Citizen Media Trends: Digital Tools in India Catalyze Participatory Citizenship and Combat Corruption
Access to media in India is accelerating in both traditional and new digital forms. Television and radio are reaching more people than ever, and unlike much of the world, print readership in India is strong and on the rise. Although universal Internet access is far from a reality — only about 5.3 percent of India’s population uses the Internet, according to the World Bank — rapid changes to the way people access news and share information are on the horizon.
Internet access and the use of social media tools for personal expression and news-sharing is fairly strong in cities and among middle- and upper-income groups. Prominent Bollywood actors, like Aamir Khan, are contributing to the mass popularity of blogging and tweeting, and due to its sheer population size, India ranks globally as one of the highest participants in top social media sites like Facebook.
The situation is far different in rural areas, which have extremely limited access to digital communication technology. But awareness is growing. Last year, the Internet and Mobile Association of India reported that only 16 percent of the rural population was aware of the Internet. This year, that number jumped to 69 percent.
“For the country, times are really exciting,” said Nihar Kothari, director and executive editor of the Patrika group, one of India’s largest media conglomerates. “Technology is coming in really fast. It’s getting cheaper and more accessible to people.”
Most promising for rural populations are mobile broadband and SMS technologies, which are beginning to bridge the gaps of income and distance.
A United Nations (UN) report on sanitation recently published the startling statistic that more people in India own mobile phones than toilets. One positive take on this finding is that it reflects a tremendous opportunity for rural and poor households to connect with the flow of news and information.
A number of social enterprises are leading the charge to give rural populations a voice through mobile technology. Organizations like SMSONE are pioneering community newsletters and educational alerts for people in rural areas.
“What we’ll see is more people leapfrogging over computer Internet access and just using smartphones,” said Lindsay Clinton, a researcher and development strategist at the hybrid think tank SustainAbility. “And with SMS newsletters, people don’t even actually need access to the Internet.”
These forms of local, “micro-media” allow rural villagers to share information and mobilize around causes that are important to them. They also allow people to communicate in their local languages; most content on major social networking sites is available only in English, which is just a fraction of the media market in a country with 18 official languages. English is “a single digit percentage,” Kothari said. “There is no English newspaper amongst the top ten newspapers on the Indian scene.”
The ability to connect people through local languages is just one advantage of grass roots citizen media tools; these tools’ potential to help people make their voices heard and advance citizenship is just beginning to be tapped.
Citizen media tools are also beginning to serve as previously unavailable independent news sources. “Most of the news going out to rural areas is controlled by the government,” Kothari said. “They own the largest television stations . . . and private radio stations do not have permission to broadcast news yet.”
But online independent radio stations like Dabba Radio are breaking this barrier and calling on everyday citizens to share their stories. The station has called itself “a movement to create a new type of media,” and asserted, “There are thousands of untold stories happening everyday and we want to be the storytellers.”
The Internet is also facilitating a new crop of websites that help everyday citizens fight against corruption and mobilize in politics. Sites like ipaidabribe.com invites Indians to report instances when they were asked to pay unlawfully for government services.
Other sites like avaaz.org invite citizens to sign petitions as part of advocacy campaigns for various causes. Avaaz’s petition to improve the Indian government’s weak anticorruption bill garnered an astounding 500,000 signatures in the first 36 hours it went live.
“I think this really shows that when you give people the tools, they will raise their voices and participate in the discussion,” Clinton said. “Technology is proving to be an equalizer of sorts when it comes to creating more informed citizens and ensuring social justice. It can completely unsettle the power dynamic in a country that has long been characterized by divisions of caste and class.”
Photo courtesy of Video Volunteers (VV) (cc)