Social media: activism or amusement?
After the Taliban took over Kabul, social media users based in Nepal continued to post tirelessly on social media in solidarity with the citizens of Afghanistan. Nepalese feminists are particularly concerned about the misogyny that may now unfold there. When the Taliban controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, they had to wear the burqa, the requirement of a male “guardian” in public spaces, the work ban, the prohibition of higher education, the risk of sexual violence and forced marriages of young people. Fighter. Today the fall of Afghanistan has once again threatened the agency, autonomy and personality of the country’s women. As social media activists kick off this conversation, many Nepalese have asked: Why should we care?
The dynamic of any protest depends on people’s ability to identify with the idea of justice. In order for people to feel pity, injustice must be visible, even at the expense of discomfort. For example, to expose the cruelty of factory farming, PETA, an American animal rights organization, often uploads vivid videos of animal slaughter that explain how our food ends up on our plates. Another well-known example of this is the video that documented the death of George Floyd in the United States and was broadcast worldwide on social media. While the #BlackLivesMatter movement existed before Floyd’s death, the incident was noticed because it was filmed. The spread of this video turned all of us into virtual viewers. The footage of Derek Chauvin, a white police officer who kneeled over the throat of an unarmed black man until his death, caused the black community to forcibly flood the streets, not just in the US but worldwide.
In Nepal, too, a conversation about the discrimination against Madhesis arose after the worldwide protests. The hypocrisy of people who callously poked fun at the accents of the Madhesis but wrote #BlackLivesMatter in their tweets was challenged. Casteism, which is often equated with oriental racism, was brought into focus as a trickle-down effect. #DalitLivesMatter surfaced significantly with petitions on Nepalese social media. Today Chauvin is convicted of murder and manslaughter, and part of the credit goes to the social media users of Nepal who helped boost #BlackLivesMatter posts and increase the severity of the problem. A similar domino effect was also observed in the #MeToo movement, in which several victims of Hollywood elites such as Keven Spacey or Harvey Weinstein triggered the victims’ global culture of calling out on the Internet with their stories of harassment.
Social media can also be helpful in organizing political protests. One epitome of this is the Arab Spring, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt, which overthrew Arab presidents, kings and dictators from its Facebook and Twitter posts, which were spearheaded by tech-savvy activists. Social media helped organize protests, mobilize protesters, disseminate information, raise awareness and shape public opinion. In Egypt, the government tried to control the rapid political dynamism by turning off the internet and proving that the internet is never apolitical. Nepal also saw such social media-led organization and reporting of protests in the “Enough is Enough” protests during the initial lockdown. Frustrated with the government’s mismanagement related to Covid-19 and the corruption in the funds, Nepalese youth flooded the streets across Nepal. Facebook posts shaped the public consensus that we as Nepalese youth have had enough. Through a Facebook group under the same name, lay users encouraged each other to join the peaceful protests by posting the rules of social distancing and non-violence.
The latest lockdown resulted in an even further politicization of social media with the rise of Clubhouse, a real-time audio application that proved to be a forum for discussion on many political issues, including party politics. Jürgen Habermas, a German sociologist, theorizes the idea of a public sphere: a free and accessible forum for discussions about public life and politics that strengthens democracy and debate. In general, clubhouse and social media platforms serve as a virtual public sphere where people from all walks of life come together on a single platform to express their opinions on everything under the sun. This element of low-hassle, low-risk, wide-impact accessibility has enabled many to get involved on social media.
However, the accessibility of social media makes online activism inherently elitist and requires a device, a stable internet connection, and often English skills. The irony is that the poor and marginalized, whose identities are politicized, have no access to these resources. But the rich with unlimited access to social media and a higher contributing capacity are apolitical. For the middle class and elite of Kathmandu, social media generally has nothing beyond entertainment value. Social media must be free from arbitrary censorship, regulation, and hate speech to enable effective social media activism. Freedom of expression, a constitutional right, is constantly threatened in Nepal, where rappers and film critics have been arbitrarily arrested for defamation in the past.
In addition, social media companies are often not seen for what they are: big tech giants who shy away from their regulatory responsibilities. Facebook is said to have influenced the Trump and Brexit elections in the past in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data manipulation scandal. Whatsapp and Facebook are also notorious for fake news and insufficient regulation of hate speech. Even terrorist groups like IS use social media platforms to recruit, radicalize, spread propaganda and even organize attacks.
Social media activism, often perceived as pointless and mere white noise, has sparked and organized political revolutions that toppled years of dictatorships, gathered people to stand against racism and harassment, and made the government accountable. If your “activist” friend didn’t post on Facebook about the Taliban takeover, you might have got on with your life without worrying about the injustice the Afghans faced. So, as a resident of Kathmandu, you should share posts and express your opinion in order to raise awareness, initiate discussion and expand the reach of global protests. Sometimes that’s the least we can do.