I recently designed and chaired a 90 minutes session at the Digital Citizen Summit 2018 held on 1st and 2nd November at India International Center. Here is my session design along with the list of speakers, and their topics. Will share a detailed report soon.

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Internet and the citizen’s space, Access and politics

Session – 90 mins

By Sanjukta Basu

About a decade ago when the members of civil societies around the globe first learnt about the potential of internet as a democratic and free platform, they embraced it and celebrated it as one of the best tool of activism available to them against human rights violation. We all remember Egypt’s spring revolution in 2011 and what a wonderful role social media played in it.

However, just as it is true for most resources, access to this fascinating new medium remained more or less exclusively within the hands of the rich and powerful. They were the first one to gain access, and they have been increasingly gaining control of the internet, using and misusing it to suit their own agenda. Those at the bottom of the social pyramid and/or those who don’t fall in line, are either yet to fully gain access to internet or are struggling to use internet without letting their civil liberties attacked.

In the past decade, both the State and corporate have become heavily invested in internet as a medium of propaganda, and have abused it and controlled it to fit their agendas. In today’s neo-liberalized world the state no longer needs to push citizens to the market. It can gain absolute control of citizen’s life and monitor their behaviour by simply mining social media data. The same is with the corporate and advertising industry. Our social media profiles, personal details, demographics, likes and dislikes have all become data and these are being used to sell us products and services we may or may not need. Our lives are tools in the advertising industry.

As a result  internet has now become a highly competitive space with information that are sometimes dubious, hurtful and inflammatory. It has become increasingly difficult to use the medium for activism because the powers that be are continuously monitoring the internet and attacking any kind of opinion that doesn’t suit them. Civil liberties such as freedom of speech and expression are highly under attack, not only in India but across the globe.

In the proposed panel chaired by Sanjukta Basu, we would discuss some of the above issues. Below are the specific topics and speakers:

Topic: Free speech and gender trolling

There is a growing atmosphere of severe intolerance in the Indian internet space, cutting across political ideologies, with any and every form of free speech being attacked by a cyber troll army, particularly targeting women with strong opinions. Women journalists, sports stars, politicians and other popular personalities have been attacked for sharing their political and cultural views. From actor Swara Bhaskar to the Gurmehar Kaur to the young girl who committed suicide because her cyber chats were leaked and far right groups harassed her, women are paying a heavy price for their free speech on internet. Women with opinions is not easily acceptable in a patriarchal society, and she faces more backlash if her opinion run contrary to the popular opinions. How young Indian women cope with this e-bile? What are the various measures to handle it, which route is the best, the flight or fight? Anger or humour?

Speakers: Sanjukta Basu, Dyuti Sudipta

Sanjukta Basu (also chairing the panel) is a Writer, Photographer and  Political Analyst. One of the early user of internet and blogging, she received the TED Fellowship for her blogs. Currently she writes on gender, politics and marginalization with bylines in Firstpost, Daily O, Huffington Post, Outlook, The Wire, among others. She is part of Karwan E Mohabbat, a civil society collective led by activist Harsh Mander, and co-authored a book “Reconciliation”. Sanjukta has been a target of gender trolling and have been defamed on national TV for her opinions expressed on Twitter. Sanjukta has done BA, LLB from Delhi University, MA in Women and Gender Studies, and currently pursuing PhD in the same field.

Twitter – @Sanjukta

Dyuti Sudipta, gender rights researcher and activist. She works on feminist internet, gender, media, culture, space. Dyuti studied in Sociology from Miranda House and did her MA in Women’s Studies from TISS Mumbai.

Twitter handle @ladkidyutiful

Topic: Political parties, fake news and social media

Investigative journalist Swati Chaturvedi book “I am a Troll” reveals the dark secrets of the BJP IT cell, how a social media troll army is created to spread fake news, fear, hate and intimidation on social media. While the IT cell was created to target dissenting voices, it has now become a Frankenstein’s monster and the hate instilled by this body has started affecting it’s own ministers. The recent case of BJP leader and India’s Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj being trolled and abused by this same IT cell is a classic example. Other political parties too are not behind in this, as today most party’s have a dedicated team of social media volunteers helping build the narrative. The menace of fake news is spreading globally, and matters are worse in India owing to a largely illiterate, gullible and superstitious populace. In 2018 there has been several cases of violent mob lynching across the country caused by baseless WhatsApp rumours of child abduction and cow theft. Whatsapp is struggling hard to combat fake news spread by its platform. At one hand we have the benefits of internet penetration to the vast rural population as the government wants to build a Digital India on the other hand the lines between fake news real news is increasingly blurring causing real life violence. How will we move forward from here?

