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Web of resistance: the online machinery behind the street protests

Image: Getty Images/ iStock

Image: Getty Images/ iStock  

Every morning, a notice detailing the time, venue, and nature of protests happening across India circulates on Instagram and Twitter for users to seek and spread

At first, the memes came into sharp focus at the pan-India protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the interlinked but supposedly not interlinked NRC, around a month ago. It was a sign that the privileged millennials and Gen Z-ers were showing up en masse, and bringing their Internet A-game. “Modi, what is this behaviour?” asked one poster, a reference to the preposterous Bigg Boss clip that became an Internet sensation a while ago.

“It’s so bad, even the cynics are here,” declared another catchphrase-turned-meme. Soon, that line mutated into all sorts of shapes and forms online (specific news channels, Bollywood stars, passive uncles, parents, IITs), the most recent of which went: “It’s so bad that even [the famously, or notoriously, apolitical college] St. Stephen’s is here.”

At first, the memes were just a temporary and welcome respite from the heaviness of the situation, but not much more. Not long after, though, I noticed something more substantial going on. The revolution, any revolution, can only ever happen on the streets, our own independence struggle being a glorious example. There are lakhs of people today who, at great personal risk, are willing to go out and voice their dissent. They’re leading the resistance. But behind them lies an entire machinery enabling, supporting, encouraging, mobilising, amplifying. And it’s all happening, drip by drip, on the Internet.

People against the Act aren’t just sitting and moaning. Instead, they’re contributing. They’re reclaiming patriotism, which has for so long been harboured by the jingoist. The Constitution, the national flag, and the national anthem, for instance. The flag had been co-opted for the past several years by supporters of the current government on Twitter, as they’d add a small emoji of it to their profile names to signal their allegiances. Today, people on both sides of the political divide have staked ownership to the national flag, both sides have it in their display names — tokenistic, perhaps, but a reminder that the tricolour belongs to us all.

Cumulative effect

Every morning, a notice detailing the time, venue, and nature of protests happening across India circulates on Instagram and Twitter for users to seek and spread. Just about anyone who attends makes it a point to post a photo of it on those platforms, preferably with a caption. This might seem like an empty gesture, but it has a cumulative effect.

I know plenty of people who are scared to go (a problem I fully understand because it is intimidating when you read reports of detentions and lathi charges). But every photo, every update posted by People Like Them pushes them a step closer to showing up in solidarity. FOMO, the fear of missing out, is in itself a great motivator.

And you have good samaritans offering to babysit first-time protesters or anyone going alone, or just handing out useful advice — from what to carry with you to how to deal with a police detention. It’s reached a point where even Facebook has sparked to life. People are returning to Facebook, posting diatribes, personal stories and anecdotes, their opinions, hoping to reach out to the silent fence-sitters.

Another recent trend is WhatsApp-wapsi. Thanks to manufactured forwards about imaginary events and aggressive family members, WhatsApp has become a cesspool of hate and bigotry. Young people have, in the past, made a big show of quitting their family groups with a highfalutin goodbye message, which they then post on their social media.

Today, the reverse is happening. They’re rejoining conversations with chachas and mamas, and posting detailed, fact-checked comebacks to them, with screenshots of it on their social media, which in turn empowers others to do the same.

Fighting disinformation

Fact-checking individuals and websites, AltNews primary among them, are helping fight disinformation through meticulous investigations of every casual or malicious rumour that pops up. As when the phone number circulated by BJP for people to register support for CAA morphed into a sex hotline, free Netflix account number (a rumour Netflix itself had to debunk), massage parlour number and more, getting it some well-earned ridicule.

Songs are being written, art created, poetry shared — anyone who can contribute in whatever way is doing it,even if it means having an exhausting conversation with the extended family.

On a more practical level, updates are posted and amplified on social media. Citizen videos have helped bring to light many details that could easily have been suppressed otherwise. SOS calls are routinely made by people to lawyers and doctors in case of medical emergencies or police detentions. Venue changes, police permissions, curfew impositions, all this information is accessible to anyone (as long as there’s Internet). Whether this effects any meaningful change remains uncertain, but hope, as ever, springs eternal — it’s a much-needed reminder that every voice matters, and long may it continue.

The author and freelance culture writer from New Delhi wishes he’d studied engineering instead.

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2020 11:17:55 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/web-of-resistance-the-online-machinery-behind-the-street-protests/article30584576.ece

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