What is the scope of online activism in India vis a vis global movements?
Online activism is a fairly new and growing space in India. Apart from Change.org, there are organisations like Greenpeace and Amnesty that are pioneering in this field. At Change.org our focus is in building tools to enable individuals to bring about positive change. We believe that with the right tools, citizens can engage more actively in democracy.
Given the fast growing internet user-base in India (currently at over 120 million users), the scope of online tools to bring about social change is immense. As more people get used to the idea of online-campaigns the role of the internet in bringing about change will become more apparent.
What goes into the making of a successful online campaign?
The Internet enables easy mobilisation around an issue, there are different kinds of online campaigns, from the more organic campaign like the Pink Chaddi campaign, to the more strategic campaigns by Greenpeace.
Change.org helps individuals define their campaign in terms of two key areas — the demand (a clear, short statement of what needs to be changed), the target (the decision-maker who has the authority to make the change). We also encourage users to provide the email ids of the target(s), so that each signature reaches them via email, thus acting as a first point of engagement. We also find that a compelling image or video and a short description of why people should support the issue significantly helps in getting more signatures.
From there on every campaign has it’s own pathway. Some campaigns can be successful just with this — we have seen net-savvy decision-makers respond to a petition within 24 hours and take action. The show-cause notice issued by Ajay Maken to the Paralympic Committee Of India in the Paralympians case was an example of a minister taking immediate cognisance of an issue.
Other campaigns might need further steps to translate the public-pressure into something tangible for the decision-maker. Each campaign needs it’s own customised strategy after the issue is analysed and we provide support to key campaigns on the platform.
What is the yardstick to measure the success of a social change campaign on social media?
There’s no easy metric to answer this question. One could count all the social media campaigns that have taken place and then count the number of them that resulted in victory and get a ratio. However this is a very objective measurement in a space that can be quite subjective. For example, sometimes a campaign might just create branding around an issue. That in itself could be considered an impact.
Do you think social media promotes armchair activism?
Signing a petition is a first step of engagement that provides an avenue for an individual to support an issue. Many people may not have had any other way to express their support for an issue. This question commonly comes up and as someone who works in this space I think this question is akin to does email reduce face to face conversation — whatever the answer, we’re not going to see people stop using email as the benefits of the tool clearly outweigh any perceived negatives.
Do you think social media is changing the nature of activism in India?
Social media and the Internet in general have revolutionised the speed at which ideas spread. They are key for succesful large-scale mobilisation across geographic boundaries. I feel that the attempts of Governments across the world to block and limit the use of the Internet are testimony to the power of this space in challenging traditional power structures by giving every individual the opportunity to engage in democracy.
In your experience, how responsive are decision makers?
It depends on the decision-makers, we have seen district magistrates and key ministers respond in as little as 24-48 hours to a petition, we’ve also seen others who do not respond until there is an escalation of pressure. In India unlike in the Europe or the US, the system has not yet become very digital friendly. Many bureaucrats and ministers do not regularly check email. Nonetheless we have seen a lot of success when users have organised call-ins to decision-makers. This is an interesting way of showcasing public pressure.