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Social Media Activism amidst Dissenting Voices and Internet Shutdowns

By Shivani Das 

On January 28, 2020, Rakesh Tikait, the leader of Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), broke into tears on national television following the government clampdown and attempts at defaming the farmers’ protests, reflecting his helplessness to withstand government machination. Immediately, this image of a weeping Tikait went viral. Many farmers returning to their villages, who had fallen prey to the government’s ploy, made a U-turn and marched back to the protest sites. The otherwise disintegrating farmers’ protest strengthened into an unprecedented, united front of solidarity that stood its ground against all odds for almost over a year. Social media was flooded with powerful messages of solidarity using hashtags like #FarmersProtest, #DilliChalo, #StandWithFarmers and #SupportFarmers advocating the rights of farmers to be heard. Not just in India, it struck a chord with a global network of sympathizers (Monteiro, 2021). This is a noteworthy instance of the power of social media activism among the thousands and thousands of instances that are catching up with the masses.

Over a period of time, social movements have undergone a transformation in terms of dissemination of information and organization of masses for protest. Communication and technology have played a key role in mobilizing people for a common cause. In recent times, protests are no longer confined to processions on the streets alone but have made a swift switch over to hashtags and tweets on social media platforms. Social networking sites have become a powerful tool for shaping mass opinion and expressing dissent on several issues. It has, in some ways, created an alternative space for dialogue and debate to take place.

Protests during the Iranian Presidential Election of 2009, the Arab Spring between 2010 and 2012, the Egyptian revolution of 2011, 2012 WHY LOITER, Occupy Gezi of 2013, Black Lives Matter, which continues to this day, 2015 #Sosblakaustrailia movement, 2018 #Metoo movement, 2019 CAA-NRC protests, 2020 Farmers protest in India, and many more advocated the use of social media platforms to popularize their causes. In India, social media activism primarily began with online campaign movements like the Greenpeace campaign, Pink Chaddi, Save Tiger, and Free Binayak Sen (Khatun, 2015). By recognizing the need for people to self-represent, engage freely, and organize transnationally, social networking sites have begun to profoundly challenge and modify power systems in society.

For example, #SaveAarey, an online campaign made effective use of social networking sites in 2019. It was a protest movement started against the Bombay High Court ruling that allowed Mumbai Metro to go ahead with its plan of building a car shed for the metro by cutting down about 2500 trees in the Aarey Forest of Mumbai. Deforestation was not the only issue. There was one other equally important issue as well. The Aarey forests were home to around twenty-seven tribal hamlets for generations. Many people took to social media to voice their support for the protestors as well as highlight infographics, explainer videos and art to raise awareness about the urgent need to protect the trees from getting removed (Tirodkar, 2020). Several environment enthusiasts, activists and organizations came together to plan and coordinate the movement and ensure that the movement stayed in the headlines even when the court was delaying its response to the whole situation. Social networking sites played a huge role in garnering support for the cause both in India and abroad.

Sousveillance and social media 

Another instance where social media acted as a powerful tool for resistance was the Arab Spring movement. The Arab Spring movement was one of the earliest social movements in the world that made use of social media in the protests. It took place between 2010 and 2012 in the Middle East and North America. These demonstrations were aimed at disintegrating the oppressive regimes and made extensive use of social media like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook to organize protests, spread information regarding the plan of action and raise awareness at the local, national, and international levels. Social media also facilitated the tactic of ‘sousveillance’ in the Arab Spring protests, a counter-surveillance mechanism that was adopted by a multitude of activists and protesters to expose the state or the actors in power (Cammaerts, 2015). The recorded videos and photos of police brutality during peaceful protest gatherings were uploaded on social media by the protestors and were widely circulated by the people making them go viral across the globe.

