Bridging the Gap Between Online and Offline Activism

Online activism needs to work in tandem with a bigger, offline campaign and complement offline action in order to achieve an impact.

This is the third in a series of posts reporting on the day-long “Connect Your Rights!” meeting held in Mumbai in November 2013. The meeting explored topics such as tools to combat violence against women, pornography, sexuality, and freedoms and risks in the online world.

When the news media completely ignored the release of a 2009 fact-finding report on the demolition of Gandhian Himanshu Kumar’s ashram in Chhattisgarh, human rights activist Kamayani Bali Mahabal turned to the Internet for the first time. “The press conference was attended by a room full of reporters. Yet, the next day not a single paper printed the story. I uploaded the video of the press conference online. It got a lot of hits. So, when the mainstream media did not report the news, we resorted to the alternative media,” said Mahabal.

Mahabal is one of the few activists in India who have embraced online activism in a prolific and effectual way. She calls it “kractivism” — activism that bridges the gap between online and offline activism. “There has to be some cohesion of energies of [the] offline and online world[s] for this kind of activism to have an impact,” said Mahabal.

One of the most successful campaigns she spearheaded in her early days of “kractivism” was the “Free Binayak Sen Campaign”, which ran on a website and a Facebook page. Dr Sen is a doctor-activist who spent nearly four decades working with the poor communities at Chhattisgarh and was arrested for sedition in 2010. After a Raipur sessions court convicted him for sedition and a few other offences, the Supreme Court granted him bail in 2011. “It was the first time I saw people from online coming offline. These were not only rights activists. There were filmmakers, actors, teachers, bankers, artistes who were part of our online protests and [they] joined us offline too,” said Mahabal.

The biggest advantage of online activism is its wide reach and potential to mobilise, said Mahabal. “We were going beyond borders. We were not just talking to activists here, not [only] having a conversation with the converted who are already a part of the movement; in this case, we had an accessibility to people who had a hunger for knowledge. We were getting awareness about issues and having a debate about it.”

By virtue of the reach of the Internet, a campaign could garner tangible results. Mahabal ran a Facebook campaign for Chitralekha, a Dalit autorickshaw driver from Kerala who was beaten up and her autorickshaw burnt down in 2010. She was targeted because she was a woman in a male-dominated profession and married a man of a higher caste. “The superintendent of police there found out about the incident from the Facebook campaign and decided to enquire about it,” said Mahabal.

A French journalist contacted Mahabal after watching online videos of protests held in Mumbai in 2010 against a nuclear power plant site proposed in Jaitapur, Maharashtra. This led to some international coverage of the protests.

Soni Sori, a tribal school teacher from Chhattisgarh was tortured by the police in prison in 2012. When her letters written from jail appeared online, the international community responded. Amnesty International and other organisations sought her immediate release.

The most common criticism of online campaigns is that they do not include people from all strata of society and that they are led by people who use the Internet to address their own concerns. Referring to the “Free Binayak Sen” campaign, Mahabal said, “We were told that you are talking about an upper middle class doctor here and that the campaign was elitist. But Dr Sen was the peg. We have used that platform to fight for all the adivasis, all the political prisoners behind bars at Chhattisgarh today.”

The ten tactics of online activism

The ten tactics of online activism

(Flickr/ cambodia4kidsorg (CC-BY))

However, channelling online support into offline action needs planning and strategising. Having followers on Twitter does not translate into having as many protestors or volunteers on the ground. Meter Jam, which urged the residents of Bengaluru and Mumbai to boycott autorickshaws and taxis on a designated day as a mark of protest against the malpractices of drivers, saw lukewarm success. Despite many “Likes”, they clearly could not do without autos and taxis even for one day. Mahabal said that online activism needs to work in tandem with a bigger, offline campaign and complement offline action in order to achieve an impact.

Mahabal cautioned activists against associating with online campaigns without checking the corporations and organisations that support them. NDTV recently kicked off a campaign with actress Priyanka Chopra about saving the girl child. “However, that campaign was supported by Vedanta, the mining company which was kicked out by 12 villages in Orissa. There are NGOs supporting this campaign without knowing Vedanta is involved. I feel, as activists, we need to ask questions before we trust a platform,” said Mahabal.

Expressing reservations about online petition websites, Mahabal said that there is a need for a transparent and accountable platform for activists to publish their petitions. “I want to tell the activists that we need not compromise before corporates who say that we do not have a face,” said Mahabal.

The avenues used by multinationals to sell their products could be used for activism. In 2001, when Jonah Perreti ordered shoes online from Nike custom made with the word “sweatshop” his request was rejected. The thread of emails exchanged between him and Nike went viral online. It was quickly picked up by the news media. The use of the label “sweatshop” was a kind of culture jamming.

Popular blogger, Ramya Pandyan suggested that online activists could use the Foursquare app — typically used by corporations and establishments to geo-locate and promote their businesses — to find places to meet, regroup etc. “We have to start working with the form of the digital world. They [corporate companies] utilise language for their ends much better. We have to adopt their manner of thinking. To push a cause, we have to change our monolithic way of thinking,” said Paromita Vohra, an independent documentary filmmaker.

Image credit: Anonymous 2000 [CC-BY]