The power of hashtags and memes
Digital activism is an effective way of gamering extensive support for specific causes. A spontaneous tweet, a blog post, or a short video clip posted by an individual on social media can start a cascade of responses that grow into a powerful campaign in no time. Corporates can neglect such activism at their own peril as it can not only damage their hard-earned reputations but their finances as well. The situation is no different for governments. A government body that turns a blind eye to an online movement will bear the consequences of such indifference even as the online momentum spills into offline spaces in the form of protests on the streets, marches, and demonstrations.
Even when a digital campaign does not immediately result in street protests, it can have a massive impact by highlighting an existing problem. The #MeToo campaign is a good example. Here are a few questions for you. When does complimenting a colleague’s outfit slip into the category of sexual harassment? Is sharing sexual jokes at the workplace acceptable? Where does one draw the line between acceptable behavior at the workplace and sexual harassment? What can a person facing harassment at the workplace do to protect herself? How can a firm render the workplace safe? These are some of the questions corporate India grappled with after the #MeToo movement started in India following Bollywood actor Tanushree Dutta’s accusation of sexual harassment against veteran actor Nana Patekar in 2018 (Bhushan, 2018).
The #MeToo campaign was originally started by sexual harassment survivor and activist Tarana Burke in 2006 to “show the world how widespread and pervasive sexual violence is” and “to let other survivors know they are not alone” (Ohlheiser, 2017). However, the #MeToo campaign gained widespread support only in 2017 when American actor Alyssa Milano, following the revelations about American film producer Harvey Weinstein, posted a tweet on October 16, 2017, asking all women who have been sexually harassed to write ‘“Me too” as a reply to the following tweet: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem” (Khomami,
2017) . Millions of women across the world responded with accounts of sexual harassment that they had faced and the #MeToo hashtag took Twitter by storm. The #MeToo campaign is considered one of the most successful instances of digital activism.
Here, it’s important to keep in mind that online activism or digital activism is a generic term used to refer to a variety of online behavior. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, digital activism is a ‘‘form of activism that uses the Internet and digital media as key platforms for mass mobilization and political action” (Fuentes, n.d.). The term may broadly refer to the use of digital technology for political purposes or more specifically to forms of hacktivism, denial of service attacks, and hashtag activism, amongst others (Kami & Uldam, 2018). We need to keep these varied meanings of digital activism in mind while exploring related practices in different parts of the world.
We should also avoid overemphasizing the technological aspects of digital activism while ignoring the sociopolitical and cultural contexts in which digital practices are situated as both influence one another (Kaun & Uldam,
2018) . We need to engage with the digital activism ecosystem rather than focusing on the development of any particular social media platform or mobile device (Kaun & Uldam, 2018). This chapter attempts such an exercise by analyzing the roots of digital activism and critical moments in the journey. It starts with a brief timeline of the development of digital activism in India and the world. The defining characteristics of digital activism are identified after examining critical aspects of hashtag campaigns, memes, and short videos. A discussion on the limits of digital activism follows.
Let us start with the case of India. Digital activism grew roots in India during the Anti-Corruption Movement led by Anna Hazare in 2011 and the Delhi Gang Rape protests in 2012 (Mishra, 2019). During both these protests, people used social media to spread their message and announce venues for people to gather and the timings of such events. Journalists also used social media to both follow and report events associated with the protest.
In the early years, social media forums primarily reflected opinions of the English-speaking, urban middle class. However, the usage of social media gradually spread to India’s towns and villages and Indian-language posts started becoming more visible with the increasing availability of Indian-language-enabled mobile phones and cheap data packages.
Specific events also gave a boost to the use of Indian languages on social media forums. For instance, use of Indian languages on Facebook received a boost during the pro-Jallikattu protests in the southern state of Tamil Nadu in January 2017 (Mishra, 2019). Facebook posts were used to
Digital activism 95 organize protests even as thousands opposed the Supreme Court ruling that banned Jallikattu, which is a popular bull-taming sport in Tamil Nadu, after a case was filed by an animal-rights group, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Following the protests, the Tamil Nadu government passed a bill that exempted the application of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act to Jallikattu making it a legal sport in the state during specific months (Sivakumar, 2017).
Taberez Neyazi, a communications and new media scholar, uses the term “Internet vernacularization” to describe the massive growth in online vernacular content and the growing number of people accessing such content from urban and rural areas in India. The number of Indian-language Internet users has been growing steadily in the country. More specifically, while the number of Indian-language Internet users was about 234 million in 2016, it is projected to reach 536 million in 2021. Meanwhile, the number of English-language Internet users in India which amounted to about 175 million in 2016 is projected to increase to 199 million in 2021(Diwanji,
2019). While “Internet vernacularization” has helped include more Indians in digital spaces, it has also led to challenges, which we will discuss later in the chapter.
In order to understand the complex nature of digital activism, we must start with examining the pillars upon which it stands. With this goal in mind, let us explore the nature of hashtag campaigns, memes, and viral video clips in the following pages.