as a consensual demonstration of love as opposed to forced activity. These replies did not target one person, but were there for everyone to engage with, given the quality of connectivity of Facebook. There was thus no closing off of sanitized spaces. There is a need to engage with such innovative management of anger and sentiments on social media.
However, a second, and in my view a bigger challenge to organization of such activism, as well as its archiving in the digital space, is the blocking of Facebook pages and profiles. In the case of ‘Kiss of Love’, the Facebook community page and the profile pages of 15 page administrators were blocked by Facebook a day after the Kochi protest, citing violation of ‘community standards’. Reports in leading national dailies asserted that the page was blocked by mass reporting by the opposing groups. However, as per the Facebook terms and conditions, if something is reported on Facebook, the team (we) reviews it before deciding its removal (The Hindu 2015), adding that it does not act based on the sheer number of reports. If this is the case, then on what basis did Facebook decide to block the page and accounts of administrators of ‘Kiss of Love’? Some organizers felts that this blocking is a result of systematic state intervention and the sexism inherent in Facebook itself. This raises serious questions about Facebook’s policy of ‘Community Standards’ and how they work. Perhaps, Lovink’s suggestion that we have lost the community with the advent of the social media is true. Social has become a technological procedural protocol while the homogenous feeling of community is gone. Further, given the unilateral power that Facebook has in controlling the content, a researcher is faced with the challenge of tracking the digital life of such campaigns.
Methodological issues and politics of social media
Contemporary movements around gender and sexuality are thus increasingly leveraging the space of social media, which has become a part of being urban today. As a researcher studying campaigns embedded in social media, one cannot ignore some crucial methodological questions: what kind of field site does a platform like Facebook provide? What is the ‘archive’ for these movements given the ephemerality of social media and how does one access it when Facebook pages are taken down, by direct or indirect force or are hacked? Further, what is the nature of the social in the social media? How are the standards of the online community decided and who decides? What is the potential of ad hoc publics and counterpublics formed on social media?
Perhaps, extrapolating Ranciere’s understanding of politics to social media can provide a helpful starting point to understand the dynamics, inclusions, and exclusions of the digital space. According to Ranciere, the ‘police order’ is comprised of implicit rules which establish roles and modes of participation and perception and determines what is visible and invisible (Rancière 2004). Given the extent of online trolling and backlash, the much celebrated ‘hidden transcripts’ and ‘counter-publics’ are not immune from this police order. One form in which the established police order on social media is manifested is ‘community standards’ of social networking websites, which becomes the basis of blocking profiles and photos which offend the ‘community’. Examples include blocking of a woman’s photograph with menstrual stain on her clothes from Instagram on charges of obscenity and blocking of Facebook profiles of the webpage administrators of ‘Kiss of Love’ a day after the protest, citing violation of ‘community standards’. If social media space, like urban space, is prone to appropriation by the established police order, then everyday acts that transgress the boundaries of order in the form of discussions, virality or hashtag trends, visibilization of menstruating bodies through photographs of sanitary napkins, as in case of ‘Pads Against Sexism’, of sexual bodies through the online life of campaigns like ‘Kiss of Love’ and ‘Park mei PDA’, of harassed bodies through pictures and stories of clothes one was harassed in (‘I never ask for it’ campaign) – all together constitute politics by attempting reconstitution of the sensible and challenging the police order.
It is thus important to analyse the kind of public sphere that social media is constituting. At the same time, there is also a need to place the online public sphere in the local contexts. Postil and Pink’s suggestion that we need ‘internet related ethnography’, instead of mere ‘internet ethnography’, to understand the mutually constitutive relationship of the digital and the analog entails following users across multiple online and offline communities, focusing on individual experiences and socialities instead of networks and communities only. This is because approaches that just study the content of the social media would not be able to understand the consequences of social media for activism.
 These FAQs, originally in Malayalam, were translated by Nisha Susan, the organiser of Pink Chaddi campaign and one of the founding members and writers of the online zine, Ladies Finger.
See: Susan, Nisha. “Kerala’s Kiss Of Love Campaign’s Rude, Hilarious, Perfect Response to Trolls Aka Get Lost, You Grass.” The Ladies Finger. 29 October 2014. (accessed September 18, 2015).
 Facebook includes genuine risk of physical harm, threats to public safety, sexual violence, nudity, hate speech, dangerous organizations, fraud and harassment as basis of Facebook community standards. See here.
Photo: ‘Kiss of Love Kochi’ Facebook page
Mahima Taneja is a Ph.D. Research Scholar at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her research focuses on urban spaces, infrastructure and politics of gender and sexuality. She also works as a Consultant with Outline India, a development research organization, on projects ranging from water and sanitation to sexual and reproductive rights. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.