12/01/2021
HomeDRM ExclusiveOrganising On The Internet: Strategies and Notes On Virtual Protests

Organising On The Internet: Strategies and Notes On Virtual Protests

Illustrations by Aziza Ahmad

The process of online protest organising, while undeniably familiar to those who have organised during the pandemic, is also one that never stops feeling strange – perhaps because of the many contradictions present within the idea itself for Pakistani activists. For instance, while digital spaces have democratising qualities, they are also inaccessible to many; while they offer anonymity and protections, they also leave you open to various kinds of surveillance. And yet despite those inconsistencies and contradictions, many activists and community mobilisers have turned to virtual spaces for protest and solidarity time and again over the last decade or so.

As a digital campaigner and organiser from Karachi, I have found myself in political movements that are built on ideas met with hostility on the ground, or subject to targeted attacks and depoliticisation campaigns from state institutions. The labor required by these movements is not monetarily compensated, and the movements themselves struggle with funds. All this results in a deep rooted capacity problem – most organisers have full time jobs, which place restrictions on their politics and their time. And the movements that they invest in despite those restrictions, often struggle with garnering popular support or visibility, because of the many existential and capacity related obstacles they face. 

In the midst of these multiple constraints, online spaces become increasingly viable places for movement building. They can be accessed at any point, even from within the bounds of a full time job, and they can be accessed on terms that often offer anonymity. Usernames can be anonymised, spaces can be made private, alternative accounts can be created, information can be disseminated from accounts named after the movement itself, instead of a singular person. 

But perhaps most importantly, setting up a digital space for the purposes of mobilisation, for most activists, does not appear to require the investment of too much capital – monetary, social or otherwise. For instance, you do not have to print posters and press releases for a virtual protest; you do not have to procure a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the authorities to occupy space and mobilise on the internet; you do not have to rent speakers and megaphones, you do not have to book a space, pay for an expensive Careem ride, figure out security arrangements. You also do not have to beg legacy media representatives to show up and give your protest the ‘legitimacy’ of being ‘visibilised’ through reportage. 

And yet, your position and your privilege almost entirely determine whether these ‘advantages’ of virtual protest organising are accessible to you. The Inclusive Internet Index published by The Economist Intelligence Unit in 2021 covered 120 countries, and listed them in terms of access and inclusivity in internet availability. Pakistan ranked 90th. Weaknesses ranged from large gender gaps in access to internet and mobile networks, and low levels of digital literacy. This, coupled with the fact that the Pakistani state has repeatedly denied internet access to regions such as former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), parts of Balochistan and most of Gilgit Baltistan (GB), goes to show that the democratising qualities of virtual spaces are afforded to only a few.

Recent years have shown that anonymity and freedom of speech on the internet also have very real limits. From life threatening blasphemy allegations, to accusations of sedition, harassment from institutions such as the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in the form of defamation suits  weaponizing cybercrime laws to silence victims of gender based violence – activists on the internet have been subject to a violent surveillance and censorship in recent years. 

As a digital organizer, I have often found myself conflicted and alienated in these contradictions. And so, this is my attempt at putting together resources, questions and conundrums for Pakistani activists and organisers looking to use digital campaigning as an advocacy tool. In putting this toolkit together, I have drawn from my own experiences of organising with groups such as Aurat March, Karachi Bachao Tehreek and Radical Climate Justice, and closely following various other social justice campaigns primarily running on the internet. This toolkit is also informed through interviews with other activists, in an attempt to record their understanding of the gains and limits of the virtual protests they have organised. 

These notes, ideas and insights, however, are incomplete. Virtual spaces and the ways in which they are regulated constitute a social phenomena subject to continuous change and growth, perhaps rooted in the evolving nature of, both, the internet and the challenges of social justice. And in turn, as activists, our strategies and insights are also rapidly changing. This digital campaigning toolkit is an attempt at archiving some of what activists have learned, and some of what they are thinking about.

What is a Virtual Protest?

Virtual protests take place in online spaces – from Facebook, to Twitter, Instagram, Zoom calls, the past year has shown us the many faces a protest of this sort can take. The spatial structure of the platform on which the protest is taking place, has a huge effect on how it is visibilised and engaged with: who can ‘see’ it and who can participate in it. Sometimes, virtual protests are concentrated over a specific amount of time, but more often than not, they consist of larger advocacy campaigns that span months, sometimes years. 

