From where I sit - The social and political network

November 10, 2011

Just as the media, in the shape of US news channel CNN, surprised the world with coverage of the First Iraq War, now it is social media's turn to astonish us.

This seems to have happened first when social media, to a vital extent, facilitated Barack Obama's election in 2008. Indians had never experienced anything analogous - until backers of septuagenarian anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare deployed the same tactics to galvanise support this year.

Given their enormous visibility and growing political and social impact, it is surprising that social media are rarely subjects of study in Indian universities.

Soon after Mr Hazare began a fast in New Delhi in April, millions of tweets (such as "my politician is a thief") began to circulate to drum up support for his campaign. Simultaneously, the India Against Corruption website registered more than 1 million supporters.

Mr Hazare wanted to force the government to strengthen an anti-corruption bill, which he regarded as too weak. In August, he announced plans for an indefinite hunger strike, and was arrested before it began.

Support for Mr Hazare's fast-unto-death was expressed even more dramatically through social media. A Facebook campaign soon had 364,000 followers; thousands of protest videos were uploaded, and footage of Mr Hazare in jail was rated as the second-most viewed video on YouTube's Indian news and politics category in the month of his arrest.

Upon his release, Twitter users urged each other to congregate at protest venues and millions of text messages mentioning "Hazare" and "corruption" circulated daily. It is no wonder that a headline in The Hindu, a respected national newspaper, declared that "Anna Hazare rules Indian cyberspace". Shortly thereafter, a search on Google for Mr Hazare's name produced 29 million results. How much of this translated into support on the ground for the campaigner, who continued fasting for nearly two weeks, remains unclear. But thousands came out on the streets for his cause, pressurising the government, which agreed in principle to three of his key demands.

Elsewhere in South Asia, social media have been used for doing old things in new ways. The successful movement to reinstate Pakistan's Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in 2009, for instance, has been described as a case study of digital activism, where a range of tools from blogs to social networks were used to update people during the protest.

Less dramatic but just as successful is Nepal Unites - a movement that began on Facebook and now connects thousands of Nepalis worldwide. Through a Facebook appeal, volunteers arrived in July to remove political graffiti from Kathmandu's Bagmati Bridge, thus putting pressure on an indifferent Establishment that refuses to excise such sloganeering in public spaces.

In Indian higher education, social media have been integrated only into the syllabuses of media and communication courses, not those of political science programmes. "Doing sociology through media and other sources" is a component of the sociology undergraduate course at the University of Delhi, but it mentions films and literature, not the tools of protest that tech-savvy students use. I'm hoping for a Twitter protest: #teachtheteachers!

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