The Pandemic is Changing Online Activism’s Reputation of Being Just ‘Slacktivism’

climate protest online

Activists place thousands of protest placards in front of the Reichstag building, home of the German federal parliament, Bundestag, April 24, 2020, staging a long-planned global climate demonstration online because of restrictions on public protests during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of John MACDOUGALL / AFP

There is a strange comfort in being connected to mostly every corner of the world at a time when we have been intensely feeling the dearth of tangible human connection. Despite—or maybe as a result of—being locked away in isolation while the world physically and socially crumbles, we have been more in sync with current affairs than is healthy. The wild, tiresome ride that is the pandemic began with us half-cheerfully making banana bread inside our four walls; it is now manifesting some of the biggest resistance and support movements of the century—and perhaps, even of all time. 

Through Instagram stories and Twitter hashtag storms, the internet has increasingly and intensively become the tool for creating change. A series of tweets or a catchy TikTok or an aesthetic Instagram post can easily garner the attention of millions. It is not as if the internet wasn’t already indispensable to change, it’s just that the pandemic has forced us to use it full time. 

In India, we’ve recently seen powerful protests that came up against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)—a law which essentially changes the grounds for citizenship in the country and largely discriminates against minorities. While the pre-pandemic part of these protests were amplified because of their hefty on-ground presence, the pandemic shook up what was turning out to be the most powerful movement in contemporary times. But as lockdowns emerged, the movement migrated largely online, with  social media helping sustain the resistance. 

Now, just in the past few months, we have done some pretty powerful things on the internet. A major corner of the internet came together to donate for floods in Assam when news channels didn’t consider them important enough to report on it. Twitter trended the hashtag #JusticeforJayarajandFenix to increase awareness and make sure the cops responsible for police brutality in Tamil Nadu were held accountable. Teens came together to dissent through “fairy comments” against PM Modi—they masked dark insults with cute opening lines and sparkly emojis.

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Photo: Screenshot of Comments Section from @narendramodi Instagram

People also protested against the environment ministry’s anti-environment draft EIA (Environment Impact Assessment 2020) and sent emails demanding its withdrawal. While protests against EIA started off with basic explainer posts on social media, the movement slowly evolved across the country to harness new-age media to amplify these protest cries, incorporating new ways of digital dissent—from virtual human chains to Tweetstorms to bombing celebrities’ comments sections.

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SCREENSHOT TAKEN FROM INSTAGRAM HASHTAG #HUMANCHAINFOREIA

Students also took to Twitter to protest against both university and entrance exams, through Twitter storms. And some of these efforts saw change take place in the real world too. Like, emails and petitions asking the government not to weaken the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act met with success, with the Ministry scrapping the amendment to the Act. Success was also seen in how people organised a massive social media campaign to report and ban Hindustani Bhau—a YouTuber known for his extremism and hate speech. Twitter also outraged when publishing house Bloomsbury was set to come out with a biased account of Delhi riots and was inviting Kapil Mishra who was caught inciting riots as their chief guest—they ultimately got the publishing house to rescind the publishing of the book.

Why online activism

Digital activism has been debated, derided and lauded since the dawn of the social media age itself. In 2009, a group of women who were attacked by the members of Sri Ram Sena in Mangalore for partying, launched a Facebook group. They called it the ‘Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose and Forward Women’ and initiated a ‘Pink Chaddi Campaign’ through the group, where they sent pink underwear to the members of the group. Even a decade ago, when Facebook was only beginning to get popular in India, resistance found its way to the platform.

What is true, though, is that the word “activism” is not now limited to those dedicating their life’s work to a cause. Activism, now, has grown from purely professional work to include very personal spaces as well. The way we can organise ourselves has changed. Our homes, workplaces, and friend circles have become the very starting point of this activism. And the internet, the best means to engage with these spaces. 

“I genuinely think activism online is a great thing because it reaches so many people, especially people who would otherwise be disconnected from activism and socio-political issues,” says N, also known as @badassbrownactivist on Instagram. “I say this with confidence because I was one of them. I, myself, was very uninformed sociopolitically until I came across pages on Instagram which completely changed my understanding of the world.” Now, she has been running a page since 2017 that has now gained a following of over 32,000. It is a goldmine of information where she amplifies voices talking about a range of issues including sexuality, rape culture, caste and gender dynamics. Disseminating awareness and reaching the masses is a crucial pillar of activism because that influences how and what we think—subsequently, influencing social change.  

