Prof. Sunil Kanta Behera**
The paper is an attempt to study the online participation behavior of youth in Assam in organizing social and political protests through social media. The series of protest demonstrations and rallies which took place in the middle of 2012 were preceded by cyber activism. This paper attempts to justify the fact that the street demonstrations and rallies gained momentum largely through social media. Therefore, this period can be regarded as the beginning of cyber activism in Assam, since such online activities in publicizing and organizing any collective action in the physical world was not seen in the past. Based on the data collected through onsite surveys, such online communities have considerably given rise to new forms of collective action such as on/offline social and political protest in Assam through social media by publicizing and organizing people where the predominance of the youths is distinctly visible. It is seen that there has been an increasing number of cyber activism among the online ‘Assamese’ youth communities which has apparently given raise to cyber-civil societies in urban areas. The predominance of youth in such protests is visible, since the use of social media has become a popular culture among the youths (Boyd, Danah 2007). About 17% of the Indian populations is between 15 and 24 and they are experiencing the changes brought about by the New Media technology (Anki Schwittay, 2011).
In examining the practices on social media, I focus primarily on “Facebook”, which is the most popular networking site in social media. Series of protests took place in the months of July, August and September, 2012 against unethical media practices; particularly the television media in Assam. Street protests against the insecurity of the women in Guwahati, the capital city of Assam, and against illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam gathered huge public support. A few youth groups from Assam organized themselves through social networking sites to stage street demonstrations, along with certain other political parties, NGOs and offline civil society groups.
The paper mainly studies the participation of youth in such protests and reflects on the case studies which can be regarded as the beginning of youth cyber activism that apparently gained momentum through social media in Assam.
Social media is very rapidly changing public discourse in society and setting trends and agendas in subjects that range from the environment and politics to technology and the entertainment industry. The potential of social media in mobilizing public opinion and organizing protests on issues social, political and environmental etc. cannot be underestimated considering their role in the popular uprising across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) against the authoritarian regimes.
The recent trends in youth activism in Assam have undergone a series of change. Cyber civil society groups were created in social media which received tremendous response from the youth. Issues pertaining to the social, political and environmental importance were discussed and in some instances these virtual groups have also stepped outside the cyberspace to participate in the street demonstrations and organized social events in the real world. The social media platform has largely influenced such participation’s by increasing the speed, reach and effectiveness of communication.
Cyber activism in Assam
On July 9, 2012 at around 9-10 P.M, a girl from Guwahati was molested by a group of men when she came out of a bar on busy GS Road in Guwahati. The incident was captured on camera by a reporter of a local news channel. The video went viral on internet and there was a state-wide and nation-wide outrage. The editor in chief of the local news channel uploaded the video of the molestation and faced wide criticism for uploading it on ‘YouTube’ (video sharing site). He was also criticized as to why reporters of the channel continued shooting that video instead of helping the girl. He later defended himself in social media and in various television and newspaper interviews by saying that the reporters recorded it to provide evidence to the police.
There was a series of protest on the 14th and 15th July in which many NGOs and civil society groups participated. Meanwhile, the youth from Assam were campaigning on the social networking site ‘Facebook’ against the incident. These online communities organized themselves on the social network site and mobilized themselves to protest on the streets on 15th July, 2012. The youth under the aegis of ‘Music and Peace’ and the ‘Facebook’ community gathered at the incident site on GS Road and took out a rally, observing a black dress code. They shouted slogans of “Soch Badlo Kapde Nahi” (change mindset not dress) and “respect woman”. Their march started from the very point where the shameful incident with the girl had taken place. A particular group of people held that the girl invited trouble to herself by wearing indecent dress which instigated the crime. Such comments offended the ‘Facebook’ community of the youth who came to the streets with their slogan “Soch Badlo Kapde Nahi” (Change mindset not dress).
