Advances in communication technology have profoundly impacted the nature of civil society, moving past concepts of formal associations to show new signs of life in virtual networks and online campaigns. Citizens are mobilised through videos uploaded on blogs through Facebook invites, and civil society no longer necessarily awaits the arrival of charismatic leaders or NGOs to educate, influence and mobilise its members. Yet while the fervour over online networks is increasing – particularly in the context of the ongoing rebellions in West Asia and North Africa – it is important to ensure that our collective expectations remain pragmatic insofar as what virtual networks can hope to achieve.
Computer-mediated communication has certainly provided a segment of the Southasian population with a new medium through which to participate in the affairs of both the state and society. From the ‘tweeting’ following the Mumbai attacks of November 2008 to interacting in the virtual space with bloggers from around the Subcontinent; from signature campaigns protesting the Indian Supreme Court’s verdict in the Union Carbide case to mobilising people through the ‘pink chaddi’ campaign (against attempts at moral policing by members of the Sri Ram Sena), civil society appears to be in a state of heightened activity. Most recently, the appearance of the ‘stone-pelters’ of Kashmir on Facebook has been hailed as indicative of an expansion of democratic spaces.
Virtual networks have added a new means to this type of communication – but it is naive to see the communication itself as new
In fact, the jury is out on the extent to which virtual networks can realise the concept of civil society as an agency for aggregating private interests into public demands and, ultimately, monitoring state authority. The role of online networks as new and potent expressions of civil society in Southasia is thus debatable on several grounds.
A segment of civil society
The spread of online networks is a critical factor in determining their worth as a constituent of civil society. The ‘cyber pessimists’ point to low rates of internet penetration among the populace, particularly in the non-English scripts; the optimists, on the other hand, choose to highlight the potential for future growth in connectivity and access. In 2009, seven percent of the Indian population had access to the internet, further restricted by the requirement of both basic computer and English-language skills. At the same time, that percentage already accounts for some 81 million people, and such figures are rising in every country of the region. In 2010, visits to social-networking sites in India increased considerably, with membership on Facebook growing by nearly 12 percent.
However, internet-penetration rates are a flawed premise for determining the worth of virtual networks as reasonable reflections of public sentiment. In the post-colonial societies of Southasia, where the concept of ‘civil society’ itself is problematic, it is not prudent to celebrate the arrival of virtual networks as the voice of civil society. Online networks in the region are a medium for interaction and expressing opinion that are available only to a certain segment of civil society, and this cannot be cited as evidence of increased political awareness of the populace at large.
Virtual networks are a technologically upgraded version of neighbourhood interactions, discussions among members of resident and trader associations, or heated debates in roadside stalls. One only needs to stand in the reservation queue for railway tickets, or listen to the conversation among visitors gathered outside a local mazaar or temple to get a sense of the vibrancy of public discussions. This variety of civil society interaction, much like its online avatar, is socially stimulating without being politically directed. In turn, virtual networks have indeed added a new means to this type of communication – but it is naïve to see the communication itself as new.
Moreover, the content of online networks borrows heavily from newspaper reports, op-eds and television chat shows, rather than from civil society itself. Online networks pronounce views and perceptions of a section of civil society on issues that concern the larger community.
Neither self-organising nor self-sustaining
Many had hoped that virtual networks would re-energise civil society in Southasia. The middle-class apathy towards social and political issues was expected to be countered by easing participation through the mere click of the mouse. Yet in fact, online activism has typically only been successful when other organised segments of society, such as the mainstream media, have taken up a cause. Online networks have failed to make this segment’s interactions purposeful and endeavours resolute.
Recent posts on Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Facebook page are reflective of a wider trend, wherein online interactions lack a defined purpose and strategy. Even though the prime minister’s Facebook page draws huge traffic, there is widespread scepticism regarding the actual administrator of the page; people are not sure of the extent to which the prime minister’s office is involved in updating the page. Uncertainty about the real administrator has not necessarily affected its popularity. On one day in mid-August 2010, the page had nearly 40,000 members, and the following grew by 22 percent over the following 45 days. From inviting the prime minister over for tea to leaving a contact number, many members seem to see the page as a medium for personal communication with Prime Minister Singh. One respondent identified the page as the only channel available to a “common Kashmiri” for approaching the “highest authority” in the country.