While mobilising and organising these protests, it is often helpful to think of them in spatial terms – imagining virtual public squares, virtual marches, virtual picket lines. For instance, when organising a Twitter Storm, a campaigning strategy that requires participants to repeatedly use a hashtag over a concentrated span of time to draw attention to the issue it represents, it helps to think of hashtags as alternative public squares. When you click on a hashtag, you are taken to a page which shows you everyone who is participating in the protest, congregating around the issue that needs to be brought forth. You can also see the demands of the protest itself, and follow the protest in its entirety, by sustaining visual access to the hashtag. 

The goals of these forms of protest vary from cause to cause, but often, the larger goal is visibility oriented: amassing support; showing strength and numbers; building solidarities, networks and awareness; and sometimes even constituting an ‘event’, that can be reported in the news, bringing more visibility to the cause. The particular goals of each campaign determine its various components. 

For the purposes of this article, the components of a virtual protest will be grouped based on their specific utilities, which will be broadly categorised as: (A) Building narratives and networks; (B) Organizing resistance and protest; (C) Fundraising; (D) Testing.

A) BUILDING NARRATIVES AND NETWORKS

A good place to begin work on your campaign is constructing and disseminating the narrative it is premised on. Every political campaign draws on a narrative, a history, and context. A big part of campaigning on the internet is also telling the story that has been censored, the facts that are not reported in the media, the realities that have been erased.

i) BUILDING NARRATIVES

If you have decided to organise a digital campaign, a good first step is constructing a clear and accessible narrative around the cause that you are working on. Often, facts relating to the campaign are dispersed and presented in mediums such as news reports or tweets that do not always come with context. As an organiser, you have to fill the spaces between these facts with context, historicization, humanization and urgency. This is key to recruiting a supporter base, if your supporters do not understand the events surrounding the fight you are fighting, they will not be able to join the fight with you.

Once you have developed a narrative, you have to come up with effective ways of sharing it. Your messaging has to be clear and consistent, but it can also be creative. You can package your messaging in the following formats:

  1. Fact Sheets: A list with basic numbers and important details surrounding your campaign.
  2. Timelines: Dating the events and occurrences relevant to your campaign
  3. Press Releases: Updates regarding your campaign, put together specifically for journalists
  4. Testimonials: Recorded stories from the affectees and organisers central to the cause you are working on

But you can also get really creative with how you decide to familiarise your supporter base with the ideas and vocabularies surrounding your campaign. A great example of this is Aurat March’s A-Z of feminism campaign. Ideas and vocabulary surrounding a challenge of gender and the patriarchy are met with hostility, often because of the very successful disinformation campaigns that have been waged against the movement, but also because these ideas can sometimes feel very dense and inaccessible. Aurat March did a great job of breaking down those ideas and packaging them in an everyday vernacular. You can check out their campaign in full on their Instagram page.

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Once you have developed a narrative and figured out ways of sharing it, you will start getting supporters. This is a tricky point in the campaign, because you have to make the difficult decision of deciding what to do with the support you are getting and how to organise them in a way that is impactful. You can meet the supporters you have recruited, in person, but more often than not, organisers choose to make closed, virtual organising spaces.

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ii) VIRTUAL ORGANISING SPACES

Most virtual organising spaces exist on platforms such as Whatsapp, Facebook, Signal and Slack. The idea is to create a closed and secure space, that you can ‘add’ people to on your own terms. Often, multiple groups will be created for one campaign so that people can volunteer for different tasks and get organised accordingly.

For instance, you might have a group for core organisers – those who are able to devote the most amount of time to the campaign. You might also have a specific group to manage social media, another group for writing letters to government and officials and releasing statements, and yet another group to manage the logistical aspects of your campaign. The ways in which you choose to organise your supporters virtually is largely dependent on the nature of the campaign itself. Some campaigns might require you to gather data, while other campaigns might require you to develop a space that is responsible for safety and protection  – which becomes very important when organisers start getting subjected to hate campaigns in digital spaces.

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It is often difficult to ascertain how to regulate a closed virtual organising space. Given the security and privacy that such spaces require, due to the sensitivity of the discourse and decision making that they enable, how do you decide who to let in? Should every person who volunteers to help be added to these safe spaces? How do you ensure that those who are interested in volunteering will not compromise the safety of the group and its members? This decision becomes especially difficult when you are committed to a politics of inclusivity and accessibility, one that rejects gatekeeping; but you are also on the receiving end of an onslaught of threats and surveillance.

Something that can often help is adding new people to a group made specifically for volunteers, and after you have worked with them for some time, and gotten a better sense of their politics, you can add them to the main groups. However, there are no set rules for setting up a virtual organising space – the most you can do is collectively prioritise safety and collaboration for everyone involved.

