Digital Activism

Have the days of street activism gone?

Here is an example case study of women activism in India? Digital Activism Nirbhaya Gang Rape

What is the impact of digital media and cultural practices? The Nirbhaya – case has not changed the plight of women in India.

One of the most sucessgul campaign battle was fought online?

The Impact of digital visual culture theory practices on women activism. Not much has changed in 2020 in India when it comes to the safety of women. The women fought the most prolific battle on rape, took on politicians, challenged Hindutva and nationalism, but many women go without justice in India even today and suffer consequences.

nirbhaya digital culture political activism social media
Photo credit Ramesh Lalwani, Flickr , December 21, 2012


Submitted in 2015 to Birkbeck University Media & Journalism Department

This essay discusses activism and Indian protest movements. The vulnerability, risks and injury that women face in India after a series of gang rapes surfaced in the media.

One such was that of Delhi medical student Jyoti Singh Pandey on December 16, 2012 raped by a gang of six men (Gardiner and Kumar, 2012). This horrific sexual crime generated extensive media coverage around the globe. It manifested India as a backward, male dominated and chauvinistic society.

As a result of these developments women mobilized themselves to assume responsibility for their own empowerment. The Nirbhaya protest rape case, as it was called, is interesting as it illustrates how the technological advancement of protest movements in India can bring about social change.

As India undergoes a modernisation process, this case also suggests that, political discussions are happening increasingly within contemporary digital cultures. The political response, the activism and the media discussions have moved online to social media. This essay will analyse The Nirbhaya protest movement in a post-industrial society.

In his closing speech in 2013 Judge Khanna said “the convicts, in the most barbaric manner, pulled out her internal organs with their bare hands and caused her irreparable injuries (Graaf, 2013).”The 2012 rape case in Delhi resonated the message as being the worst city for the safety of women. There was an outpour of grief and pain on social media as it was so grotesque, individuals wanted to express their emotion and give vent to their collective feelings of outrage (Castells, 2009: 191). A protest march was organised in New Delhi. The Indian National Congress – the then ruling party and the apathy of the judiciary and police, failed to bring the perpetrators to justice.

The reasons for this misfortune could be explained by the corrupt nature of the Indian legal system. The emphasis on the Nirbhaya rape protest movement can be understood by examining eight aspects to show where the activism lies.

In each I will discuss the benefits and limitations to society. These are: Transmedia storytelling, Hacktivism, Mobile phones, Citizen Journalism, Collective Intelligence, Tactical Media technique, Rational Consensus v/s Expressive Relativism and Trolling. Finally in the conclusion I will weigh up these and suggest that overall, social change has increased significantly as a result of these processes and indeed they are the way forward.

Transmedia storytelling techniques

transmedia story telling on social media
Photo by Tracy Le Blanc on

The “politics of refusal” was led by the working class and academics in New Delhi. They joined together on social media and ranged from university students, hackers, anonymous groups, left-wing activists and women organisations.

They were protesting against gender violence and the colonial mind set of the state machinery. What India saw on social media were the dissenting voices of intellectual diversity and a highly skilled academic labour force. “Tons of protestors” had mobile phones and supported the solidarity movement on free digital communication technologies (Google, 2012).

 Nirbhaya case images of crowds demanding justice and the killing of a journalist by police tear gas went viral. A multitude of creative people and technologically competent individuals were articulating with mobile phones on social media. The Nirbhaya rape protest witnessed social interaction on social networking sites from within the protest movement. The hashtags #Jyoti Singh, #Nirbhaya rape case showed photos, videos and news as evidence of a contemporary activism culture in India. #India’s daughter, #gang rape became a global event. Candle lit marches were organised in Delhi, Kolkata, Salt Lake City and London.

The leaders of many groups coordinated through social media. After this incident, academic communist activist and secretary of All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) Kavita Krishnan joined Twitter.

This gave a whole new voice to the women’s movement because she collaborated with left wing activists (Krishnan, 2013). She took part in BBC’s controversial documentary, “India’s daughter”. She united programmers and technocrats who supported the campaign on Twitter. They then brought out their emancipatory potential in subversive and revolutionary ways on social media to create an awareness of women’s campaigns. They were able to overcome the barriers of legal, social and political restrictions. India is a country that upholds freedom of speech and communication.

