FWD: FWD: FWD: The e-war on terror

on Sunday, December 14, 2008

In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks on Mumbai, many citizens are feeling the need for community, and to do something. The December 3 rally at the Gateway was rife with slogans against politicians and calls for India to attack its enemies.
“Do we really believe that terrorist attacks can be prevented by citizens’ actions?’’ asks Shailesh Gandhi, who went from being a Mumbaibased RTI (right to information) activist to Central Information Commissioner in Delhi. Gandhi is convinced there’s no quick solution and that a citizen’s role is to improve the quality of governance. He says, “Every citizen has a stake in society. Normally we don’t recognise it, except for immediate concerns at maybe neighbourhood level, if that. We don’t bother whom the nation belongs to, except when there’s a cricket match.’’
Most Indians identify with a community in ethnic or religious terms, which is passive membership. Communities of choice, drawn together by a shared cause, are less common in urban middle-class culture.
Many are now seeking communities in the easiest place?online. Facebook groups have popped up like mushrooms in the monsoon. Some are discussing possible action, but others contain only news updates and opinions. Outraged emails are choking inboxes of those who haven’t set filters to delete anything with “FWD: Fwd: fw:’’ in the subject line. SMSes have been urging people to display symbols of mourning or forward a sarcastic joke until it reaches a certain politician.
Will all this frantic virtual activity amount to anything? Or is it just ‘slacktivism’, which lets people feel as though they’re making a difference without putting in much effort? Perhaps the most comforting thing about slacktivism is the heady illusion of effectiveness, as if thousands of mouse-clicks could clean up corruption, vanquish the enemy, feed starving families, or save polar bears from drowning in melting ice-caps. It does not require one to significantly alter a lifestyle that contributes to these problems, nor to take on the tedious task of making one’s government do specific things.
One volunteer notes with concern that his organisation’s website has 38 e-petitions on its campaigns page?a testimony to slacktivism’s growing popularity. However, e-petitions are ineffective, according to Barbara Mikkelson, who runs Snopes, one of the internet’s most trusted resources for debunking popular myths. Petitions usually fail as instruments of social change, she argues, because few even guarantee that anyone is collating the signatures and will deliver them to someone in a position to influence matters.
Nishank, a volunteer with the Association for India’s Development (AID), feels
e-petitions are at best a subset of public opinion, especially in India, where only about 5 per cent of people have internet access. He describes AID’s campaign to improve public transport in Gurgaon. The original plan was to get as many e-signatures as possible
and submit them to Haryana’s transport minister. But then, he says, volunteers decided to distribute pamphlets in different parts of Gurgaon and collect ink-on-paper signatures from people with no internet access who depended heavily on public transport. Mikkelson notes that paper petitions are more credible than virtual ones, because faking e-signatures is easy.
Mikkelson cautions that the more complex an issue, the more likely a petition will fail. Nishank underscores the need to be realistic. “Terrorism is a sensitive issue, whose solution requires expertise,’’ he points out. “When we talk of changing the system, we need to see where we stand, and how we can be instrumental at a pan-India level.’’
Gandhi emphasises that the problem is not just corrupt politicians, but also us and our inability to see the larger picture. “Why doesn’t it bother us that BMC schools are closing down? Why doesn’t it bother us that our government has downsized in the last 20 years, and a significant proportion of it is contract labour? What does it do to the quality of governance? Our political class is bad because we do not keep on questioning it.’’
The real work of improving one’s country is not exciting, but dull, Gandhi points out.
-Times News Network