The sousveillance strategy is a significant counter tactic that has been adopted in several protest movements after that. Sousveillance was also used extensively in the 2019 CAA-NRC protests that happened in India. The anti-CAA protests erupted after the government of India decided to go ahead with the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) that refused to grant Indian citizenship to ‘illegal’ migrants belonging to Muslim and other communities, Rohingya refugees, Tibetan refugees and Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, who had migrated to India post-2014. People from economically weaker communities that did not have the legal documents to prove that they were Indians faced the threat of being stateless (BBC News, 2019). People came out in huge numbers to protest against the exclusionary and discriminatory nature of the government move. Social networking sites were used to amplify the voices of the activists. During the protest, social media was flooded with slogans, poems, illustrations, posters, artworks, protest videos and images, cartoons, and music made against the CAA-NRC act by the activists and the people in tandem (Majumdar, 2019). Artists also showcased their creative work to express protest and used social media to popularize the concept of using art as a form of resistance during turbulent times.

Access to information to information, during protests, is critical for staying informed about the situation on the ground as well as on a larger scale. The impact of social media on protest movements is undeniably enormous. Used by activists and journalists at protest sites to report as well as pass information about different peaceful gatherings happening across the countries that people could participate in, the social media platforms have become a persuasive and compelling tool to mobilize the masses in a quick and effective way. This has posed an insurmountable threat to the authoritarian regimes across the world. Oppressive governments try to find ways to curb the use of these tools and take control of the internet. Monitoring people’s behaviour online, restricting connectivity and use of internet services, shutting down the internet completely and targeting ‘cyber dissidents’ by arresting them are a few ways of wielding control over the internet.

Internet shutdowns and enforced insularity

Also known as virtual curfews, network shutdowns, blackouts or kill switches, Internet shutdowns are issued by the government or non-state actors that can last for a specific time or can run for days and sometimes even for months (Internet Freedom Foundation, 2017). In certain situations, the government curtails the use of the internet for an indefinite period. Such shutdowns may be local-specific or region-specific. Internet shutdowns can be a shutdown of the mobile internet or broadband services or both. Announcements and implementations of such shutdowns are not followed by any specific reason or explanation. It can extend to information censorship, cyberattacks, national emergency, disaster emergency, technological glitches, or security purposes. The most common reason for shutdowns, however, remains Internet censorship to quell protests and riots.

According to Access Now, India has witnessed the highest number of internet shutdowns, with 109 out of 155 shutdowns globally in 2020. Furthermore, the 2020 Freedom House described India as a “partially-free democracy” (The Wire, 2021). While it is reassuring to see the growth of India’s internet user base, it is alarming to witness the frequency of government-declared restrictions on the use of the internet.

The majority of these shutdowns happened against the backdrop of state-sponsored violence in BJP-ruled states (Johri, 2020). The government had imposed internet shutdowns during the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, the 2019 CAA-NRC protests and the 2020 Farmers protests. Kashmir was home to most of these shutdowns with the longest shutdown lasting nearly one year. Soon after the abrogation of Article 370, which removed the special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir, the government announced an internet shutdown citing security reasons. The people residing in Kashmir were plunged into a period of not just complete lockdown affecting the day to day lives of the people and the economy leading to financial losses and unemployment but also digital darkness to cut them off from sharing their ordeals with the outside world. Finally, when the restrictions were lifted, the government’s ploy of restriction continued by reducing internet speeds to 2G or even lower.

In the 2020 Farmers’ protest following the previously mentioned instance of Rakesh Tikait, the government declared an internet shutdown in several parts of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. Although the reason offered by the Home Ministry was to maintain public safety and prevent any kind of public emergency, many people argued that the aim behind this move was to prevent the voices of the farmers from reaching the national and global audience. Moreover, the Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology also sent orders to Twitter to suspend the accounts of users who were suspected to spread misinformation during the protest. Twitter instantly complied with the government’s orders. But it turns out that of the hundreds of accounts that were blocked, 250 accounts were vocal critics of the government and belonged to activists, journalists, newspapers, magazines, opposition political party leaders, writers, and leaders of the farmer union Kisan Ekta Morcha. The censoring of tweets by Twitter and the government drew significant backlash and soon thereafter, Twitter retracted its decision by unblocking the accounts to uphold the freedom of speech and expression (Saaliq & Paathi, 2021). Such forms of censorship could be traced across the world. Nearly a quarter of the world’s netizens are under some form of government-imposed Internet censorship while the rest try to self-censor themselves, so as to not be targeted (Warf, 2010).