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B) ORGANISING RESISTANCE AND PROTESTS

Once you have managed to construct a narrative for your campaign, built a network through its dissemination, and organised the supporters who have agreed to volunteer with you, the next step is figuring out how you can use your virtual presence to fulfill the specific goals you have set out for your campaign. Or in other words, now that you have the means and resources to organise a virtual protest, what will your protest look like and what will it consist of?

For Karachi Bachao Tehreek (KBT) – a grassroots movement fighting unlawful and unjust evictions and land theft in Karachi – the goal of the campaigners was to bring an end to the unlawful and inhuman demolitions taking place in working class neighborhoods across the city. While the lawyers of the movement fought to meet those goals on legal grounds, the social media team instrumentalized the group’s virtual presence and organised multiple campaigns to demand accountability and apply pressure on governing bodies. The campaign was able to use virtual protests to get organisers who were unlawfully detained, released, bring media attention to the World Bank’s involvement in the demolitions, frame the right to housing as a fundamental human right, expose the involvement of law enforcement agencies in land theft, amongst other things.

Perhaps most importantly, it was able to show other stakeholders that the movement had a public voice and immense support, and in the face of injustice, people would continue speaking out and asking questions. 

There are a number of ways of achieving this, from hand raisers: sign up pages that require people to add their name in support of an action, cause or a movement, like public petitions on platforms such as change.org, to Twitter storms and participation and action oriented campaigns.

TWITTER STORMS

A Twitter storm consists of a hashtag that multiple people use on Twitter over a concentrated amount of time, to draw attention to a specific issue. The idea is to make the issue ‘trend’, and ensure it gets maximum visibility. 

To organise a Twitter storm, you first have to come up with an effective hashtag. For a hashtag to be effective, it has to be short, punchy and appropriately descriptive. It can be as straightforward as #EndFemicide, the hashtag used to apply pressure on the government to pass the domestic violence bill, amongst other measures to fight violence against women in the country; or #AccountabilityForKarachi –  a hashtag used by Radical Climate Justice to demand accountability after the devastation caused by monsoon rain last summer. Or it can be a little more nuanced, such as #AffecteesNotEncroachers, the hashtag used by Karachi Bachao Tehreek to fight classist disinformation campaigns which deem all informal housing settlements to be ‘encroachments.’

Once you have locked down your hashtag, you have to ensure that people use it: in other words, you have to mobilise for your virtual protest. An effective way of ensuring this is by creating an online group specifically for the purposes of the Twitter storm. This group can be made on WhatsApp or Facebook – you want it to be as big as possible, so you get maximum participation. In the group description, you can add a document with all the information which can include the duration of the storm, the hashtag being used, the accounts that participants can tag for maximum impact, and a list of facts and informational points that participants can draw from for their tweets. Once the storm starts, you can ask the participants to engage with the hashtag by following it, clicking on it, and liking and retweeting the tweets that are using it, to ensure that the hashtag reaches more people who are thus encouraged to join the virtual protest.

ACTION ORIENTED CAMPAIGNS

One of the ways of building pressure and visibilising the support your campaign has accrued, is coming up with an action-oriented campaign.

These campaigns require participants to take some kind of action in their virtual space to publicly pledge support to the movement. A famous, yet unfortunate example of this is the action oriented campaign from 2020 which required supporters of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement to upload a plain black tile to their Instagram feeds to condemn police brutality and racial injustice in the United States. While the campaign garnered immense statistical support, it was heavily criticised by actual BLM organisers, because it ended up diluting their protest. The black tiles and hashtags on Instagram were being used to communicate information and get arrested activists help, but those details got drowned out as celebrities started posting these black tiles to their feeds. This resulted in the protest being dangerously co-opted.

Successful examples of action oriented campaigns include Aurat March’s #WhyIMarch campaign that required supporters to describe why the march was important to them, to the #MeToo movement. During the Karachi floods last year, Radical Climate Justice even organised a campaign encouraging participants to call and write to their local government representatives.

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It is prudent to mention here that virtual protests are often co-opted. From trolls and bots using your hashtag and action oriented campaign to spread disinformation, to authorities using the campaign for purposes of surveillance. To avoid this, you have to ensure that you are constantly managing your protest. From reporting accounts spreading disinformation, to keeping a constant stream of information and updates accessible for your participants.

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C) FUNDRAISING

Digital campaigns can be used to raise funds for other branches of the movement. For some digital campaigns, such as PK Mutual Aid, fundraising is the primary goal. GoFundMe pages, EasyPaisa transfers, and direct account transfers are the primary tools used for fundraising.

