Social Media in Protests and Policy Change: From Tahrir Square to Gezi Park

Nirbhaya, the 23 year old medical student who was gang-raped and murdered in a bus in Delhi, the national capital of India 16 December 2012, generated large scale public protests across the country. Facebook and Twitter played a vital role in not only expressing the collective anger of the public, it virtually became the melting pot for expressing the cumulative anger, frustration and outrage against the failure of the government in effectively responding to the incident. The demand for justice in the Delhi gang rape case was intensified many fold and joined by netizens from other smaller cities across India, after the government tried to block public gatherings that started since 21 December 2012 in various places like India Gate. The unnamed victim was given several names in social media as 'Damini' or 'Nirbhaya', and targeted campaigns like 'The Black Dot of Shame' gained momentum within days of the incident.

Days of protest followed and the victim eventually died in Singapore on 28 December 2012. In the meantime, a judicial committee headed by J. S. Verma, a former Chief Justice of India, was appointed by the central government to submit a report, within 30 days, to suggest amendments to criminal law to sternly deal with sexual assault cases. The committee invited input from the public in general, lawyers, jurists, NGOs, women's groups and civil society with respect to possible changes in criminal and other relevant laws to provide for quicker justice in such cases. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013 was promulgated by the President of India on 3 February 2013 which provides for amendment of Indian Penal Code, Indian Evidence Act, and Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 on laws related to sexual offences.

While political protests social and political protest movements and the facilitating role of social media has been debated, studied and discussed in various countries and contexts, the contribution of a social media mediated protest and its impact on changes in national policy and law has not been examined critically in the present case. This paper, therefore, presents an comprehensive analysis of existing legal provisions and constitutional safeguards that exists in India, the regulatory mechanisms that prevails upon the social networks and goes beyond the catalytic role of the social networks in such protests in order to examine the impact of social networks in legal and policy change processes.  

Through a detailed discussion on the existing laws on fundamental rights including freedom of speech and right to life, the paper goes on the track the role of social networks in generating the protests against ‘weak’ laws against rape in India, through textual analysis of texts and photographs added to various social networks, specially the Facebook and Twitter. The study concludes with the post-protest impact that propelled the government to bring harsher punishment and changes in criminal laws and highlights the role of social networks in that policy change process. In a nutshell, this paper presents a curious case on ‘cycle of change’ that starts with protest in social networks but eventually leads to policy/legal changes without going to the extent of regime change as happened elsewhere.

Dr K M Baharul Islam, Chair, CPPG and Mr Bidu Bhusan Dash, Academic Associate in Communication Area is leading the study. The result of the study will form a part of the forthcoming book entitled “From Tahrir Square to Gezi Park: Social Networks as Facilitators of Social Movements” ” edited by Prof Juliet Dee, Department of Communication, University of Delaware (USA).