The tarred roads and dusty footpaths near Jantar Mantar have fallen silent. The iconic ‘protest’ site in Delhi can no longer host demonstrations. The National Green Tribunal last month directed the Delhi government to stop all protests and assembly of people near the site, citing reasons such as violation of environmental laws.
Perhaps forseeing such a future when traditional protest sites wouldn’t be available to them any more, activists started branching out to alternate mediums like the Internet to make their voices heard. And with its massive reach, the Web has today become the go-to choice for protests of all kinds. In the past, any kind of protest involved meticulous planning and timely gathering of people ready to canvass on streets. It required printing pamphlets, painting banners and distributing them door to door, and shouting till you were hoarse. All this and more can now be achieved with a click. And the increasing number of online petitions are proof of the growing popularity of the medium.
After all, the Internet is a tool that any citizen can use to mobilise support around any issue he or she cares about. “A petition helps activists demonstrate to the media and decision-makers that the issue they have raised needs attention and allows them to put public pressure on decision-makers to take action,” says Nida Hasan, campaigns director, Change.org, India’s largest online platform for social change. All you need to do to start an appeal on Change.org is create an account, log in, publish your protest and seek support for it on the Web and social media. Some of the most iconic campaigns on the site have been those with powerful personal stories and with definite timelines in which action needed to be taken. “The support on a petition could help convince a decision-maker that the issue should become a priority because of the number of people it affects,” Hasan says. Every month, an average of 1,400 petitions are published on Change.org, India.
Then there are portals like Avaaz, Jhatkaa, GetCloser and BitGiving. These platforms provide space for e-protests by raising an issue, spreading awareness, generating opinion and, in some cases, collecting funds. From electricity solutions to education, the range of petitions on these sites vary widely. While Jhatkaa and BitGiving are India-specific e-protest portals, Avaaz and Change.org are global platforms. As per We Are Social, a global conversation agency that provides social media marketing and communications services to organisations, 55 million new social media users signed up on social media sites in India in 2016. On an average, a user spends nearly 4.5 hours a day on the Internet, of which two hours maybe spent on social media, it said.
Different petitioners use different strategies. The most common one is to reach out to decision-makers and the target audience through social media platforms. The more people talk about the petition, the more support it will gather. Petitioners can even reach out to the media or physically submit the petition to the authorities after getting support online. “The rise of online petitions is proof of how online activism is creating conversation. We are living in a world where everyone is connected… now, it’s being used to create tangible impact and that’s phenomenal,” says Ishita Anand, CEO, BitGiving. On BitGiving, you can create a campaign page, where people can not only support your petition by donating money, they can also engage and take action in a collaborative way by spreading the word. Every campaign request at BitGiving, which receives around 100 per month, has to match the pre-set criteria.
Once a campaign is submitted, it goes for approval and a diligent check before getting published. People who don’t provide sufficient information are asked for more clarity before their campaign can go live. Though these platforms are available for everyone, it’s only after proper scrutiny that most of them get uploaded online. “There’s a KYC process for campaigners. A campaign ‘buddy’ is assigned to them who helps them campaign and raise funds for the project. Once a campaign is over, the campaigner can keep posting updates on their campaign page, which is kept open for engagement,” says Anand of BitGiving. At Change.org, users can flag any petition they feel misrepresents facts. “The policy team immediately assesses the petition and takes action,” Hasan says.
Not just protests, the Internet is also being used for other social causes like donations. Moving around with a donation box is passé now. There are sites that help you raise money for those who need it. Take, for instance, Ketto.org. Founded in 2012 by actor Kunal Kapoor, finance professional Varun Sheth and tech analyst Zaheer Adenwala, it’s a platform that connects people with money to those who need it. “The world has become a global village thanks to the Internet. Today, social media is the ultimate in disruptive technology. It’s the best channel to reach out to people as we can easily set the target audience and the message goes loud and clear,” says Sheth.
Around 50,000 people have used Ketto till date to donate for various causes, ranging from funding the treatment of a cancer patient (Rs 38 lakh) to building a cultural centre in Leh (Rs 3.8 lakh). Before approving a campaign, a background check of the campaigner is carried out. “In case of medical campaigns, the case is verified with the hospital first,” says Sheth.