Fundraising is often viewed as depoliticised, ‘charity’ sector work in progressive spaces. Mostly because as a practice, it often allows people with privilege to feel like they have done their part in ‘doing good’ without fighting for any kind of meaningful structural change. But that does not change the fact that movements often need funds to get work done which are often required for legal aid, for bail support, for transport, for collecting data, organising on-ground protests, printing posters and pamphlets, amongst so many other things. And often, funds are also just necessary for the provision of immediate relief, to protect communities from food insecurity, illness and harm.

When you are organizing digital campaigns for fundraising, it is always a good idea to be as transparent as possible about what the funds will be used for, and to share updates when they are being used. This helps build trust, and your supporters are more likely to regularly donate to your cause once that trust has been established.

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D) TESTING

At every stage of the organising process, it is important to run ‘tests’ to ascertain the success of your campaign. If you had set out to draw in more volunteers, were you able to achieve that? If you had set out to get more media coverage, were you successful in that pursuit? Some campaigns have the capacity for formal testing like running analytics, analysing data, A/B testing – a process in which two components of a campaign are compared for effectiveness. But often, it is difficult to collect data and run numbers because organisers are already working at their maximum capacity alongside their full-time jobs. In those instances, it is important to have frequent collective conversations about what has and has not worked, which strategies have brought in more funds, which campaigns have helped recruit new volunteers, which ones have resulted in media coverage, and which ones have gotten the attention of government officials. Without data, these conversations can be difficult, and sometimes even result in conflict, but it is incredibly important to create room for disagreement, to acknowledge failure, and to be open to new ideas, for your campaign to be successful.

LIMITATIONS OF DIGITAL CAMPAIGNS

One of the many frustrations I faced when I first entered progressive political organising spaces in Pakistan, was the constant dismissal of digital organizing and campaigning work as ‘posting on social media’. Virtual campaigns were not considered to have the legitimacy of ‘mobilising on the ground’, or being ‘grassroots’, and those who organised in digital spaces were dismissed as ‘elitist’ or ‘out of touch’. Even movements like Aurat March, which not only had a considerable digital footprint, but also sizable street power, were not understood to possess the legitimacy of the feminist movements that preceded them. The potent digital discourse surrounding the feminism of Aurat March and collectives such as Girls at Dhabas, was also often dismissed as frivolous, and somehow not ‘political’ enough. 

This was particularly frustrating because many of us viewed our social media platforms as extensions of ourselves – the things we said online, the fights we fought, felt legitimate and important. And perhaps most importantly, we were able to be versions of ourselves in digital spaces that we had to keep hidden otherwise. Our digital spaces enabled friendships, solidarities, and the growth of our own personal politics. To have all this dismissed as not ‘political’ enough, is perhaps elitist in its own right. 

While social media has problems of access, other mediums of organising do too. Especially for organisers who are queer, trans or belong to a gender identity that is marginalised, there are serious limits placed on mobility, time and safety. Not only is transport expensive and inaccessible, most organisers also work full time jobs during the day, and are not allowed to stay out past a certain time, leaving them with very little time to show up for ‘mobilising on the ground.’ Digital spaces offer a solution – you can have conversations about strategy on WhatsApp, from your workplace. You can also tweet, write, post, talk, create from wherever you are. 

However, this ‘solution’ is premised on another type of access altogether: access to the internet and to devices that enable its usage; and access to the language and the aesthetics of these platforms – which have to be ‘learned’. That learning is predicated on a very particular type of privilege.

While social media can be a democratising space in certain ways, digital campaigns and virtual protests are often in conversation with people who already have disproportionate amounts of power. — Fizza Qureshi

And so it is important to ask, in being constructed on those terms, who do digital campaigns leave out? Who do they speak over? Who are they inaccessible to? In order to answer some of these questions for this toolkit, three activists who have been integral parts of three powerful and successful digital campaigns were asked about the gains and limits of their virtual protest.

Fizza Qureshi, an organiser with Karachi Bachao Tehreek (KBT), described how one of the most crucial successes of KBT’s digital campaign, had to do with how it was able to “access a segment of society that is socially conscious and woke but would not necessarily show up for working class issues.” This was really effective in her opinion because she says, “It makes a lot of difference if people from a particular class background are supporting your cause.” It enables coverage, and visibility that holds sway in terms of procuring justice, but to pull that off, Fizza says, you need to already have networks and resources. 

She also felt that KBT’s digital campaign was not ‘grassroots accessible’, and that most of the affectees of the evictions being fought, would not be able to engage with the content being produced in KBT’s digital spaces. In her opinion, this also had to do with the nature of the platforms being used, such as Twitter and Instagram, which she said, “are not working class platforms.”

