Sunday, 10 June 2012

Reflections on Urban Protests, Public Engagement, Mainstream Media and Social Media

The lifeline of small, urban protests today, is the Press. From my observation, this seems to be a trend. I found this to be true of the Anonymous protest  in Bangalore (and  in other parts of the country like Kolatta, from my readings) as well. Please note that by virtue of this post being about urban protests, I am talking about the communication technology enabled Public and Protestor. Much of this post takes from the fresh experience at the Anonymous protest in Bangalore yesterday but it has evolved out of engagement with several other such events over a long time. It might make sense to read my previous post, before this one.
I’ll proceed by first setting a context.

The Aim of a protest is many fold and usually all of these reasons below, no matter what method is employed-
  1. Awareness to the general public of the cause
  2. Awareness that there is work being done on the cause
  3. Mobilising the public
  4. Effecting change at the policy level
Largely, it is Public Outreach work and Policy Work (Advocacy and Lobbying). Another way of looking at it is that there is work that happens at the Grassroots and other work that needs to happen with those in the Ivory Towers. Most organizations, formal or informal, work on the first three Aims, with a Grassroots engagement. Very few work at the Policy level. They are usually less well known, quieter in their methods, and involve more information than that which floats at the Grassroots.

“Let’s Bring the Change” rhetoric works in a few different ways. Sometimes it concentrates solely on the first three Aims, if it is an issue solvable by the common man. For example, “Let’s stop littering our surroundings.” Other issues cannot be solved by the common man, and so Mobilization becomes important only to show policy makers that there is now a democratic mandate for the change in request, such as, “Let’s remove fuel subsidies for businesses.” In this case, the first three Aims are optional to fulfill and if they are fulfilled, its only to reach the fourth. Other issues need a partnership of common people and policy makers, in which case the protest should ideally try to fulfill all four Aims. For example, “Let’s end caste discrimination at the work place” is an exhortation to employers, employees and the government to put in effective laws.

Now with regards to the first three Aims specifically, and the fourth one by trickle down, here are the Methods that concerned individuals use to realize their Aims.
  1. Connecting to the “man on the street” (which includes ALL types of people. At least a protestor would hope so. Ideally, the protestor should try connecting with the man he may not normally be able to interact with), by protesting in public
  2. Connecting to the man in the virtual armchair, by using social media
  3. Using mainstream media to be the one stone that gets both birds above (The man in the arm chair can also be the man on the street, but the assumption is that it need not happen the other way around, and thus it necessitates a public demonstration)
The problem with Method ‘a’ listed above is that, the man on the urban street usually only stares. Ive been involved as spectator, skeptic and participant at a number of social justice events and I have almost never seen people walking up to social workers, and asking for information. Social workers on the other hand will try and go to the people, by shouting slogans, holding placards with thought provoking statements or handing out flyers. Yet people are in a hurry and seem to feel comforted by the rationalisation that “There are some good people in the world. Their energy can offset my apathy” and leave. I can only once remember a passerby, who stopped to see what was up. Correspondingly, people who attend social justice events, are nearly always members of the organizing group, members of related invited organizations, and other regular faces involved in the cause in question. I cannot remember meeting a brother, sister, mother, friend or cousin, who wanted to “learn more” or “find out how they can support the cause.” Maybe it is not that we are apathetic, but that we are acurious.

The protest of yesterday, employed Method ‘b’ first, Method ‘a’ next and Method ‘c’ last (as do most protests that work with Web 2.0). At MG Park, protestors were looking around shiftily and someone suggested shouting slogans. It didn’t look like anyone was going to take the initiative, neither did it seem like anyone could think up a smart slogan. Besides, there is the futility of shouting at traffic to consider. And in the case of this protest, the masks were effectively muffling speech (not to mention vision and breathing as well). At FP though, there was slogan chanting. But the protest area in FP is flanked by wide borders of parking space, a line of trees and a footpath. Once you cut through all the thicket, you arrive at a high speed road, with the nearest traffic signal being about one kilometer away and so vehicles are whizzing past (which does not actually happen in other parts of the city where roads are bad, vehicles are too many, signals are frequent and traffic crawls). No man on the street heard the slogans or read the thought provoking placards. No unaware person was made aware, no uninitiated person was mobilized. It was a protest/ awareness drive that was self contained among those who are already aware. The hope of a TV channel or newspaper reporting it was really the only way any kind of un-aware person could become slightly aware. And perhaps this was the goal.