This incident can be perhaps regarded as the beginning of cyber activism by the youth in Assam. The protest demonstrations on the streets got a huge offline response as well, while the online youth groups stepped out of the cyber world to physically participate in the same. The news was covered by the national media and renowned journalists and personalities from India as well as abroad commented in social media on the issue. The Chief Minister of Assam, Mr. Tarun Gogoi ordered probe and arrest of the culprits. The editor-in-chief of the local news channel concerned was also widely criticized in social media. He resigned on 17th July, 2012. The reporter of the news channel who was accused of instigating the mob in molesting the girl was taken in police custody for further investigations. The media, especially television news channel, was asked about ethics which have been to a great extend blinded by the TRP (television rating points). The electronic media faced criticism from the people for moral policing. In the meantime the photographs of the culprits were widely circulated on social media and within a short period all the culprits were arrested except the main accused. By then the ‘Facebook’ community had publicized his identification by uploading his photograph and the video, making it more difficult for him to remain untraced. Eventually the main accused was also arrested on 24th of July, 2012 from Varanasi.
After this episode the online youth community also organized protest demanding justice for Pritam Bhattacharjee, a young student from Guwahati University who was traveling to Delhi to pursue his doctorate and was killed on a train on 9th July 2012 by some miscreants in Bihar, who tried to loot him. His body was recovered near a railway station in Bhagalpur district of Bihar on July 15th 2012.
The online communities were mobilized on Facebook and eventually a protest march was organized on July 22nd, 2012 in Guwahati, demanding the arrest of the culprits. A good number of youth participated in the demonstration. The news was also carried by the national media and in due course the culprits were arrested.
A growing issue in the social media in Assam has been the illegal immigration of people from Bangladesh. Several Facebook communities have been formed in which members have actively participated in cyber activism against such immigration. Some of the communities have more than 3000 members and the number is increasing every day.
“STOP AND ERADICATE ILLEGAL BANGLADESHI IMMIGRATION”, is a popular group in Facebook among the Assamese communities. The community uses this platform to share news articles from newspapers in Assam regarding such immigration and share their comment on the political as well as the social repercussions. They also share their views and comments with each other. There is a strong sense of grievance among the people on illegal immigration from Bangladesh. This anger was also seen on the streets of Guwahati and several parts of Assam during many protest rallies under the aegis of different student body organizations. Thousands of young students from schools, colleges and universities who are perhaps the users of social media joined the demonstrations.
On 9th August, 2012 NESO (North East Students Organization), AASU (All Assam Students’ Union) and many other student bodies jointly organized a protest rally in Guwahati. They demanded update of the NRC( National Register of Citizen) and quick implementation of the core principles enshrined in the Assam Accord (1985), which was a Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) signed between representatives of the Government of India and the leaders of the Assam Movement in New Delhi on 15 August 1985. The accord brought an end to the Assam agitation and paved the way for the leaders of the agitation to form a political party and form a government in Assam soon after (Wikipedia).
Consequently on 31st August, 2012, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) took out protest rallies in Sivsagar district of Assam against illegal Bangladeshi migrants in the state.
On 6th September, 2012 NESO and AASU organized protest rally in Guwahati in which thousands of people participated.
On 15th September, 2012 the Bodo Students Union (ABSU) organized demonstration in Kokrajhar town in Assam which was supported by 26 other organizations and school and college students.
On 21st September, 2012 the All Assam Student’s Union (AASU) along with 25 other organizations representing various ethnic groups of the state took out protest marches across Assam, seeking urgent measures from the state government to detect and deport illegal Bangladeshis settled in the state. Students and youth activists joined hands with locals in Nogaon, Dhemaji, Golaghat and Bongaigaon districts and also in Mangaldoi and on Berpeta Road to intensify the ongoing stir against illegal migrants.
On 24th September, 2012, AASU (All Assam Students’ Union) from the Guwahati University wing organized protest rally which was joined by thousands of students in Guwahati.
Web content analysis along with the online questionnaire method was employed to carry out the study. Online requests were sent to the participating youths of Assam to answer the questionnaire. Computer assisted analysis was carried to analyze the data collected by online survey.
A probability sample was selected and screened to identify Internet users and recruited to participate in the online panel.
The most popular social networking site
It was found that Facebook is the most popular social networking sites among the youth of Assam. 87.67 % of the total respondents use Facebook for social networking.
