If your social media feeds look anything like mine, you have spent the last couple of weeks smiling, cheering, clapping, and crying at the sound of one name — Greta Thunberg. The 16-year-old from Sweden, who led a global strike to fight for futures, using social media to mobilise hundreds of thousands of children to walk out of their education institutions and demand that their climate futures be protected by negligent governments from callous corporations, has become the poster child of the power of social media. Her speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where she turned to a hall full of world leaders and shamed them for making her this global phenomenon — she, who only wanted to be a child, and grow up happy.
In many ways, Thunberg is the delivery of the promise that the worldwide web had made for us in the early 1990s — the promise that the power of the digital web will deliver a saviour. However, Thunberg herself refuses to be a saviour. Shrugging off all her social media fame and reputation, where she is celebrated as the voice of hope, she reproached us with unerring indignation: “You come to me for hope? How dare you?“
Thunberg inspires applause but she has also attracted equal amount of ire. She has been subjected to condescending dismissal, persistent silencing, structural intimidation, merciless critique, and malicious discrediting, just so that the status quo can be maintained.
Thunberg embodies the paradoxical pathos of our digital times — when she acts, she has millions of followers who stand behind her. After the moment of action has passed, when she gets attacked, there is little or no support to keep her safe.
It is a story all too familiar for those of us who have been studying campaigns and protests for change shaped by the digital networks. We are all there, our thumbs poised for action, every time a hashtag takes our fancy, but after the intensity has receded, and attention has shifted to other trends, we care very little for the state of our viral heroes and the backlash that they face.
As young changemakers have continually confessed, they need our support not during the intense life of their hashtag, but later. Once the counter-attacks, bullying, harassment, attempts at silencing, personal threats and legal intimidations start, that is when they are the most vulnerable. Despite this pattern, there are very few protections for these voices of change, and both social attitudes and digital regulations continue to demonise and chastise them for fighting for our collective rights and futures.
At a very local level, I saw this pattern unfold around the Instagram account @herdsceneand that has been a part of the #MeToo movement in India, this one focussing particularly on harassment and abuse in the art worlds in India. Like Raya Sarkar’s momentous list of sexual harassers in academia, @herdsceneand reports experiences of abuse and harassment on Instagram. Unlike Sarkar’s list, though, this account is run by an anonymous collective who uses the power of social web anonymity to protect themselves from the backlash, repercussions and harassment that these lists would inevitably incur.
However, digital anonymity is a fickle thing. As they are finding out, because Subodh Gupta, one of the most well-known known artists in India, has sued the account, seeking punitive damages of Rs 5 crore and removal of all allegations.
The #MeToo wave has subsided in India. The activists continue their work in fighting for safer worlds. Whether we stand up now for these activists who took the first step of change, or we let them implode under pressure, is a test for the future of digital activism. We need to stand by Thunberg and @herdsceneand, not only in the times of performative action and dramatic crises, but when they need us the most — when they are under attack. They fought for us, it is time for us to fight back with them.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bengaluru.