Centre for Internet & Society

Online activist groups are helping change perceptions about the internet generation, says Shweta Taneja, Time Out Bengaluru.

In May 2008, Anivar Aravind, a Bangalore-based software consultant, came up with a strategy to petition for the release of Binayak Sen, the human rights activist who had been jailed by the Chhattisgarh government exactly a year before, in May 2007. Sen, who is known for his efforts in defending the rights of tribal and underprivileged people, had been held for alleged unlawful activities, and the detention was declared in breach of international Amnesty laws. Aravind’s ploy, to hasten Sen’s release, was entirely based in the online sphere. He created the website www.binayeksen.net, where he sought to bring together different groups of people protesting against the arrest. “By that time, it had been a year since Sen had been in jail,” said the 26-year-old, “and activists had exhausted all strategies to no avail. The movement needed to be reintroduced imaginatively.”

The website, said Aravind, was a way of using the digital space and creating an information channel to reactivate people towards the cause of freeing Sen. The website’s team went on to populate pages on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, to call for nationwide protests on specific dates. “We even provided posters and updates on local protests to facilitate people getting together,” said Aravind. Two years after the activist’s arrest, the online movement had resulted in over 60 different protest events. Sixteen of these protests were held outside the country, observed by NRIs outside various Indian embassies. On May 25 this year, Sen was released on bail. “It was the combination of mobilisation of audiences on the web and taking that protest offline and onto the streets that worked,” reflected Aravind.

For Nishant Shah, director of research at the city’s Centre for Internet and Society, Aravind is one among a strain of online users who fall under the banner of “digital natives”. “People like Aravind, who claim to live within, on, through and by the internet and digital technologies are [called] digital natives,” explained Shah. “You might be connected online, but still not be a person whose crucial social, cultural, political and economic activities, as well as imaginations, are informed by new technologies.” 

In an attempt to unravel the concept, the CIS recently conducted an extensive research on the subject. “The available definitions of the term ‘digital native’ were simply based on age – children born after the ’80s, or young power-users of technology from a particular class-bracket,” explained Shah. But that was clearly not the case, realised Shah. To help with the study, CIS collaborated with The Knowledge Programme, led by the Humanist Institute for Development Cooperation, a Dutch organisation. The study aimed to examine the identity of digital natives and to understand the manner in which these natives had turned into “e-agents” of change, constantly finding new ways of engaging with different socio-cultural and political crises through digital technologies.

To explore concerns of such web usage in India, CIS recently conducted a workshop at Ranga Shankara, which involved school children, parents, teachers, activists and artists, before releasing a paper titled “Digital Natives with a Cause?” While the study attempts at busting the perception that digital users are a privileged, upper-class, English-speaking group of people who use the internet only for pleasure, it also helped subvert the idea of a generation that is believed to be largely disconnected from reality and lives in bubbles of social networks and online groups. “This new generation is not being taken seriously enough,” said Shah. 

CIS has now announced an international conference – to be held next year – that will invite scholars, academics, NGOs, practitioners, policy makers and activists to explore the various contexts occupied by digital natives. The plan also includes a book that will document various successful campaigns of the kind from across the globe. “The study is a first resource tool that hopes to help researchers and practitioners formulate projects that work on youth-technology relationships,” explained Shah.

The paper “Digital Natives with a Cause?” is available as a free download at www.cis-india.org. 

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