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The internet, especially its various gateways to self-empowerment, has proven to be a boon for a country as diverse and socially stratified as India, but its work is far from done. Mallika Khanna investigates…

ILLUSTRATION BY POOJA SREENIVASAN

When Me Too hit India last October, it felt like something of an inevitability. Online spaces had been simmering since Nirbhaya, and hashtag activism around it felt like the logical conclusion to this online accumulation of rage. India’s #MeToo was the case study in the convergence of online and offline activism. Twitter handles of popular feminists shared DMs from victims who wanted their stories heard. Screenshots circulating online led to the formation of workplace committees to address harassment and of grievance circles where victims shared their stories in public spaces. It was one of those gargantuan moments in the history of feminism when a new medium for activism had finally started to show the extent of its power. As with every online campaign or movement that urban feminists have championed in the last decade, #MeToo was tainted by the blot of elitism. Domestic workers were underrepresented. Dalit women were underrepresented. Women in the farthest corners of rural India weren’t represented at all. This was, by no means, an inclusive movement. Those at the heart of it dismissed these critiques, claiming that it’s dangerous to invalidate a movement because it isn’t inclusive enough. A fair point. After all, the urban upper-middle-class women who were most empowered by Me Too had a lot to be angry about: street harassment; workplace sexism; the constant, leering threat of rape, regardless of privilege. And considering the much narrower exclusivity of feminist movements championed by this milieu before — think the Pink Chaddi campaign, Blank Noise, The Friday Convent — Me Too’s embrace of its own critics and criticism along the way did a lot to ‘visibilise’ marginalised people. In some ways, it felt like a real sign of progress. “I’ve never seen myself represented in pop culture,” North-Eastern activist Ngurang Reena, whose father, an MLA, was allegedly murdered in 2017, tells me. “Content on social media and streaming services definitely reaches the smaller parts of the country, but what’s the point if our voices aren’t heard?” Reena makes an important observation: selective outrage is not digital media’s only baggage. There’s also a huge issue with representation. It’s one thing to be an activist whose work is shunted to the sidelines of social media movements championed by the urban elite, it’s another to be all but erased from cultural productions that sell themselves on their ‘wokeness’. Think about the last time you saw someone from the North-East featured in a Netflix show or a YouTube video. Or someone from the Dalit community. Or an adivasi woman. Or someone non-Hindu. Do they have interior lives? Do they have hobbies? Do they live beyond their stereotypical identities? If they do show up, they become symbols for their communities’ larger struggles. Think of AIB’s use of women in its videos as tokens for the broad banner of ‘women’s struggles’, and you get a taste of how marginalised representation is used for wokeness points by content creators. So you have Four More Shots Please! (2019), with its militant yet determinedly upper-class feminism, or Sacred Games (2018) with a transgender woman played by a cisgender actor. You have Delhi Crime (2019) glorifying a police force that systematically defanged protestors who pushed back against India’s rape culture in 2012. You have content that pulls from and benefits off of the outrage around marginalisation, but refuses to let marginalised creators actually have a voice in their own representation. Is it the responsibility of mainstream activists to amplify the voices of the less privileged? Is it not the responsibility of content creators to do more? Why has the ecosystem of digital media forced us to confront these questions with such urgency?

The thing that makes digital media a particularly tricky world is its facade of inclusivity…there is a danger in buying into this seeming democratisation of virtual movements and platforms.

The thing that makes digital media a particularly tricky world is its facade of inclusivity. The defining marker of this self-perpetuating ecosystem of content creation, proliferation, critique and community is its direct-to-audience model. This unfiltered space, free from mediation from an external body, creates a new form of political participation that allows people to tell their stories without relying on mainstream outlets.

Yet, there is a danger in buying into this seeming democratisation of virtual movements and platforms. A few prominent marginalised voices here and there trick us into believing that their visibilisation has translated into equitable real-world impact. Ultimately, the stories that gain the most traction are the ones told by those who already have power — online or offline. Hierarchies don’t disappear on screen, and this is echoed when we see how viral stories tend only to be picked up by traditional media when bolstered by a prominent mainstream voice. It would do us good to remember that the ‘mainstreamisation’ of marginalised voices is still centred on support from popular Twitter handles, content creators and directors at the helm of new webseries and made-to-stream films.