Those already relatively interested in public affairs take the most advantage of online opportunities for political mobilisation
Interestingly, most members of the prime minister’s page had joined as ‘fans’, and the comments were thus overwhelmingly adulation or support for official policies. For instance, comments on the Union Carbide court verdict in no way reflected the public outrage voiced elsewhere by the victims and activists. Likewise, there appeared to be a significant disconnect between comments on the prime minister’s speech addressing the protests in Jammu and Kashmir and wider public sentiments. Since it was not possible for the administrator of the page to remove individual comments, this uncritical acceptance of state decisions is intriguing – the information on the page is clearly not being used by members to scrutinise official policies.
Comments on the prime minister’s page manifest a common phenomenon. Online networks are viewed as forums for expression of individual opinion, rather than a medium for making collective demands. For online networks to qualify as proponents of civil society actions, they have to formulate and propagate collective demands rather than individual beliefs.
Cyber activists claim to use online networks as a mouthpiece on behalf of civil society. For instance, a 2002 online petition campaign started by a high school student, Aditya Raj Kaul, against the verdict in the Priyadarshini Mattoo rape and murder case initiated a new era of online activism in India, inspiring similar forms of online activism in the Jessica Lall murder and Ruchika Girhotra molestation cases. Instances of cyber activism, though inspiring, need to share the glory of success with the mainstream media. Justice for Priyadarshini was successful in part due to the involvement of NDTV’s senior correspondent Anasuya Roy, and the ‘pink chaddi’ campaign was started by Nisha Susan, a journalist with Tehelka.
Online advocacy and protest groups also tend to dissipate once the issue ceases to command media headlines. Social media sites such as Facebook feature many advocacy groups that are either dormant or defunct. Online activism appears to have a relatively short life span, with many groups fizzling out within days of a promising launch.
No interest aggregation
Civil society exchanges have remained largely inconclusive in the past, and virtual networks do not currently seem to provide a qualitatively better means of democratic deliberation. The value of online networks is premised on the understanding that open discussion facilitates information exchange and provides opportunity to inform public opinion. But despite the exalted expectations, online interactions have shown scant evidence of informing or influencing opinion. Most biases continue to exist, and new information is interpreted to suit entrenched positions. Participation in virtual networks is motivated more by the desire to dominate discussion, rather than the need for arriving at amenable solutions.
In the current context, then, online networks seem to have merely added another dimension to the existing cacophony of civil-society interaction. Much like civil society, online networks have supporters and critics of every public policy, with each side presenting elaborate justifications. While the hope was that online networks could discern popular demand and promote dialogue, the process of interaction has not created new bonds through synchronisation of common interests.
Scores of protests at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, for instance, go unnoticed unless pitched by the media. Official policies remain unchanged even after nationwide bandhs, and public attention dwindles if the newspaper and television news channels do not pick up the stories. It is pretentious to expect that political institutions will become responsive just because virtual networks have simplified information exchange and communication. Apart from providing another option for public discussion and protest, virtual networks currently do little to overcome the impediments facing the existing forms of public interaction.
Recent research on the internet and civic activism by scholars such as Pippa Norris demonstrates that those already relatively interested in public affairs take the most advantage of online opportunities for political mobilisation. As such, the appeal of virtual networks is not its impact on public policy, but its availability as another medium for expressing opinion. Virtual networks might have enhanced discussion and protests, but these have not necessarily made Southasians more politically aware or their governments more responsive.
First published in Himal Southasian, March 2011, and then again in June 2013.
Madhavi Bhasin is Program Associate for the Women’s Enterprise for Sustainability at the Institute of International Education. She is also a consultant at Mentor Together, and a social media consultant and blogger for Overseas Volunteer for Better India.