Transmedia story telling digital cultuure
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The power of social media as a mass communication tool that can bring about the emancipation of women by highlighting rape case had started. In this way, social media was able to expose the tensions between modern India and feminist cultures. It had become apparent that the voice of the urban women could not be silenced. For Steigler and Castell there is a surface link between communication autonomy and social and political autonomy and they agree that mass communication can bring about social change (Castells, 2009: 414). Especially in this case study as it is in the interest of public good. The protest movements by women organisations like AIPWA and groups such as anti-rape campaigns can bring about the much needed social and cultural change in men’s attitudes towards women in India.

The protest movement accentuated historical buildings in New Delhi. The dramaturgical aspect of the protest was able to draw wider attention to the Indian population. Delhi gang rape protests were held outside the chief minister Sheila Dixit’s residence in New Delhi (Reuters, 2013), India Gate, Jantar Mantar, East Delhi Municipal Park and outside India’s Presidential Palace to mention a few.

Protest videos and debates can be seen at AIPWA’s website (Krishnan, 2013). Dramaturgical framing of the Nirbhaya protest movements made it powerful and prominent on television. The huge female population of India was galvanized by the capital city’s outcry of shaming this incident near government buildings. The Nirbhaya protest was symbolic as this protest changed the cultural significance and efficacy of the streets of New Delhi (Raley , 2009: 1).Images of the buildings are available to see on Google images by typing ‘tons of protestors’.


The proletariat labour force includes IT professionals. Hackers are IT professionals whose code of conduct arose from mistrust of the authorities.  The Nirbhaya protest witnessed vanguardism, cyberactivism and hacktivism thereby disrupting the Indian system.  What was seen during the protest was oppositionality by IT workers not by expression but by hacktivism. Coleman explained that they “make a spectacle” to uphold their belief of what is good and bad (Coleman, 2012: 100).  

hactivism Nirbhaya Rape Digital Culture
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The Nirbaya protest got publicity in the mainstream traditional media. According to Raley (2009), the hackers’ belief for spontaneous disruption and momentary evasion of protocol draws attention to political transformation (Raley , 2009: 27-27).

This message had a cumulative effect in innovative ways and attracted attention to the cause for rape cases in India (Raley , 2009: 24-25).  An example to illustrate that Hacktivism already exists in India.  Hacktivist group Anonymous removed the Delhi Police website in protest, urging authorities to bring the rapists to justice.

This was in reaction to the sense of social injustice and humiliation experienced due to the authorities shutting down roads and railway stations in New Delhi to halt the rally (RT, 2012). Indian police women clashed with protestors at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi.  Instead of cooperating with them to find the rapists, on the contrary the protestors were targeted in wintery conditions.

This appalled the protestors. Artists’ activists (hacktivists) gained access to the URL and disabled it. The dexterity of the Indian labour force to organise themselves online showed that they no longer relied on obsolete methods of insurrection to form ‘political vanguards.’ Instead they could rely on creativity and innovative ways in which the “plurality of resistance” manifested and impacted other cities in India (Raley , 2009: 10-11).

When the politicians tried to subdue the brutal gang rape incident in 2012 in New Delhi it amplified a national wave of outrage on social media. The fury of the public on Twitter, Facebook, You tube and What’s App forced the police, jury and politicians to take action (ICA, 2011-2014).

Mobile Phones

Blogspheres, weblogs and mobile phones were used by activists in India. (Scholz, 2008: 356).The rise of mobile phones has shaped the way of life of Indian people, politicians as well as activism processes .The use of mobile phones, cheap internet access and free social media made the Nirbhaya protest movement transnational. This was because the free flow information from the internet and overcame the hierarchal structure and obstacles of time and space of the traditional media (Cottle, 2006: 50). The digital culture in India and the use of mobile phones is rising (Scholz, 2008: 363).

mobile phones social media digital culture
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This phenomenon can be explained by a field study carried out by Lincoln, Kumar and Robards. Another example of digital advancement is the Indian elections in 2014 won by PM Narender Modi who used technology and social media campaigns. Politics and activism has moved online. The field study conducted in 2012 in New Delhi examined mobile media youth practises.

This case study is of relevance because it was done in the same year as the Nirbhaya rape case. The interviews were conducted in Hindi, the native language.  Furthermore, it identified active Facebook users. Each of the youth interviewed owned at least one mobile phone. It emerged that the mobile phone was the primary device for connecting to the internet. The interviews were also conducted on mobile phone retailers from a market in New Delhi. The survey revealed that it was easy to buy cheap handsets as there were ten shops within a mile radius (Lincoln, Kumar and Robards, 2014).  Therefore anybody in India with a mobile phone with internet connection and video cam could join in the conversation from different geo locations (Cottle, 2006: 49). This was exemplified in the Nirbhaya protest movement across India.