There’s another big misconception at the heart of the inclusivity facade: that everyone has access to digital media. For a lot of Indians, internet access is simply not a reality. For many who can get online, a lack of literacy prevents them from using digital media. And since a large part of India’s internet usage is in English, with Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi and Bengali dominating the remaining spaces, linguistic barriers play a huge role in limiting access as well. In this environment, hashtag activism and inclusive representation online do very little to empower or inform people.

What drives optimism about digital media’s potential to become more inclusive is the sheer diversity of content available. Unlike traditional media, the online world offers unlimited space for new content and platforms to pop up. This is exciting. It means that for the people least represented in the mainstream, alternate networks of resistance, solidarity and, indeed, entertainment can develop.

Movietonne, an OTT (over-the-top) platform launched in August 2018, is a great example of the kinds of hyperlocal content the digital space can champion. An Assamese movie streaming platform, Movietonne digitised old Assamese movies while offering patronage to young film-makers and helping them reach a larger regional audience. Similarly, Rainbow (2018), Goa’s first home-grown web series, is available to stream for free on YouTube, and has reached a Konkani-speaking audience that numbers over 60,000. Hoichoi, an on-demand streaming platform launched in 2017, provides content exclusively in Bengali. And as demand grows, more and more nationwide OTT platforms like Voot, Zee5 and Alt Balaji are bringing in regional content to cater exclusively to linguistic minorities.

Social media offers a different model of community development: Twitter handles like @DalitWomenFight and blogs like adivasiresurgence.com enable marginalised groups to rally around community leaders and gain more exposure to the everyday ways in which microaggressions against their communities perpetuate. Platforms like ShareChat, India’s first home-grown social media platform, which operates in 14 local languages, allow people from the same linguistic group to speak to each other. This visibility allows them to feel like part of a larger network, to have their experience of the world — not just their struggles or marginalisation — validated.

GirlsFeed (2019), a web series produced by BuzzFeed India, is a case study in the way mainstream digital media outlets can use these intra-community networks to publicise disempowered perspectives. In each episode of the six-episode series, a group of women from different backgrounds discuss the experience of being a woman in India, touching on dating apps, the representation of women in Bollywood, internalised misogyny and marriage culture. It’s an insightful look into problematic aspects of womanhood that are constantly normalised and reinforced, but what makes it radical is its determined inclusion of perspectives across the spectrum of class, caste, geography, sexuality and even gender (both trans and cis women are on the panels). Writer Sonia Thomas and line producer Aniket Chitnawis explain why bringing in diverse points of view was so important to the project: “Tokenisation happens when you include people solely because they are from marginalised communities. For GirlsFeed, we wanted to make sure that no one was there just to represent their minority group’s struggles. We were talking about things like our love for Shah Rukh Khan or our experiences with a dating app, and we each have different experiences with these things because of our backgrounds, and we all had an equal space in which we could share our feelings.”

Maybe that’s the best that mainstream content creators and platforms on digital media can do: give a space to underrepresented groups to develop and share their own work by bringing them onto production teams, reading their work as a whole, and considering their perspectives outside of their specific form of oppression.

Like Thomas puts it, “maybe it’s time to recognise that not all content needs to be for everyone”. As India’s digital space becomes more and more dominated by local languages, hyperlocalisation is an inevitability. Platforms that engage with this phenomenon by offering more local content will gain ground as new consumers who are no longer limited by language and a lack of relatability enter the arena. Those that insist on catering only to the global Indian, who belongs to the upper-class urban elite, will gradually be relegated to only a very small sliver of consumers. It is, ultimately, in everyone’s best interest to acknowledge and patronise marginalised and underrepresented groups on digital media, because, as TikTok, Hoichoi and ShareChat have shown us, there’s an entire world of content and community buzzing at the margins.