Centre for Internet & Society

Can we change the world with the click of a mouse? Or is it just another feel-good phenomenon? The writer explores the growing penchant for online petitions and desktop activism.

The article by Divya Gandhi was published in the Hindu on October 3, 2015. Pranesh Prakash was quoted.

“I am a female journalist and Kumudam’s history of objectifying and judging women sickens me,” writes reporter Kavitha Muralidharan in a no-holds-barred petition on change.org. Tamil magazine Kumudam, which last week published pictures of women in leggings describing them as “vulgar”, must apologise, she said. The apology didn’t come, but on last count the letter to Kumudam’s editor had galvanised over 20,000 signatures and, at least in part, the petition’s aim — to flag sexism in the media — had been met.

Online activism forums such as change.org, jhatkaa.org, avaaz.org or bitgiving.com have turned the Net into a vibrant space for debate, influencing public opinion and, to varying degrees, catalysing change.

Slacktivism — if we must call it that — has existed a while and cannot be dismissed, says Policy Director at the Centre for Internet and Society, Pranesh Prakash. “We can’t underestimate the power of the collective, the power of the word in influencing public opinion and policy.”

Take, for instance, the three-minute ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’ video promoted by Jhatkaa where artist Sofia Ashraf raps about Unilever’s flouting of environmental and safety norms at its thermometer unit in Kodaikanal. The video was watched over 3,00,000 times in its first 48 hours, and a parallel online petition, which asks the company to clean up its “toxic mess” got 91,054 signatures.

No, Unilever has not formally committed to ‘clean up its mess’ yet but what the campaign did was to create public pressure on the company to engage with the mainstream media, says Nityanand Jayaram, an environmental activist who has worked on the Kodaikanal case since 2001. “We had 14 years of invisible hard work behind us. That shroud of invisibility was removed with one social media campaign.”

“Most petitions I can think of have been accompanied by actions on the ground as well,” says Kavita Krishnan, Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association. “For instance, if an online petition that says arrest those threatening John Dayal gets 6,000 signatures in 48 hours, these are 6,000 people across the country. I cannot collect them on a Delhi street within 48 hours. It is not that these people would not join a demonstration if they could, but there is no real difference between their having attended a demonstration and their having signed that petition. There are other issues for which you need sustained action or quiet, behind-the-scenes work, but in terms of protests, I think online petitions are very effective.”

How do the views and shares and signatures turn into yardsticks to measure the success of a campaign? In the case of BitGiving, virality translates into crowdfunding. Among its success stories, it counts a campaign to help send India’s ice hockey team, which got no government support, to the Ice Hockey Championship Cup of Asia this year. The campaign came alive on social media, was highlighted in mainstream media, captured the interest of several high-profile funders, and managed to raise more money than the team needed for training, accommodation, airfare and equipment. Jhatkaa measures its campaigns by various criteria, says Deepa Gupta, Executive Director. “We track outcome, the number of people impacted… and we track media coverage.”

A quick scroll down some of these sites reflects the staggering range of subjects that has captured the urban imagination — from OROP to hyper-local issues (garbage in Bengaluru) or animal rights (the culling of stray dogs in Kerala). Just this past week on change.org, “#Khans4Kisaans” shouted out to Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir to “help the farmers dying in Bollywood’s backyard”; another called for the declassification of Netaji-related files; and a third protested the ban on beef.

So are these forums then turning the apathetic urbanite into a political animal, someone who takes a stance? “Yes and no,” says Prakash. “It really is about how much people get involved in the issue. Often we have citizen groups that form around issues offline, and we have seen very real action on the ground, say, cleaning a lake or even getting a road repaired.”

Gupta says that Jhatkaa’s baseline assumption is not that Indians are apolitical, but that there aren’t enough meaningful ways for them to participate in our democracy outside of elections. “As individuals who aren’t issue experts, many citizens feel powerless when it comes to affecting change on the issues that they care most about.”

She was perplexed, she says, at how difficult it can be for citizens to meaningfully engage with government institutions or corporations in a way that they are heard. “I knew the only way to build a nation-wide constituency of citizens who could take collective action would be if we mobilised people with the help of modern communications and social media.”

Ghousiya Sultana, a PhD student, agrees. She has signed several online petitions and believes that she is, in some small way, making a difference. “I want to feel like I fought a good fight.” On the other hand, corporate executive Anant Kumar says he doesn’t believe in this trend. He is concerned about transparency, how his donation might be used or misused, and he does not see how a letter with a few thousand signatures can have much of a bearing on issues.

But, as Krishnan says, “An online petition doesn’t work like an on-off switch that resolves an issue immediately. It is about whether you successfully shamed them in public. It is about sparking a dialogue.”

With inputs from Zara Khan

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