The rise in activism participation can be attributed to the technology itself as more people have internet and mobile phones. According to India’s telecom regulator, TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India 2013) there are over 875 million mobile-phone subscriptions as of October 2014. Out of which hundred million mobile users have full internet access. The remaining have limited mobile internet access to Facebook on low cost feature handsets or use mobile-data deals for Twitter and Google on 2G networks. These statistics show that the growth of networked media and participatory culture practises in India has led to digital engagements at the grassroots level. Facebook has created openings for social, cultural, economic political discourse and opportunities for diversity and democratization (Jenkins, Ford and Green, 2013).

Citizen Journalism

Jyoti died in Singapore’s Mount General Hospital. There was protest marches organised in Singapore. Research carried out on the 2012 New Delhi gang rape by computer science students in Singapore reveals that the common man or citizen journalism played a vital role in the dissemination of information and images.

Firstly, their research on digital libraries showed that individual users contributed to more than half of the digital content on the web. It also showed the advancements in technology in India in an online and offline social context. Their studies established that the common man of India is an active participator in and consumer of information.

The main “actors” who amplify the information are journalists, activists and ordinary citizens. In India, the common man has proven to be the most cost effective vehicle for information dissemination on Twitter. Secondly, the anti –gang rape protest in India in a country with the lowest Internet penetrations in the world had large social media users at 66 million – the same as the UK’s population. However, recent statistics show higher figures as mentioned earlier. Thirdly this protest movement put India’s IT sector in the spotlight.

Twitter was extensively used by the Indian public before during and after the protest thus transforming India’s public spheres into online digital engagement. The Nirbhaya protest movement attracted new emerging actors such as family, friends and new media sources.  Bollywood actors and prominent politicians with millions of followers were tweeting about it on their twitter feeds.

Twitter emerged as a powerful communications tool by streaming newsflashes, conversations, views, reactions and accurate news updates about the protest. It acted as a portal to reach out to their family and friends and to connect with activists to plan the next course of action. (Ahmed and Jaidka, 2013).  The citizens used video sharing sites such as You Tube.

Type in ‘Indian girls found hanged after gang rape’ and more than 100 videos can be viewed on You Tube. Although, the problem exists that the activists give away their content to corporate platforms in order to make a profit. In that sense lack of literature about transparency and privacy issues on the rules of social media is a global problem and India is not in isolation. The responsibility for the social design of the web remains with US corporate firms. On the one hand the corporate giants are feasting on India’s collective intelligence and on the other they are doing charity such as the Bill Gates Foundations (Scholz, 2008: 362).


Collective Intelligence

The Nirbhaya case has left a lasting legacy on urban Indian’s consciousness and many questions have been raised about gender based violence. India is a large country with a population dispersed in different geographic locations. The will to bring about change on women’s issues can happen when everyone owns up to the problem. Today, people realize that everyone has to play a part.   In this context collective intelligence is a powerful weapon for people to engage in political discussions. Indian people felt strongly about the Nirbhaya case. Online petition sites such as allow individuals to connect with non-profit organisations that support women’s causes (Scholz, 2008: 362). One petition “Stop Rape Now! “ started by a Journalist Namita Bhandare on asked for a judicial review – and lists immediate new legislative procedures cases that deal with crime against women.

This petition was signed by 392,192 people. It was sent with its recommendations to Justice Verma’s committee office. This is an example of how collective Intelligence combats cynicism against politicians and cultural resistance. This case study shows how an online petition can be a potent form of mass communication which brings about affected change (Kayle, 2013). This is the result of the cumulative and interactional effects of a widened sphere of contributors: that in effect if you assemble the contributions of more and more content creators (whether they add new content or simply comment on or mash up existing content) you end up with a more intelligent whole. This doesn’t override traditional media, but can be seen as an alternative source of media power.

Tactical Media techniques in the Nirbhaya case study

The landmark Nirbhaya rape protest can be used to analyse the concept of Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). “The temporary creations of narratives are set into play and critical thinking becomes possible (Raley , 2009: 6).” An example of CAE is the “Are you listening” campaign. Practitioners allow the artists to directly engage with the audiences.