Figure 1. Most popular social networking site among respondents
Organizing events on Facebook
19.18 % of the total participants always organize events on Facebook and meet each other in real and 52% organize events sometimes, whereas 31% of the participants never organize events on Facebook and do not meet in real.
Figure 2. Perception of respondents in organizing events on Facebook prior to meeting in real
Participation in discussions
35.62 % of the total respondents always participate in discussions at Facebook communities on various issues rather than personal issues, whereas 56% participate sometimes and 8.22 % of the respondents never participate in such discussions.
Figure 3. Perception of respondents regarding participation in discussions related to non-personal issues
Popular discussions on Facebook
86.30% of the participants take part in Facebook, their discussions related to social issues, 43.84% on political issues, 36.99% on environmental issues and 26.03% on personal issues whereas 2.74% take part in discussions on other issues.
Figure 4. Perception of respondents on issues of discussions on Facebook
The GS Road incident
57.53% of all the participants expressed their views in social media regarding the GS Road molestation incident which took place on 9th July 2012, whereas 42.47% did not express any view regarding the incident in social media.
Figure 5. Participation of respondents expressing views on social media on the GS Road incident
Role of social media in the GS road incident
73.97% of all the participants expressed their views regarding the Guwahati GS Road incident on Facebook, 2.74% on Twitter, 5.48% on other social media sites, whereas 17.81% did not use social media platform to express views.
Figure 6. Social media platform used by respondents to express views on the GS Road incident
Social media and activism
42.47 % of the participants strongly agree that social media is an effective platform for staging protest and gathering public support, whereas 53.42% partially agree and 4.11% don’t agree at all.
Figure 7. Perception of respondents on social media as an effective platform for staging protest and gathering public support
Impact of cyber activism in real world
39.99% of the participants strongly agree that protests in social media have led to effective consequences in the real world and 58.90% partially agree, whereas 5.48% don’t agree.
Figure 8. Perception of respondents on the effectiveness of cyber activism in real world
The popular social media for cyber activism
90.41% of participants stage protests on issues rather than personal on Facebook, 1.37% on Twitter and 5.48% in blogs, whereas 2.74% stage protest on other social media sites.
Figure 9. Perception of respondents on the use of popular social media platform for cyber activism
Raising issue on social media in Assam
45.21% of the participants believe that illegal Bangladeshi immigration is an issue of growing importance on the social media in Assam, 20.55% believe that insecurity of women is an important issue on the social media, 31.51% believe it is corruption whereas 2.74% believe there are other important issues.
Figure 10. Perception of respondents on raising issues on the social media of Assam
Participation in the real world
78.08% of the total participants agreed to participate in the protests in real world which are organized and publicized on the social media, whereas 21.92% did not agree.
Figure 11. Perception of respondents on participation in the real world protests organized and publicized in cyber world
The state of the Information and Communication Technology has brought about a transformation in the approach of activists and activism. Research is beginning to explore how activist groups across the world are using social media to facilitate public engagement and collective action. Internet has the potential to increase the speed, reach and effectiveness of activist-related communication as well as mobilization efforts, and as a result it has a positive impact on activism in general. In these protests, the social media tools provide a common platform for the people of Assam, especially the youths to raise concerns about issues pertaining to their interest in the cyber world and perhaps as a result of these cyber activities, protest demonstrations and huge rallies were also carried out in the real world. In these protests, the participation of the youth was particularly influenced by the social media, which was used to publicize, organize and create awareness among the people, particularly among the youths of Assam. It can be therefore regarded as the beginning of cyber activism in Assam. Such protests were not seen previously.
The urban and semi urban youths mainly participated in these protests in Assam since the use and access to internet is popular and pervasive among them. Facebook being the most popular social media among the youths has enabled the youth to share a common platform where users communicate, exchange and connect with each other. It is also seen that the users tend to publicize and organize events online and offline through the medium which indeed have revolutionized the modus operand of collective activities by increasing the effectiveness and speed of the intended communication by the particular media.
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