India’s era of digital activism

A growing number of people voice their opinion online shifting the dynamics between people and power.

The AAP Facebook page has a million 'likes' and @ArvindKejriwal has a million followers on Twitter [AFP]

“Political revolution in India has begun.” That short Twitter bio belongs to an unlikely engineer-bureaucrat-turned-crusader who made political history in India on December 28, 2013, when he was sworn in as Delhi Chief Minister.

Written off by ruling and opposition parties a few weeks earlier, Kejriwal’s one-year-old AAP, or Aam Aadmi (common man) Party, beat the 128-year-old ruling Congress Party in the Indian capital’s Assembly elections.

Kejriwal rode to office on an anti-corruption wave – and a campaign that used social media and telecom channels to the hilt.

The AAP Facebook page has a million ‘likes’ and @ArvindKejriwal has well over a million followers on Twitter.

Digital activism is barely a couple of years young in India. It’s had a chequered infancy, from state suppression to vigilante action to official political tool.

Online free speech

Late in 2012, Ravi Srinivasan became the first Indian to be arrested for a tweet. He was no activist, but soon became a poster-boy for online free speech.

The Puducherry-based businessman had tweeted that a politician had amassed much wealth.

After a complaint from the politician, Srinivasan was charged under India’s Information Technology Act’s infamous Section 66A, and arrested.

His 16 Twitter followers went up to over 2,200 within 48 hours, and a day later his tweet reached tens of millions via television.

Last year, those in power repeatedly discovered the Streisand effect, which says that an attempt to suppress something online has the opposite effect – of publicising it.

At the vortex of these Streisand storms was social media. It carried and amplified a national wave of outrage following a brutal gang-rape in Delhi in December 2012 (the young victim later died).

‘People fury’ drove police, judiciary and politicians into action in the year that followed.

Social media brought down top investigative journalist Tarun Tejpal, editor-in-chief of Tehelka – a news magazine that pioneered sting journalism in India – when a colleague accused him of sexual assault after a party in Goa.

The furore in digital media resulted in the Goa police arresting Tejpal and charging him with rape.

And last December, India’s social media exploded with unbridled fury at the country’s Supreme Court ruling against gay sex.

Delhi’s high court had ruled in 2009, on a petition by a gay rights group, that sex in private between consenting adults was not an offence. The apex court overturned this ruling, saying that until the parliament changed the law, it to be observed.

Indian Penal Code’s section 377 provides for life in prison for having sex “against the order of nature”.

India’s news media saw critical editorials, but they were nothing like the unfettered social media. Outrage choked Twitter. Facebook pages overflowed with protests.

Once again, the sheer force and fury of the online protests gave political parties a taste of public opinion. Key parties – even right-wingers who toe the “traditional Indian culture” line against gay sex – have agreed that the issue called for a debate in parliament.

And that social media is no more an elite niche that could be ignored.

Growing social media users

How big is social media in India, a country with negligible broadband use: just 15 million connections for 1.2 billion people?

It’s surprisingly big – and growing fast. Of every five minutes spent on the internet in India, a minute is spent on Facebook, according to Carson Dalton, the company’s India PR head.

Social media use jumped last year in India, with Facebook’s active users growing to 82 million by mid-2013 – up 15 percent in six months.

How does this match up with horribly low broadband penetration? Well, three of four Facebook users use a mobile device to access the service.

India has just 30 million landline phones, but over 875 million mobile-phone subscriptions as of last October, according to India’s telecom regulator, TRAI.

TRAI says there are 198 million internet subscribers in India as of June 2013, of which 89 percent accessed the internet through mobile devices. Most of them are social media users.

Driven by mobile use, India represents the world’s third-largest internet population, with over a hundred million with full internet access. The rest have limited mobile internet access to operator portals, or to Facebook on cheap feature-phones, or use mobile-data deals for Twitter or Google.

It’s these mobile users who make up the majority of India’s social media landscape – following Bollywood celebrities and political movements, in that order, and outraging on the issue of the day.

Right-wing and social media

Social media discourse in India can be fast and furious and at times vicious, giving the impression of swarms hunting in packs.

The digital battlefield is a filtered essence of the ground realities of India’s diverse, divergent populations. Issues show up concentrated and amplified: from anger about injustice, to armchair activism, to misogyny.

Right-wing groups, including supporters of Narendra Modi, the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 elections, are well organised on social media. They react to any slight on their icon. Their tolerance is low especially for “mainstream media”, and many – especially television anchors – have faced their wrath.

It’s no accident that right-wing supporters are the most visible and vocal in the digital media in India.

There is no political party in India better organised online than the right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party, which leads the opposition charge, and which has the most organised technology and social media teams.

Twitter’s top trending subject for 2013 was “Modi”.

A professional agency launched Modi’s social media programme, including his Twitter account (@narendramodi, 3 million followers). His online campaign is being managed by top digital entrepreneurs Rajesh Jain and BG Mahesh.

By contrast, the Congress party, which leads the ruling coalition, is simply not organised online. It does have individuals influential on social media, notably federal minister Shashi Tharoor (@shashitharoor, 2 million followers), but very little visible structure to its online battle.

Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, which shook up Delhi in 2013, was an anomaly. It amassed popular support from across the world, with volunteers pitching in with funds and expertise – including tech and social media expertise.

While few are expecting social media to swing the 2014 general elections, it’s certainly big enough to influence voters, which is why politicians are jumping into social media in a big way.

And going by the kind of growth it’s seeing, one in every ten Indians will be on social media by end of this year. That’s a small, but a very influential and potent, tip of the population pyramid.