Speaker: Ankit Lal

Bio: Ankit Lal is a Social Media Strategist for Aam Aadmi Party. Also, trainer, consultant, campaign evangelist, researcher and an author of the book, India Social. He headed the social media strategy for AAP for three consecutive elections from 2013 to 2015. He is among India’s top 100 online influence makers according to Kred score ranking on Pinstorm (http://pinstorm.com/ii/#resident-individuals). His work has been talked about in detail in books like Swati Chaturvedi’s ‘I am a Troll’ and Shaili Chopra’s ‘The Big Connect’. Oxford University’s Reuter’s Institute for the Study of Journalism did a research paper titled – “Changing Paradigm: Social Media and political communication – A situation in Delhi” which talks about the work by his team in detail. In 2018 he also was part of panels on Social Media in Harvard Univeristy and the University of Michigan.

Twitter: @AnkitLal

Topic: Access to internet

A mere 10% of India has access to internet. Just as it is true for most resources, access to internet as a new resource remained more or less exclusively within the hands of the rich and powerful. They were the first one to gain access, and they have been increasingly gaining control of the internet while the digital gap increases. How can the rural population benefit from internet? How internet helps in democratization of media? Shubhranshu Choudhury’s Community Media platforms CGnet Swara, Adivasi Swara and Swashtya Swara and Institute for Rural Journalism and entrepreneurship is a case study on this. His work, which won him the Google Digital Activism Award 2014, is based upon the believe that if we democratize media and give a voice to the tribal youth in Maoist areas they would be less susceptible to pick up guns. He would speak more on this. (Link)

Speaker: Shubhranshu Choudhary

Bio: Shubhranshu Choudhary is a journalist and co-founder of CGnet Swara, world’s first Community Radio on mobile phone ( http://www.cgnetswara.org). He left his work as BBC South Asia Producer in 2004 to work on Democratization of Media in forests of Central tribal India where he grew up. He won Google Digital Activism award in 2014 after an international voting and was also named as one of 100 Leading Global Thinkers in 2014 by Foreign Policy magazine. He was chosen Young Business Leader by Boston Global Forum in 2015. He has recently developed Butloo radio which Indian PM has called for expansion to all over the country.

Topic: Internet and State Control

As per recent reports India saw the highest amount of internet shutdown in year 2017-2018. Rampant internet shutdowns are costing India billions of dollars in economy. Shutdowns are ordered in events of communal tensions, public discord and even to prevent cheating in exams. According to a tracker run by Software Law Freedom Centre, the total number of shutdowns have increased from 31 in 2016, to 79 in 2017. Just seven months into 2018, there have already been 93 internet shutdowns this year. (Source: Medianama) Most of these shutdowns have been in Kashmir with total 40% of the total shutdowns. For a state which is always on the boil, where every child grows up among guns and battles, what does internet mean for them, and how the frequent shutdowns impact their day to day lives? Does internet shutdown really help law and order and security situation? What is the rationale behind We would discuss with a Kashmiri development professional who’d speak from his situated realities, his experiences of having lived and worked in Kashmir.

Speaker: Ajaz Lone

Bio: Ajaz Lone has over ten years of experience of working as a development practitioner, with Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) as his core skill. His previous experiences include, working with organizations for youth & civil society engagement, entrepreneurship, agri-business development, climate change and risk mitigation, human rights and gender rights, technology for community engagement, livelihood and employment and public health. Ajaz has supervised the Kashmir division team in the preparation of State Human Development report for Jammu and Kashmir. As a development practitioner and as part of his voluntary service, he supported local orphanages as a career/education counselor, provide counseling to the conflict hit children. Ajaz has completed MA in Economics.

Twitter – @ajazlone

Twitter hashtags:

#InternetAndPolitics #InternetFreedom #GenderTrolling #InternetAndGender #AccessToInternet #FakeNews #DemocraticMedia #InternetForTribalYouth #InternetCommunityMedia #InternetRadio

Some photos from the session: