Limits of digital activism
May reinforce regressive and deeply conservative voices
Social media forums have made movements more “complicated and open-ended” (Mina, 2019, p. 4). While these forums offer spaces where people can use their creativity to energize movements and make them more inclusive, they also provide an avenue for expression of hate and extreme beliefs. In online spaces, power can be both reinforced, on the one hand, and challenged by those at the margins of society, on the other.
Hashtags and memes can help spread misinformation and propaganda that reflect strong ideological viewpoints and allegiances of its creators. For instance, people with extreme opinions can use memes to introduce their ideas into mainstream public discourse and expand the borders of what is considered acceptable (Mina, 2019). Memes with opposing messages create contests and contradictions in online spaces even as they strive to recruit as many people as possible for their cause. Such contestations can exacerbate existing social tensions. However, Mina (2019) argues that hashtags and memes per se cannot be blamed for polarizing people as they draw upon existing social beliefs.
Scholars have drawn attention to the “conflicting faces of digital politics” in India and elsewhere which includes new forms of participation and selfexpression, on the one hand, and mob vigilantism resulting from widespread circulation of misinformation and provocative visuals, on the other (Udupa, Venkataraman & Khan, 2020). While digital media have facilitated organized political expression among ordinary people, they have also facilitated the spread of propaganda by established political actors. Moreover, with Indians posting on social media forums in so many languages, it’s difficult to filter controversial, misleading, and provocative content (Neyazi, 2019).
WhatsApp, a platform used by around 400 million Indians (Hashmi, 2020) has become a major source for the spread of rumors and fake news. Alia Allana (2017) explains:
The gifts of free usage and anonymity have made WhatsApp the most popular tool to spread both outlandish stories and politically motivated rumors....WhatsApp has been turned into the primary messenger of prejudice, delivering relentless virtual fuel to keep the embers of modem hatreds alive.
Digital practices in India are also influenced by politics of caste, religion, community, region, and class (Udupa, Venkataraman & Khan, 2020). In fact, digital media offer new ways of organizing around old affiliations such as religion, caste, and community.
106 Digital activism
May not be democratic and egalitarian spaces
Since the social divisions and inequalities of the real world are also reflected online, not all voices get ready access or equal representation online (Dey, 2020). For instance, while India had as many as 688 million active Internet users in January 2020 (Diwanji, 2020), various types of digital divides can be identified. A person’s location, income, gender, education, language, and age influence whether a person has access to the Internet (Parsheera, 2019). While the Internet density in urban areas is 97.9%, it’s only 25.3% in rural areas where 66% of the country’s population lives (Parsheera, 2019). Only 16% of Indian women use mobile and internet services, according to a 2019 report by the GSMA, a body which represents mobile operators worldwide (Parsheera, 2019).
Digital platforms facilitate the expression of individual and collective dissent. However, one needs to keep in mind that these alternative spaces where counter-discourses are formulated and distributed widely may not be accessible to all (Dey, 2020). In this context, Adrija Dey, a gender studies scholar, draws upon American critical theorist Nancy Fraser’s concept of “subaltern counterpublics” comprising marginalized people who rarely get a chance to voice their views in mainstream spaces, and emphasizes its flawed and fractured nature:
The subaltern counterpublics are not always democratic, egalitarian, and virtuous spaces, and even if they are, they are not always above practicing their own exclusions and marginalization. (Dey, 2020, p. 1437)
This explains why fissures develop even when social media and the Internet help to rally people around a cause. In case of the #DalitLivesMatter campaign, multiple narratives existed within the movement as it was characterized by a range of political positions and affiliations that limited the scope of collective action (Thakur, 2019). Hence, it is important to remind ourselves that social media platforms do not just bring diverse forces together in the quest of a common cause; they can also serve to highlight differences in their views and beliefs.