Monday, February 14, 2011

It’s war, online & off

Forty-eight hours after Egypt’s dictator bowed out in deference to massive online mobilization that took huge crowds to Cairo’s central square, we ask if internet activism is a foolproof agent of change

• Office worker: Dr Binayak Sen’s conviction and sentencing is such a terrible thing to happen. I wish I could do something about it.

• Second worker: I’ve set up an online group. We have almost one million members. You could join.

• Third worker: That’s a really great cause, guys. I’ll do my bit by getting my friends to join the group.

    – Facebook wallposts

From “Save Dr Binayak Sen” to “Justice for Aarushi” and “Egypt Uprising”, the internet is awash with good causes and feisty warriors. Remember the pink “chaddi” campaign on Valentine’s Day almost two years ago? Then there are the more tame, good samaritan online groups – “Save the whales”, “Save the vultures” and so on.

    Facebook says India, with its 1.2 billion people, has four million users but Egypt, with 82 million people, has two million Facebook users. Morocco, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have one-million users altogether.

    Does it point to a rising tide of online social activism in the Arab world? And has the online social conscience finally become fact there and elsewhere? “Yes and no,” says Gaurav Mishra, co-founder of social media analytics company 20:20 Web Tech. Mishra agrees that “online media has become an essential and important forum for youth to voice their thoughts and garner support”, but points out a basic truth: “These revolts can’t sustain themselves without an awakening at the ground level”. In other words, virtual demands for change can only mimic that underway on the ground. Mishra stresses that Twitter and Facebook can be important tools to aid “revolutions”, but can’t bring about a revolution on their own.

    Unsurprisingly then,, the unofficial internet dictionary of commonly used urban terms, defines Facebook activism as “the illusion of dedication to a cause through no-commitment awareness groups”.

    Mishra says Egypt’s 18 days of protest, finally ending in dictator Hosni Mubarak’s resignation on Friday illustrates the limits – and the potential – of online mobilisation. “The angst was already building up and Facebook made it more visible.”

    Social activist Anita Rangachary agrees. “‘Facebook warriors’ can go online to push for change, but can they bring about change? What commitment are they making in terms of time and money?”

    Mishra and Rangachary’s argument might well draw on Moldova’s failed, so-called Twitter revolution of 2009. There, protesters took to the streets against the communist government. But it had little significance, says Stanford scholar Evgeny Morozov as Moldova has few Twitter accounts and the protests never gathered momentum.

    But blogger Sumit Haldar says “more than activism, it’s about the increasing level of participation of certain groups for a common cause… Wikipedia says any action seeking to bring about social, political or economic changes can be called activism. In this age of internet, unorthodox methods of activism are taking shape.”

    But Haldar admits that initial mobilization can run out of steam. It can even veer on the absurd, admit bloggers. Two years ago, a Delhi journalist set up ‘The Consortium of Pub-going, Loose, and Forward Women’ on Facebook to respond to threats from Sri Ram Sene chief, Pramod Mutalik, who wanted to disrupt Valentine’s Day. The campaign urged women to send Mutalik pink “chaddis”. It backfired spectacularly. The Pink Chaddi Facebook Group was repeatedly hacked and Facebook simply suspended both the group and the journalist-instigator’s account. Later, in an open letter to Facebook posted on another website, she asked if the first rule of Facebook activism might be to eschew Facebook.

    Mishra says, “By all means, use Facebook as part of your campaign, but don’t build your campaign around it. A real activist in today’s world will be someone who learns how to use online channels to launch revolutions offline.”


Asmaa Mahfouz, 26, apparently fed up with Mubarak’s authoritarian rule, posted a ‘status message’ on her account: “People, I am going to Tahrir Square.” It served as a war cry for some of her countrymen

THE PINK CHADDI CAMPAIGN | A Delhi journalist and three others urged women on Facebook to gift pink “chaddis” to Sri Ram Sene chief, Pramod Mutalik, who threatened to disrupt Valentine’s Day celebrations

APRIL 6 YOUTH MOVEMENT | An Egyptian Facebook group started in 2008 to support workers in an industrial town who were planning to go on strike. By January 2009, it had 70,000 members