Maharashtra is worst hit with drought this year since 1972 as 13 out of 35 districts are facing acute shortage of water. The situation in Vidarbha and Marathwada is dire. People don’t have enough water to drink. Every village is not lucky enough to get water tankers on time. It won’t be long before we start hearing reports of cattle and even people dying due to lack of water.
This has created ripples in the urban areas of Maharashtra, such as Mumbai and Pune, especially in the digital arena. People have decided to show solidarity with the drought-hit region by not wasting water in the festival of Holi. They are urging other people to play ‘dry Holi’ through Facebook statuses, tweets and WhatsApp messages. Even celebrities have joined the chorus. This has generated a fair amount discussion about the issue on various social media forums and even off these platforms; and most of the people have agreed to the pledge of not wasting water.
But there are some dissenting voices too, who like to call this whole exercise tokenism. According to them, this digital activism farce is not going to change anything. It doesn’t take much efforts to post a comment or share or like a post (a post can be a text message, an image, a link to an article, a video, etc.) and most of these clicks are half-hearted. According to them, this is not activism, but slacktivism. (Read this New Yorker piece by celebrated author Malcolm Gladwell, which made this argument famous).
I disagree. Participants in digital activism are mostly students and young professionals. If they did not have an outlet like social media, what other options would they have? Rallies, protest marches, hunger strikes, public gatherings or distributing pamphlets on the railway platforms? How many of the participants could give either their time or efforts for such activities, balancing college or workplace commitments? Is it fair to expect them to become full-fledged activists? Social activists have their own commitments and resources and they are fighting their own battles somewhere else. But does that mean, we, normal citizens can’t play any role in changing our society?
Calling digital activism slacktivism is outright derogatory. Though it basically tries to ridicule netizens who participate in such campaigns as lazy, it also unconsciously assumes that digital sphere is a separate entity. Nathan Jurgenson terms this argument digital dualism (you can read his critique on digital dualism here). I am a staunch opponent of digital dualism, as it bifurcates digital and physical into two different worlds. It makes us believe that there is no interplay between the two, while I believe that they are enmeshed and affect each other’s behaviour.
People who participate in digital campaigns are not serious activists, but that does not mean they do not care about the society. They may not have studied the issues they are talking about thoroughly. Their solutions to the problems may be half-baked. But their intentions and the desire to do something meaningful is very genuine. And I believe, some of these very people are going to be tomorrow’s Medha Patkars, Arundhati Roys and Harsh Manders.
The major benefit of digital campaigns is that they create awareness about the issues they are espousing. The movement that emerged after Delhi Gang Rape is a case in point. Now we are at a better understanding as a society as far as women rights, violence against women and sexism is concerned than before and internet played a major role in this. Even the dry Holi campaign will not give water to the people suffering from drought, but it has at least brought their plight in limelight. I consider it a valuable contribution to the cause. (Here is an article which lists five other functions new technology plays in activism).
Internet offers a lot of resources to study a particular issue. Everybody who likes a post on Facebook about saving water on Holi will not go and read about drought in Maharshtra in another tab, but there will be a small bunch of people who will. This small bunch mostly consists of people who are influencers and leaders in their own way, as they shape the opinions and lead the debates in their own circles. And I am banking on these people.