A case of human rights violations 

Internet blackouts also cause a surge in the levels of misinformation and disinformation. Such incessant internet shutdowns are a human rights violation. It strips individuals of their basic right to freedom of speech and expression. During protest movements, the protesters actively use the internet to do ground-level reportage, most of which may or may not get covered by corporate media houses. In the absence of the internet, the world will hardly get an idea of what the ground-level situation is in places facing an internet blackout. Bereft of both the internet and the press, it leaves no room for a reliable source to confirm the veracity of the claims circulating around. Continuous spells of internet shutdowns deny people access to a reliable and secure internet connection, thereby creating an information vacuum.

Social media is not without its politics. Control over the internet is not confined to shutdowns only. It is important to understand the presence of digital hierarchies such as the mechanics of algorithms. Algorithms as a tool have the power to affect the visibility of a cause, manoeuvre individuals as well as mobilize mass opinions. Research demonstrates how social media algorithms steer consumers toward polarized content, allowing corporations and governments to profit from such polarization. People tend to believe whatever they see on these platforms without questioning hence falling prey to false narratives. Under such circumstances of vulnerability, where does online activism stand? How do we measure its efficacy? How will activism work if the information presented is itself skewed and uneven? Additionally, there is the fear of falling prey to the posts generated in our feed. Are we then letting ourselves be led by the automated configuration of algorithms? Having known the power of social media in projecting the voice of dissent, can it be an effective agent to start a new revolution against authoritarian regimes in the world. Where does the buck stop? These are some of the important questions that need deep introspection.

In the 2021 resolution, the UNHCR condemned the increasing levels of internet shutdowns and online censorship urging governments to stop such practices. It further restated its earlier landmark resolution on protection of human rights on the internet that the “same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular, freedom of expression” (OHCHR, 2021). It is time that we hold governments accountable for stifling dissenting voices and curbing free flow of information by resorting to Internet shutdowns.

Photo: sociable.co

References 

Access Now. (2021, March). KeepItOn: Shattered Dreams and Lost Opportunities. https://www.accessnow.org/keepiton-report-a-year-in-the-fight/

BBC News. (2019, December 11). Citizenship Amendment Bill: India’s new “anti-Muslim” law explained. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-50670393

Cammaerts, B. (2015). Social Media and Activism. The International Encyclopedia of Digital  Communication and Society, 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118767771.wbiedcs083

FAQ on Internet Shutdowns. (2017). Internet Freedom Foundation. Retrieved from  https://internetfreedom.in/shutdowns-faq/

Johri, N. (2020, November 13). India’s internet shutdowns are like “invisibility cloaks.” DW.COM. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.dw.com/en/indias-internet-shutdowns-function-like-invisibility-cloaks/a-55572554

Khatun, N. (2015). Citizen Activism and Internet Campaigns: A study of mediation. International Journal of Interdisciplinary and Multidisciplinary Studies (IJIMS). 3(1). 10-17.

Majumdar, M. (2019, December 23). How art on social media became the face of anti-CAA protests. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/society/how-art-on-social-media-became the-face-of-anti-caa-protests/article30379272.ece

Monteiro, S. (2021). Farmer protests in India and the mobilization of the online diaspora on Twitter. SSRN, 1–26. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3849515

Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights. (2021, July). The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet. UN Human Rights Council. https://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?si=A/HRC/47/L.22

Over 100 Instances of Internet Shutdown in India in 2020, Says New Report. (2021). The Wirehttps://thewire.in/tech/over-100-instances-of-internet-shutdown-in-india-in-2020-says new-report

Tirodkar, A. (2020, September 4). Behind Save Aarey’s Success, Effective Media Campaign and  People’s Involvement. NewsClick.

Saaliq, S., & Paathi, K. (2021, February 5). India clamps down on free speech to fight farmer protests. AP NEWS. https://apnews.com/article/narendra-modi-media-social-media-india 9777a8af9a08aa6dac64e7f8ee227872

Warf, B. Geographies of global Internet censorship. GeoJournal 76, 1–23 (2011).  https://doi.org/10.1007/s10708-010-9393-3   

Bio:
Shivani Das is currently working as an Analyst at Mythos Labs. She finished her undergraduate studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Her interest areas include digital media, tech, and popular culture. She can be reached at shivanidas2224@gmail.com

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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