We have all witnessed the glory of social media's impressive reign all across the world. Social media platforms are great at keeping us updated with not only the latest trends but even crucial news. Activism has truly benefited from this timeliness and the vast reach of some social media platforms. Although Twitter is essentially considered the go-to platform for quick news updates on the trending subjects around the world, Instagram has made its own worthy place as a portal to discuss ongoing political matters.
For most people, Instagram has long been the place where they go to escape from the stressors of the real world, including politics, to share daily highlights from their lives. But recently, that has changed. On 25th May 2020, when a 46-year-old African American man, George Floyd, was killed mercilessly during an arrest by Minneapolis policemen, the public was outraged. A graphic video recorded and shared by a bystander was largely circulated on social media that showed Floyd handcuffed and pinned to the ground by an officer's knee, dying shortly after. A large number of people took to the streets to protest against the police brutality in the demand for racial justice. Instagram became an increasingly political platform amid the Black Lives Matter protests across the United States. In fact, Instagram has become the platform for engaging conversations about social issues and how to combat it.
While Facebook remains a major platform for organizing events, Instagram in turn offers a more personal, culture focused sensibility. As Facebook has seen a stagnation in user activity, Instagram, which Facebook owns, has become the online space where comparatively younger people are more active and are eagerly interested in learning about world news. Instagram is huge not only with its creative image sharing feature but also with its highly interactive Stories feature, that alone has more than 500 million daily active users.
In December 2019, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed by the Parliament of India. According to the act, members of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities, basically non-Muslim refugees, who have come from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan till December 31, 2014, facing religious persecution will not be treated as illegal immigrants but given Indian citizenship. The amendment of this Act received sharp and harsh criticism from not only the Indian citizens but also from international bodies such as the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet. Civil rights groups immediately used the online sharing platform to explain the violation of secularism that this 'saffronisation' bought to the country.
It was then noticed how well messages reached the majority of the youth by simply sharing and reposting posts on Instagram. Protesters with an Instagram account could share their views in the forms of images, videos, artwork, textual matter. Several graphic illustrators and artists on Instagram have been sharing artwork, posters and comic strips slamming the government's decision to implement the Citizen Amendment Bill despite the persistent public uproar and criticism.
Soon, protests were organised across the country with large numbers of people turning up. Various Instagram handles updated daily information about protests in every corner of the country. Schedules of protest dates, locations and timings reached a sizable amount of people that turned up to the streets. Special accounts such as @caaprotests were made to update Instagram users specifically on the CAA - NRC and Shaheen Bagh protests.
Even though the massive reach and potential to create viral content on digital platforms is impressive, the need to maintain accuracy is a challenge on social media. Although, as mentioned in an article, social media expert and founder of a mobile storytelling platform called Pluc, Tameel Hussain, stated that content on Instagram played a major role in informing people about the protests and is considered quite a credible source, thanks to the platform’s fact-checking initiative to avoid misinformation or fake news from going viral.
Another case of police brutality in India, the inhumane custodial death of Jayaraj and his son Bennix in June, was brought to the public's attention when an IGTV video was largely shared by the medium’s users. The media scarcely reported such a grave death of citizens at the hands of the Tamil Nadu policemen, but the news gained momentum as this IGTV and other social media posts went viral, forcing the authorities to take due action.
When yet another concerning series of events occurred in the country on one night in the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in January this year, it was the #SOSJNU hashtag on Instagram that alerted students as well as media agencies, that a group of masked goons with iron rods entered the university campus and attacked students and teachers for being critical of the Central Government in concern with the latest CAA - NRC policies. Multiple chaotic videos of students being ruthlessly beaten with rods and harrowing images of their blood-soaked condition went viral, primarily due to the students sharing this content as it happened. Students stated that all times they had access to a smartphone and mobile internet, it allowed them to document the events live, express their views and in this case seek help.
"A friend who studies there recorded videos and shared pictures of the violence on her Instagram asking for help. I immediately shared the post and tagged as many people as possible," said a second-year student at Delhi University, Pooja Sharma in an article by Mint. This alerted the entire city of New Delhi within the hours of the violence, and the rest of India woke up to the news of this violence and infringement of human rights. Instagram accounts like @diary_of_jamian educated its followers on all the uprisings in the country that all citizens of the country should be aware of. They shared a clear and informative post on the recent Hathras rape case, which has currently been a topic of outrage amongst the people.
While social media as a tool for politics jumped into the spotlight with the way Twitter was used for the ‘Arab Spring’, as the platform of choice for students, Instagram has become the place to connect and support the protests. Instagram users can simply re-share posts that in a systematic matter end up forming a chain that reaches every other user. "It's not surprising that Instagram is becoming more political if you think about who's using it. It's generational. The past couple of years, the main people who have been protesting and organizing - millennials and Gen Z - they're on Instagram," Nicole Carty, an activist and organizer based in New York, told Recode.
While these major events have been brought to light by social media as well as media agencies, there are several topics that go unnoticed and unreported by the mainstream media. Instagram encompasses a substantial amount of news posts from activist accounts that cover many such grave issues in India that the mainstream media fails to. Accounts like @dalitdesk and @dalitcamera report injustice and atrocities against the Dalits that are often overlooked or repressed. They play a major role in bringing forth the prevalent casteist evils and discriminatory practices.
These accounts do show the potential for real, widespread mobilization with interactive, concise and yet informative posts. Instagram has remarkably proven to be a way to maintain the momentum of protests and keeps people consistently engaged, who might otherwise have dropped off from the movement. Even though it might be creating opportunities for performative allies, it's still majorly worth passing the significant messages along, which were otherwise comparatively delayed.