The performances of the actors emulate rape harassment awareness and shift the burden through their presentation to the viewers in their memories. Tactical media use lucid methods to emphasise the message on the perception of the audience (Raley , 2009: 7).   Singh the president of the Democratic Youth Federation of India launched the “Are you listening” campaign against rape and trained activists to act in public buses.

The seven minute skit was acted in 54 buses (Dhillon , 2014). An example of both temporal (temporary) and protracted (spur of the moment) methods of tactical media were deployed in activism. This campaign used tactics over strategy the artists repeatedly managed to disrupt socio political and economic structures. In fact, the rape campaigns and the tactics have changed to bolder strategies.

Secondly, the activists in India no longer supported persuasive games that antagonised women’s organisations and women’s groups (Scholz, 2008: 4). In a post-industrial society, Japan lacked equality of gender in work places. Games such as Replay produced in Japan challenges the player to rape a woman. Critical arguments by protestors in India about this game emphasised that the repetitive action of the game had detrimental effects on children (Raley , 2009: 4).   It was asked to be banned at the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).  The Information Technology Ministry of India created the Computer Emergency Reaction Team (Cert-In) to tackle the problem of such games from finding their way into the Indian market (Ians, 2009). The mechanics of this suited the political parties as it started a discourse on digital humanities and neoliberal globalization.

Symbolic use of costumes and stunts all across India at the same time as the protest march in New Delhi in 2012 amplified the dissenting voice of the protestors. There were images of fury and rage with thousands of protestors clashing with the police. These “dramatic images” and “spectacular forms” of action were helped to spread by new technologies. Symbolic use of “costumes and stunts” to draw attention to this protest movement can be seen on the internet (Cottle, 2006: 49). Images of police, peaceful candle lit marches; placards with messages of grief are on Google images (Google Images, 2012). The purpose of these examples is to show the pliability of “collective action” in response to rape cases and that the use of fourth generation warfare (4GW) was already in use in India (Raley , 2009: 10-11).

Rational Consensus v/s Expressive Relativism

Habermaus argument is that one should not draw attention to oneself in a spectacular way; rather that one should simply make good arguments. The primary goal of the bourgeois public sphere was to make political and administrative decisions transparent (Hohendahl and Russian, 1974).

In contrast the post enlightened group argue for expressive relativism and do not accept the argument of one public sphere. Furthermore, the enlightened scholars argue that the message be taken to the public sphere in traditional forums by lobbying to the MP to tackle the question in the house of parliament (Lok Sabha).

Alternatively, politicians should use the channels of mainstream national media – otherwise there remains a threat of reducing a political campaign to a slogan and emptying it off any serious significance. This can be illustrated by an example of another alleged gang rape of a 16 year old girl who died subsequently. This incident was in the North of Kolkata.

The “cumulative effect” of incident based campaigns to engage in micro politics after the 2012 gang rape sparked media attention (Raley , 2009: 1). The provocation by the protestors led the tabloids to criticize PM Manmohan Singh of the Congress party for the failure of the government to protect women (Raley , 2009: 10).

The incident of another gang rape in 2013 and the police was accused of covering up the crime. Effigies representing the rapist were burned on the street. As a last minute political stunt to woo back the voters’ just before the 2014 general election was Rahul Gandhi’s campaign for women’s safety.  

His campaign drew attention to himself because it was too late or perhaps as it went too far. People were angry and remembered the treatment of the government in this case and other cases. ‘Identity management’ researchers show “how political elites are judged on their authenticity as on their competence (Zoonen, 2013).”  Activists of Indian National Congress party blocked traffic with their mouths covered with black bands but the event was politicized.

The passing of the legislation to double prison sentence for rapists by the Congress government did not save the sixteen year old girl’s life. Such horrific gang rape crimes attracted the attention of the influential Bollywood director and film maker Aparna Sen who expressed her shock (Das, 2014).  The women’s safety campaign message lost its potency because it seemed like a campaign just before the elections. The infamous protest organised by the Congress Party in trying to attract the sympathy of the voter became a visual spectacle. It failed to tackle the question of sexual abuse of Indian women and was dehumanising.

The underlying message was diminished, because of the lack of sensitivity by the Congress party political activists.

Furthermore, the police were blamed for taking bribes.


The phenomenal rise of female mobile phone users with internet connection to social media, coupled with women coming out to protest meant that women needed online protection.

Backlash from politicians, trolling, defamation cases and women targeted with hate speech on social media is not only a problem in India, but in the UK and the USA too.