Of course, none of this would have been possible if the internet had not evolved into a much more inclusive space. “Social media, initially, was a very elitist space where the opinions you would hear were monotonous and privileged,” says queer and Dalit rights activist Rishi Raj Vyas. “Now, while still, not everyone has a presence here, there is a more diverse group of people here, with their own diverse and substantial set of opinions.” The opinions can very well be uninformed, but accessibility has widened discourse. 

“It especially helps you in creatively reaching a diverse population,” says Kapil, national cabinet member of Youth for Swaraj, the youth wing of Swaraj Abhiyan—a sociopolitical organisation working with the marginalised and those belonging to minority groups. “Complicated issues people wouldn’t understand otherwise are made easier online. For example, people initially didn’t understand the weight of the EIA Draft 2020. But when experts online broke it down, even a layperson could understand there were problems with the draft.”

The online space also works for people with disabilities, and people in isolation. “I run a group for young women and men which is a support group and a study circle of sorts,” says Rashi Vidyasagar, women rights activist and director at mental health initiative, The Alternative Story. “In isolation, it became even more relevant because, for a lot of us, this was the only support and platform we had to express ourselves. For us who do this on a professional level, activism is more about a response to what other people go through and talk about in their personal lives. For example, if someone is going through harassment, they’d reach out to me online and I’d be able to guide them to further resources better.” 

The other thing people working in activism do is concretely influence policies. “A movement like the #MeToo campaign primarily sought to create conversations,” says Avijit Michael, the executive director of Jhatkaa.com, a platform which takes online petitions and works on implementing them at a grassroot level. “In contrast, there are campaigns that demand a specific change. For example, even on our platform, there are petitions which demand a specific change. For those, we then gather people, take it up with decision-makers, and demand action.”

Additionally, crowdfunding websites like Milaap, Ketto, and GoFundMe have made impacting the lives of others easier, almost subverting the lazy tag attached to “clicktivism”.  

Why online activism NOW

 Six months ago, the pandemic spread to remove all semblance of control we had over our lives. All the things we considered so important in life quickly fell apart in the face of a handicap as huge as this. The best we could do was adjust to the situation. And protect ourselves from the virus. 

For those of us who liked being mum on the internet about anything merely political, and preferred to channelise the energy into IRL conversations instead, things have changed. The boundaries between internet and IRL connections have blurred more as we have taken to the internet 24/7. So naturally, more and more people are speaking up online. And, here’s the thing. In a world that was already dealing with major issues like climate change and recession, the pandemic just made everything that much bleaker. Governments around the world capitalised on this situation to further the problematic causes they were invested in: tightening the borders in the U.S., imprisoning political dissenters in India, restricting free speech in Indonesia, China passing a worrying security law in Hong Kong, and increasing surveillance around the world. 

More of us are realising how damning reality is—we don’t have anyone except each other. “Unlike ‘normal’ times when we act from a place of rationality, right now all of us are distressed,” says behavioural health researcher and psychologist Ruchita Chandrashekar. “We are so out of control when it comes to everything in our life right now, that taking control of one aspect of our lives can make us feel a little in control.”

And this feeling is only compounded by the fact that most of us use the internet to get our news, which means we get to know about things the moment they happen. “Seeing all of that, we get this urgency to do something,” adds Chandrashekhar. “There’s helplessness we feel because we can’t do much, but the scale of the tragedies makes it imperative for us to do something and not stand by.”

The armchair is the vehicle now 

Now that we are all really sitting in our armchairs, courtesy of the pandemic, it is only fair we acknowledge all the real-life change we are affecting. 

Digital activism, once derided as merely “armchair activism” can be considered performative in the sense that people might just use an issue as a trend and talk about it to blend in with the crowd, without actually caring about it or doing more than merely talking about it. For years we had the excuse of being busy with our lives. But now, as the internet has brought all issues to the forefront and made it so visible, it is hard to be ignorant anymore unless you’re purposely trying to be to. 

So, like dominos falling, raising our voice collectively helps subsequently bring bigger light on issues.“Even mainstream media houses—who are very important in driving change—pick up on issues based on what trends on social media,” adds Kapil.  To unfairly judge someone and their activism is problematic because in the same breath we are also talking about mental health awareness, compassion fatigue, and self-care. 

And the term “performative activism” is speculative at best and disparaging at worst. “I do know people do these things for different reasons, but I think that is alright,” adds Michael. “Some people may not be able to do anything more than posting things online and I think that is okay. Thousands of people sharing the same things and talking about the same issues has to impact something, right? The fact that the internet helps us engage in debates itself is great.” 

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