Internauts, hashtags and knee jerk reactions
From splashes of dark ink on the walls echoing the sentiments of the bastions of the Left to street plays depicting transgression of stereotypical norms, university campuses in Delhi are a repository of ‘non-elite cultural politics’ . As I walk through Delhi University’s north campus I can still see the faded graffiti from last year’s Pinjra Tod (Break the cage) campaign against regressive rules in women’s hostels in universities across Delhi. What started as a Facebook campaign led to the institution of legal inquiry for gender discrimination by the Delhi Commission for Women. Following this the UGC directed all universities under its jurisdiction to undertake measures that fulfill the demands raised by Pinjra Tod. As a young student I witness this culture of student activism that refuses to recede into comfort of ignorance and apathy and take immense pride in being a part of it.
In this monsoon season when it’s raining intolerance in India a political environment in college campuses is often feared. A voice of dissent can easily make you a seditious goblin. Hence, it doesn’t come as a surprise anymore when I read about student activities and events being clamped down or graffitis erased because of their straightforwardness or “radical content” as seen recently in Delhi’s Ambedkar University. However in this day and age where the Internauts have taken to the liberal space of the internet to let out their political frustrations and uphold the much cherished democratic ethos it is rather naïve for the authorities to use these silencing tactics.
Youth taking to hashtag campaigns and political memes to win mass support and provoke a larger coverage of relevant issues is becoming a trend. It is probably the finest example of what the age of prosumption has in store for us. For instance, in 2009 the ‘Grass Mud Horse’ which became the Lolcat of Chinese political memes relied on clever euphemism to evade online censoring detectors. It ignited an online discussion on government censorship and free speech in China . While the Government took it down it was successful in creating a lexicon of phrases and puns that disguised strong counter narratives for censored terms, hence keeping the discourse alive.
A constructive yet boring article can hardly compete with a picture appropriated with a witty one liner created by a teenager probably for a giggle or an impressive ‘like’ count. This unconventional form satirical commentary are simple to understand unlike traditional ones that make you stroke your chin and appear cultured. Their entertaining pop culture references have an extreme potential to make politics accessible and draw more people into the process. While they win the battle of popularity , the true measure of their relevance is not based on this activity itself, but it’s outcome.
Hashtag campaigns and political memes that flood my dashboard feeds seem to have been reduced to mere astroturfing and knee jerk reactions doomed to exhaustion. While the Twitter bird chokes on an “outrage of the day”, I can’t help but wonder if the capitalist forces of the internet culture targeting the ‘like’ hungry tendencies of those hooked to the social networks have dumbed down the culture of student activism or public activism in general.
We can’t overlook that while we laugh at a political meme and share it as a joke, we’re also registering and spreading the underlying message . There are a good number of online campaigns using the same tools of satirical commentary on social beliefs in an attempt to change them, Pinjra Tod being one of them. But as I sign the next online petition I’m forwarded I’ll still wonder if it’s real political participation or mere illusion.
Photo Credit: Bhaswati Thakurta
Vani Shree is an undergraduate student who firmly believes in the importance of civic engagement in today’s society. She is a moderator with the Student Think Tank for India and a social science buff who will slip in political references in the most random conversations. She greatly enjoys reading and gets a charge out of debating. She’s currently pursuing an honors degree in Political Science at the University of Delhi.