Fizza further added that certain goals are better suited to digital campaigns, such as changing narratives – which she felt KBT managed to fulfill in important ways, like establishing the right to housing as a fundamental human right, and illustrating how ‘legality’, as a practice, is not necessarily neutral or fair. KBT’s digital organisers were able to read and breakdown court orders, making that information accessible to many. But that access continues to have very serious limitations. 

“It’s very complicated,” she concluded, “it is inaccessible but also accessible. While social media can be a democratising space in certain ways, digital campaigns and virtual protests are often in conversation with people who already have disproportionate amounts of power.”

This insight was further evidenced by my conversation with Zuneera Shah, one of the founders of Prints for Pandemic Relief – a digital campaign that managed to very successfully sell art to raise funds for marginalised communities who had their livelihood compromised because of the pandemic. She described how the main success of her campaign was the ‘rapid response feature’, which was enabled by its virtual nature. But she also felt that if she and the other organisers did not “speak the language of social media, in a way that appeals to people who have capital,” they might not have enjoyed the same success.

“Our campaign followed the charity model, and unfortunately the way the infrastructure of charity operates is that it only panders to people with capital and money,” she describes, adding, “our campaign wasn’t grassroots but it was able to support grassroots activities, because we were particular about the partners we picked to be grassroots beneficiaries.”

She also described how digital spaces offer the room for advocacy and campaigning outside of the NGO sector. This is important because the NGO sector often demands ‘a perfect cause and perfect beneficiary’, alienating a lot of communities who might not fall into those boxes. For Prints for Pandemic Relief, the organisers worked with trans sex workers and Ahmadi groups, and were able to take risks a lot of NGOs would not.  

Unfortunately the way the infrastructure of charity operates is that it only panders to people with capital and money. — Zuneera Shah

Atiya Abbas, an activist who helped run Aurat March Karachi’s digital campaigns – a movement that was similarly able to take risks in its digital spaces and expand feminist discourse beyond the NGO sector, described how the process of organising and creating for the campaigns brought so many people together. According to her, the digital medium enabled this, and allowed for a lot of collaboration and learning amongst folk who are not always able to participate and meet in person for organising purposes, because of the ways in which their bodies and mobilities are policed. Because of virtual spaces, they were able to put together campaigns that talked about what Atiya describes as, “feminism in a contextual way, contextual to the everyday practices of our life.” The campaigns had great engagement, and Atiya felt that the conversations that were started seeped into spaces beyond the digital.

However despite those successes, Atiya found digital organising spaces – specifically WhatsApp to be really limiting, in terms of meeting goals, being able to follow up on work and ensuring collective productivity. She also felt that despite the group’s efforts to be linguistically inclusive and accessible, it was often difficult to format text in Urdu on Twitter and Facebook, which spoke to the limits of any campaign organised on those platforms.

CONCLUSION

On a parting note, it is perhaps prudent to mention that the biggest limits on digital organising in Pakistan are placed by the state itself. A ‘Deep Analytics Report’ on ‘Anti State Trends’ in the country, published by the Digital Media Wing of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, is perhaps the most recent example of this. The report singles out grassroots movements fighting for the basic freedoms of their people, such as the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, and lists the account handles of those who have tweeted in its favor. The report does not consist of ‘deep analysis’ at all, it is instead a somewhat amateurish data dump – but what it does manage to do, is remind us that we are being watched, further compromising whatever limited sense of safety we might have felt in our virtual engagements. This, coupled with the other limitations that digital organising comes with: various limitations on access and inclusivity, burnouts – make digital organising an extremely exhausting practice.

Perhaps it is also useful to remind ourselves that digital organising is not a futile project, and labor invested towards it is not labor wasted.

In those moments, it is important to make space for rest; because that too is a radical act. But perhaps it is also useful to remind ourselves that digital organising is not a futile project, and labor invested towards it is not labor wasted. In the last decade and a half, digital organising has enabled resistance to a military dictatorship, the removal of a ban on YouTube, the creation of spaces for a powerful and vibrant feminist community, an effectice campaign for housing for all, amongst so many other achievements, proving itself to be an important tool for Pakistan’s progressive communities.

And while Fizza’s assertion, that despite social media’s democratising qualities, the campaigns and virtual protests organised on it are often singularly in conversation with those who have disproportionate amounts of power – holds true, it is perhaps also important to acknowledge that often, social media gives us the access and power to challenge and expose those with disproportionate amounts of power, in a way that was not possible before. It allows us to pressurise them and the institutions and systems that they run, and to collectively bring them to account.

What we still need to work on, however, is ensuring that it is not just a limited few who are able to seek justice and accountability on these terms.

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