In rape cases there should be “collective anonymity” in the real and virtual world. However, grievers live by no moral code. Their pranks and offensive behaviour on the internet can be a painful ordeal (Coleman, 2012: 111).

They were directed more towards subjugating the voices of women, or to mock them.  Cultural beliefs and set of linguistic practises are challenged against the “rude-boy behaviour” that exists on the internet (Coleman, 2012: 113). The recent media attention to rape cases meant that it may have created a space that allowed trolling.

Black Noise is a watchdog feminist activist group online. They curate the language around sexual violence on networking sites like Twitter.

By monitoring keywords on Twitter that mark euphemisms, diminutions, denials of responsibilities, and other distancing from accountability.

The organisation encourages participators to use the platform to “make safe city” pledges such as “I pledge to walk alone at night. The use of hashtag #Rejects marks the content with more metadata and provides instructions on the use of punctuation.  Black Noise confronts street harassment, known in India as “eve teasing” with social media campaigns coupled with live events.  This makes internet a safer place for women to talk about their experiences (Blacknoise, 2010).

Blank Noise has teamed up with Breakthrough a human rights organisation in joint Twitter campaigns. The use of dual hashtags recognize the branding strategies of both campaigns, #safecity and #ringthebell.  Blank Noise allows uploading of photographs with the 140 characters.  For example the #ineveraskforit campaign –was clearer than the  #eveteasing hashtag  – as women attached photographs of the clothing they were wearing when they felt victimized by street harassment.   Those garments were donated on hangers as a striking form of display media, to spur public conversation.  The neutrality and mundaneness of the garments shown to the public – offers additional evidence of the fact that the women were not instigators of the abuse.

To emphasize the dangers facing women who use public transport. India has female-only compartments in trains cars and bus stations, the group organised events for women to sit in general compartments (unisex) on buses and trains. 

In this event, participants were encouraged to use the hashtag #segregationnosolution in their Tweets. Breakthrough (Breakthrough India Facebook, 2008) also joined this campaign and signalled others to use this metadata naming convention. Both organisations perform hashtag activism and labour in retweeting content from feminist power users with large bases of followers such as @Kavita_Krishnan and @UN_Women on Twitter. The social web has become a vast platform for research as information gets distributed and redistributed. The curation of metadata that identifies persons, places, and things can help make a case to investigate and prosecute human rights abuses.

Breakthrough launched The Ring Bell initiative in 2008 for the safety of women. Neighbours ring doorbell to highlight the inaction of bystanders who perpetuate the cycle of violence on domestic abuse.  However, after the death of Jyoti Pandey – Nirbhaya rape case it improvised on the message and adapted new elements to emphasise the campaign. One million men, one million promises – a call to men and boys around the world to make tangible promises to promote women’s safety, such as “if a woman is waiting for an auto at night, I will help get her one.”  Twitter served as a venue for circulating some of the men’s promises.  The Indian culture of fear for a woman and Indian individualism does not just affect women but the whole strata of Indian society. The dialogue on social media has made it easier for Indian audiences to engage.

The Nirbhaya rape case it thought to have caused the demise of Tarun Tejpal, a top investigative journalist and editor-in-chief of Tehelka, a news magazine spearheading sting journalism in India. Tarun was accused of sexual assault following a party in Goa. The Goan police had arrested him on charges of rape after allegations were aired on social media.

During 2012, Ravi Srinivasan, a businessman from Puducherry, reportedly tweeted that a politician had amassed much wealth.

Despite the fact that he was not connected to any movements or indeed an activist himself, Ravi became the first Indian to be arrested for a tweet. He was charged under India’s Information Technology Act’s infamous Section 66A, and was arrested after the complaint. According to publications, his Twitter follower numbers increased from a mere 16 to over 2,200 in less than 48 hours and a day later he had managed to reach tens of millions of followers via television. Very quickly, Ravi became an icon for free speech in India with his face on every poster advocating online unrestricted speech.

These are just two cases illustrating the ‘Streisand effect’, which says that an attempt to suppress something online has the opposite effect – of publicising it (Wikipedia, n.d.). Twitter has become a powerful nucleus tool enabling the rapid development of these Streisand storms


This essay has tried to analyse protest movements that have moved online. I introduced many domains by giving examples and field studies to show that digital culture has moved online. The readings have supported the arguments to show part of what we are seeing in tactical media. The eight concepts were simple to understand however, the visual campaigns of the Nirbhaya movement have strengthened global connections.


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