One of the fundamental changes that have occurred in 21st century India is the advent and rapid dominance of the Internet. Cyber cafes opened not only in big cities but even in small towns and villages. Students started to connect with the outside world. The Internet brought them in touch with myriad sources of information and national frontiers broke down in the virtual world. So pervasive is its reach that more and more young people prefer the virtual world to the real world and spend considerable time in its addictive environs.
"Internet is mainstream in India"
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 40 per cent of all households in the world use Internet and 2.7 billion people are online. In India, there were around 239 million Internet subscribers at the end of 2013 as per government data. Predictions suggest that by middle of 2014 the number will rise to 243 million, at which point India is expected to overtake the United States as the second largest Internet base in the world after China. "Internet is now, clearly, mainstream in India", states Rajan Anandan, chairman of the Internet Mobile Association of India (IAMAI).
Before this, the mobile phone revolution had already changed the life of average Indians and cellular connectivity had reached even remote villages. According to government data, there were 873.3 million mobile subscribers in the country at the end of 2013. With the advent of smart phones, they can now connect to the world around the clock – and more then 150 million Indians already do this by using mobile Internet. By the end of 2014 this number could rise to 364 million as US market research firm Mediacells predicts.
More and more Indians are using social media online and the Internet has begun to decisively influence the way information, knowledge, entertainment, innovation and dissent are being accessed and articulated. According to a report by The Times of India, the number of monthly active users of Facebook in India stood in early 2014 at 93 million of which 75 million logged in through their mobile phones. Around 33 million Indians us Twitter, 18 million connect through LinkedIn.
As girls and boys are not allowed to freely interact with one another in India, they have found the social media sites very useful to make friends and acquaintances. Such interactions often result in fruitful friendships, exchange of ideas, emotions and dreams in the security of the virtual world. However, they at times also end up in ugly situations as a number of people set up fake accounts and dupe and harass unsuspecting victims. Internet abuse and stalking is witnessing a growing tendency and resulting in distortions and infirmities in the use of the medium. Experts therefore are demanding the implementation of legal safeguards.
"Blogging became a national pastime"
Democracy is all about self-assertion and participation. So the Internet revolution also changed the social and political landscape even further as it offered limitless opportunities to people to express themselves in the way they liked. Access to traditional media – newspapers or television – was available to only a few. However, Internet brought about a fundamental change and people's creativity as well as voice found newer platforms for self-expression.
Consequently, blogging became a national pastime. Anyone could start his or her own blog and post articles, comments, poems, short stories and even novels. So far, no study has been done to ascertain the number of blogs in India. However, Jagadishwar Chaturvedi, social media analyst from Calcutta University and author of the book Democracy and Social Media, estimates that there are at least 16,000 bloggers who publish in Hindi and some 75,000 Indian blogs altogether. There are several directories that list popular Indian blogs and help readers to get orientation such as indianbloggers.org external LINK, www.blogadda.com external LINK or www.topindianblogs.com external LINK.
Blogs and their content have assumed such a great importance that the traditional media can no longer afford to ignore them. Therefore, a number of newspapers in various languages have begun to regularly reproduce blog content. Jansatta was the first Hindi daily to pioneer this trend. "We call it samanatr (parallel) because it is a parallel medium", says executive editor Om Thanvi. "Many talented people are writing their blogs that remain inaccessible to those who do not have computers or Internet connections. That's why we took the decision to reproduce some of them on a daily basis."
Blogs have become battlegrounds for competing ideas where intense discussions and debates take place. As is natural, they sometimes become rather acrimonious. Personal scores are settled, rumours are spread and aspersions are cast. However, blogs do contribute towards creating a lively atmosphere of free exchange of ideas and information. A large number of discussion forums have been formed on the Internet to spread as well as to counter sectarian and fanatic ideologies. Many blogs are devoted to the world of media and keep track of developments in this field. In short, an explosion of democratic expression has taken place on account of availability of the Internet. Thus, Internet has become a tool of empowerment as it has given voice to the voiceless millions and opened new horizons before the common man.
"Social media as a vehicle of political consciousness"
In a vast country like India where democracy has taken root only after independence from British colonial rule in 1947, the functioning of political parties as well as the government has for decades not been very transparent. However, after the spread of the Internet, political parties have started their own websites where people get authentic information about them. Similarly, a large number of social and non-governmental organisations maintain websites disseminating relevant information about their activities. Therefore, it is not surprising that campaigns are launched and causes espoused on the Internet by various individuals and groups to gather support, thus transforming it into a vehicle for mobilisation and change.
India's 2014 parliamentary election proved to be 'historic' because, for the first time, all political parties as well as candidates and their supporters made full use of social media as they turned the virtual world into an important segment of the electoral arena. Election campaigns were launched on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. Political parties were well aware of the fact that more than half of the 811 million voters are younger then 35 years and that many of them are online. Therefore, they hired large teams of professionals to look after social media round the clock and make contact with as many young voters as possible. Many political leaders are also increasingly using Twitter to express their views.
According to an IAMAI study, poll outcome in 160 of the total 543 parliamentary seats can be influenced by those who regularly use Internet and social media. It is also widely accepted that those who regularly use social media are more likely to go to the polling booth to cast their vote than those who are outside the pale of the social media. In other words, social media has emerged as an important vehicle of political consciousness. However, in view of the burgeoning influence of social media, the Election Commission of India had decided to monitor its use during the election campaign to prevent misuses.
"Internet governance as increasingly important issue"
Social media had made its political presence felt on the world stage during the so-called Arab Spring as it played an important role in giving rise to a mass movement that eventually renegotiated the political arrangement in Tunisia and Egypt. But also in Delhi, when a young woman was brutally raped in a moving bus in December 2012, a spontaneous protest movement involving thousands of young demonstrators sprang in no time as a result of the use of social media through which young men and women connected with one another and formed an awe-inspiring protest group. Tanvi, a student at Delhi's Jawaharlal-Nehru-Unversity, remembers: "We exchanged information as well as plans about where to meet and how to go about continuing our protests day after day."
In 2011, when social activist Anna Hazare launched a mass movement against corruption, social media played a big role in mobilising support for him and his campaign among youth. The emergence of the Aam Aadami Party (Common Man Party, AAP) and its leader Arvind Kejriwal is also attributed to a considerable extent to the support base provided by users of social media.
Internet governance is also becoming an increasingly important issue considering the reach and influence of the medium. India is in favour of a multilateral body that would formulate international Internet-related public policies under the aegis of the United Nations. India wants that all the stakeholders and relevant international organisations should also be associated with such a body in an advisory capacity. At the moment, Internet connects a little less than three billion people in the world. Some people feel that the task of Internet governance should not be left to governments of various countries or the United Nations and all decisions must be taken after a consensus among governments, industry, academia, scientists and technocrats, civil society, media, youth and other stakeholders.
Internet surveillance is also a big issue exercising everybody after the disclosures made by Edward Snowden. Users of social media are particular upset as it concerns violation of their privacy. These issues will have to be addressed in the days to come.