Digital activism requires sustained effort by multiple stakeholders to bring about policy’ change

While it may appear that digital movements including hashtag campaigns and memes succeed without any centralized leadership, a deeper probe would show how specific organizations contribute to the spread of each campaign (Couts, 2015). In fact, an important aspect of hashtag activism comprises multipronged efforts by organized and unorganized actors to keep the issue in the public eye for a sustained period, both online and offline. For instance, an Indian feminist nonprofit organization SheSays introduced a campaign #LahukaLagaan (which means “tax on blood”) to protest against the government’s decision to impose 14% Goods and Services Tax (GST) on sanitary pads by categorizing them as luxury products (Fadnis, 2017).

Apart from suitable tweets, the organization posted a parody video by a popular feminist comedian that resonated with the audiences (Fadnis, 2017). The organization also filed a petition in the High Court demanding judicial intervention. Meanwhile, celebrities and public figures joined the cause on Twitter along with ordinary citizens urging the government to make sanitary pads tax-free (Fadnis, 2017). Legacy media, both at the national and international levels, also took up the cause. The supporters of the campaign highlighted how girls could not go to school during their period as they did not have access to feminine hygiene products, which also created health hazards (Banerji, 2018). They also drew attention to the irony that sanitary pads were being taxed as a luxury product while condoms were tax-free (Banerji, 2019).

Initially, the government responded by reducing the tax from 14% to 12%. But the campaign continued and the combined efforts of multiple actors on multiple forums, offline and online, led to the Indian government finally dropping taxes on sanitary pads in July 2018 (Banerji, 2018). Deepa Fadnis, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, explains:

What started as a hashtag on Twitter soon turned into a multimodal digital campaign that utilized every possible social media platform to spread the message. People used creative modes of protest to disseminate new modes of discourse through memes, GIFs, profile pictures, personal account videos and status messages to show their solidarity for the cause, (p. 1112)

This example shows how digital activism does not bring about policy changes overnight but requires sustained efforts by multiple stakeholders.

Elizabeth Losh, digital culture scholar at the University of California, examined the “hashtag activist labor” that activist groups often engage in to introduce and promote campaigns online. She highlighted the tremendous effort that activists put into managing metadata and sharing relevant links, audio, video, and more with the target audiences online:

Choosing, using, and appropriating online hashtags can require significant expenditures of labor. Lengthy periods of work and repetitive activities can be taxing, as can time-intensive design processes of iteration, reflection, deliberation, and discussion with other human rights knowledge workers to refine hashtag use....Hashtags must be simultaneously short, unique, memorable, unambiguous in meaning, resistant to variant spellings, and descriptive as content labels. (Losh, 2014, p. 20)

While digital activism can move mountains by bringing people together to support an issue, it also suffers from certain limitations.

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