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Social media, social movements and the problem of passivity

This is a post where I talk about some issues that have been bothering me for many months. Be warned - it's long. I really, really want opinions and comments because I have more questions than answers, but please do read the whole post before you comment.

In the light of the recent horrific incident in Delhi that grabbed headlines, there has been widespread - if divided - condemnation. The mainstream media is doing what it does best; and many are using social media to vent their anger, frustration, opinions, alternate viewpoints, arguments and possible solutions. Many cities have held protests; some of these have turned violent and, as expected, the police retaliated. In the light of all this, there are several points that have been brought forward which I have been thinking about: the role of social media, its relative passivity, the need for protest, the need for organised protest, the need to do something, to not remain silent, to make some noise. I reiterate, I have more questions than answers (though I also have opinions).

Is social media an effective competitor for mainstream, top-down media?

Social media is controlled, just like mainstream media, but to a lesser extent. On TV and in newspapers, space, advertising, commercials, TRPs and other organisations govern what makes it and what doesn't.

On the internet, everyone has an opinion without the restriction of space; though moderation still occurs, it is quite difficult to control when there is no deadline or boundary. Articles and opinions do not necessarily have to end with "Full Name is a writer/commentator/lecturer/insert profession on politics/media/sociology/insert field". Here, "Full Name" can be just another man or woman. This is important. The 'social' in 'social media' doesn't necessarily translate into superficiality; the 'social' in 'social media' translates as a social group, of society, intended to mean people who know each other in some way or are connected by a common factor. It is also important when viewed in the light of theories such as those of Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent. Whether social media manufactures dissent, I cannot say; it does, however, promote multiplicity.

A little less conversation, a little more action, please.

A worthy mantra, and utterly vital, if conversation doesn't translate into action, if it is merely conversation for conversation's sake, to be expressed and then pushed away. Many, including media theorists, talk about the superficiality of social media and how it translates into passivity. The distraction quotient is high, and angry posts mingle with frivolity unashamed. But there are some things we need to re-think: everyone uses social media differently. Everyone views it - literally - differently (on Facebook, for example, we do not see our entire network's posts - what appears on our home page is restricted to certain people and certain topics). Because of this, the more we share and discuss, the better. Conversation and discussion are always, always important, not restricted to one medium but flowing freely.

While researching the topic, I read many views dismissive of social media which argue that social media leads to passivity by making the person feel as though they have done their duty by leaving a comment or opinion, no matter how impassioned, on a public forum. I cannot agree with this view, because I am not convinced that any medium has the power to evict a genuine desire to 'act'. I argue that those who consider their duty done by leaving a comment - or engaging in a debate - were those who would not have 'acted' at all even if they didn't have this medium to vent. They are those of drawing-room conversations before social media existed. I believe that if someone cares deeply enough about an issue, they won't stop at a comment if they can do something else about it. I am not convinced that Facebook replaces other forms of activism, action or protest.

What do we mean by 'doing something'?

Does a much-needed discussion about an issue not amount to doing something? When we call for a sensitisation towards women's - or any - issues, how do we envision this happening? Does doing something mean tangible results, visible results, quick results? Moreover, are discussion and action ever exclusive? Even if 'doing something' means a protest (a street protest/march/demonstration, to be more specific, since protest comes in many shapes and sizes), shouldn't discussion always precede 'action'? How else can there be an organised protest? And since many such demonstrations are initiated and popularised through social media, shouldn't social media be the first point of discussion?

I am wary of such demonstrations. I am not cynical of them in general; the world has witnessed successful ones, big and small, and they always do something especially if they are backed by numbers (they sometimes work in the favour of protestors, sometimes in the favour of those being protested against, as this article discusses). We live in a protest culture, which is not a bad thing at all, though if some consider it their duty done (and some consider it a picnic; I have been invited to some that carry with them the promise of cake and music), may it not be taken as faux-action that also, by curbing a further will to 'do something' (like a comment on Facebook) causes 'passivity'? I will, for instance, never go to one if I am not aware enough of the issue to take a stand, or if I disagree with what is being protested, or if I am confused about its message. I, like everyone, am in solidarity with the survivor of this incident and care deeply about women's issues and safety (for everyone) in general, but I am wary of going to a demonstration surrounded by placards calling for capital punishment, for the CM's resignation (and put a misogynist in her place?), anti-government and anti-police (we cannot always turn problems that we are a part of - misogyny and corruption, to name two - into one giant blame game).

But then I ask myself (and you) - what do these demonstrations achieve? When fighting a dictatorial regime, for instance, numbers are of the essence and the message is clear: the people are unanimous, and they want you gone. But who are we fighting here? If it's a demonstration about women's rights - the closest I would come to going to one - do we have specific aims that we are calling for, or are we raising important but futile (for a demonstration; while we all wish that misogynistic attitudes could magically be corrected by staring at our angry placards, I think this is slightly optimistic) points?

And then the question that troubles me above all: though I would not have gone to these protests, unprecedented violence notwithstanding, wouldn't having no protests be a whole lot worse? Would the government, the people, the city, the survivors, the perpetrators not mistake this silence for indifference? 

What else can we do?

Let's discuss it. I read a friend's post on Facebook (yes, that vital source of information) calling for protests in less conventional areas - such as those where infrastructural problems like the lack of lighting exist - to draw attention to these and insist on action. A conference on urban mobility that I helped document in 2010 at The Grand hotel discussed how Delhi is not pedestrian friendly at all in its planning. Ironically, the hotel is situated on a deserted, sidewalk-less, shrubbery-infested road infamous for a few high-profile murders in recent years.

If safety lies in numbers and the planning of urban space, we can start with our own neighbourhoods. Call the attention of your RWA or MP to issues like the lack of chowkidaars (numbers matter here, too), sidewalks overrun by trees, the lack of street lamps. Attempting to show our governing bodies what to do and ensuring that they do it as their duty to us as public servants won't erase crime, but it might make some of us wanderers (of all genders) feel safer: the psychology of a terror that vanishes, for instance, when we find ourselves in busy cities (no city is devoid of crime, but in some, we believe we are safe). Even seemingly smaller measures like these need the people - one impassioned person is never going to be taken seriously. Our government, our police need to work with us, and we need to work with them.


(The writer is just another woman.) 
(Oh, and she welcomes your opinions.)