What happened during the public demonstration was really, only an exercise in pandering to the media. Protestors did not actually reach out to the man on street at all. Protestors came, they were photographed, they left/ got lost. Methods ‘b’ and ‘a’ were really an elaborate lay-up for the execution of Method ‘c.’ One consolation perhaps is that the masks prevented gloating. Had there not been masks, all the weary twenty would have wanted in on the frame.

Awareness of the cause, the work being done and mobilisation, was all communicated by the Method of the internet. The public protest was not to connect to the public directly, but was a show of strength so that the mainstream media, the intermediary (to use relevant jargon), the amplifier, would do the hard task of letting the non-web savy person know of the cause, the work being done on it and mobilise. To put it easily, all the first three Aims of a protest that I had listed above (and the fourth one as well, by extension), are being taken care of by the third Method of protest.

To further put this trend of small, urban protests in perspective, is that fact that internet penetration in India is currently onlyat 10.2%.

Does this b->a->c practise harm anything? Information is still getting out there, fulfilling all the three Grassroots Aims. People on the street also probably read the newspaper or watch the news on TV. So even if no one bothered to hand them a flyer, or they have not been part of the process online, they are still initiated into the awareness process. What initially targeted only 10.2% resulted in the rest of the connected populace being put in the loop. When more people are aware, the trickle starts flowing down and the fourth Aim of effecting public policy gets underway. This is even without the help of those who work with the Ivory Tower residents. All in all, it seems like a very effective way to get redressal to a cause. Especially when the man on street is also acurious.

And thus online or offline, high turn out or small turn out, if mainstream media covers it, a protestors work can be said to be “done” and a cause nearly accomplished. Shout slogans for the mic, raise placards for the camera, go home and wait for the evening bulletin. Do whatever you have to before the media arrives, to ensure that they do arrive. Breathe easy once they do. At least at the end of this, you Protestor, will have a link to post on your website. The next time you make a presentation to seek donations, you can use the line, “Several national dailies wrote about our struggle in xxxx to do xxxx. It was well covered by both television and print media.”

It thus seems that the quantum of protest does not matter in this form of urban protest. One does not need to protest long durations of time. One does not need to make a “large human chain.” One does not need to baptize five hundred new people into the fold. One only needs to get ten people together and the photographer will fill the frame with ten people (better if it is an aerial shot) and the reader of the newspaper will imagine that there were at least another hundred people packed behind those ten.

It is this argument that I would also like to claim as my response to the Reuters report that came out yesterday on the Reuters blog. The article seemed to poke fun at the grandiosness of the Anonymous movement and display it as lame, with the blog’s inverted commas, embedded links and second comments. While I am not an Anon nor do I wish to be one, I would like to prop up the argument that the protest was not about connecting with the people on MG Road, or about showing up in large numbers (which the article is taking for granted as markers of a real protest). The protest was an attention seeking stunt. This is Anonymous’ selling point. And this is exactly what they achieved. So the Reuters talk-down of the protest is really, so irrelevant to Anonymous. Those who did not attend or did not support the movement at all, may enjoy what they consider a barb to Anonymous but to them, it will bounce off with no mark (Also because there is no known horse to flag).

Is there a way protests around the world should change in their approach? Consider all the parties involved- the protestor, the public, the media, the state. Do share your views in the comment section on this post. 

No comments: