Home >opinion >The Facebook theory of social change

If you can share intimate family pictures with “friends" you’ve never met, why can’t you change India from your ergonomically correct computer chair? Who needs the hard-to-shake real world when the virtual world responds so quickly (think of how much you save on sunblock too).

The term slacktivism (slacker + activist) was coined in the mid-1990s, but people are only now discussing the impact of digital media on social change and the political process in India.

A recent study by the Mumbai-based Iris Knowledge Foundation said that 160 Lok Sabha constituencies were likely to be “highly" influenced by social media. Twitter and Facebook would have a moderate impact on an additional 67 constituencies during the 2014 general election, the study found. All six seats in Mumbai, including Mumbai-South, the constituency I vote from, would be affected, it forecast. Politicians are already using social media to campaign. In Karnataka, all the main parties contesting the 5 May assembly election are active on Twitter and Facebook. Now I’m waiting for my MP Milind Deora to friend me on Facebook.

Dismissing the Facebook model of change is understandable when you see the effort that “real world" activism demands. Take the case of Zakia Jafri, wife of politician Ehsaan Jafri who was burned alive in the Gujarat riots of 2002. Jafri and activist Teesta Setalvad have been fighting for justice since 2006, when they first filed a 119-page complaint with 2,000 pages of annexures. After a long and convoluted journey that involved many law enforcement officers, several courts of law, a special tribunal, a media scoop about an IAS officer who spoke up and god knows what else, on 7 February, the Supreme Court gave the complainants access to key investigative documents previously unavailable to them and eight weeks to file a fresh complaint. “It meant wading through 27,000 pages of material, mostly in Gujarati, very poorly Xeroxed," says Setalvad who worked with a team of lawyers in Ahmedabad and Mumbai to put together the protest petition Jafri filed earlier this week.

So when we click the “Sign" button on an online petition site such as Change.org (which has 600,000 members, 65% of them in Indian cities) are we doing it just to feel good about our righteous middle-class selves? Our government and legal machinery certainly don’t recognize our digital signature. Slum dwellers, who fight the biggest battles against the state in rapidly morphing urban India, are increasingly using the legally recognized and effective Right to Information Act, Times Crest reported last Saturday.

When my friend Namita Bhandare started an online petition on Change.org a day or two after the 18 December Delhi gang rape, she never thought her appeal to “stop rape now" would attract 663,740 supporters—incidentally the highest number of signatures on an online petition out of India.

Starting that petition gave her no choice but to get involved. She interacted with people who wrote in from across the world, attended several street protests, shared her views in print, on TV and Twitter, wrote to every member of Parliament (only four replied, Priya Dutt’s was the fastest response, in 5 minutes). Bhandare handed over her petition, which then had 100,000 signatures, to the office of retired justice J.S. Verma, who had been appointed to head a government committee to recommend amendments to the existing law. She also worked on an excellent short film on rape. She spoke about the issue so much for three months that one night at the dinner table her teenage daughter finally said: “Can you please not talk about rape tonight?"

My favourite go-to real world and digital activist Swati Ramanathan, co-founder of the Bangalore-based Janaagraha, a centre for citizenship and democracy, believes online petitions help politicians know what the urban middle-class is thinking. They inform people, encourage public debate and put pressure on politicians, Ramanathan says. “Petitions are a quick and light way to participate, without demanding high levels of activism of ordinary citizens," she adds.

As country director for Change.org, Avijit Michael has a ringside view of what agitates India. Political corruption, unsurprisingly, is the biggest irritant. Digitally-savvy India has also begun to focus on women’s issues, says Michael, who emphasizes that online petitions are a means of showcasing public support around an issue. Taking that public mobilization to the decision maker is the next step. Change.org’s campaign team adopts a variety of techniques to do this, from getting petitioners to carpet-bomb the phone line of an unresponsive government official to approaching tech-savvy politicians on Twitter or seeking help from the media to publicize the issue.

Michael’s website receives 250-300 petitions each week and his team sieves through these and picks campaigns they will help take to the next level. Currently on Change.org, prominent film-makers are demanding the government “Help Save Indie Cinema"; a group of college girls from Hyderabad is fighting against local television channels for sensationalist reporting that invades their privacy (TV channels have responded with their own counter petition); Bangaloreans want the government to cancel permissions for a commercial complex in Ejipura that has resulted in the displacement of thousands of people; and 60,000 people want justice for acid attack victim Chanchal Paswan (this one may not yet have received a political response but the petition has helped raise 10 lakh for treatment).

Namita expressed her rage in a petition because it was a tool that was easily accessible to her. Ramanathan says the Internet makes it easier for people to engage with the democratic process of giving voice. Policymaking may be nowhere near our home-grown digital activists yet, but Michael believes that one day the two worlds are bound to meet.

For now we can depend on our politicians to plan a taxpayer-funded trip to the US to see how President Barack Obama’s “We the People" website, where citizens can petition the government directly, works.

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