On November 27, 2013, the video of a boy in Mumbai kicking a cat went viral on social media.
Outraged, animal lovers started to track the youth. Within hours, the boy was identified and Pooja Sakpal, founder of Youth Organisation in Defence of Animals (YODA), filed an FIR against him.
Social media, Sakpal says, was the backbone of the success. “A woman posted the video on her wall. Within minutes, it was shared by over 100 people and 20 people posted it on the YODA wall.
In an hour, a common friend identified the boy and gave us his address. It helped YODA connect with animal welfare officers, which resulted in the cops agreeing to file an FIR.”
Many such causes have found their way into the digital space of late.
It all started last December with the gang rape of a 23-year-old girl in Delhi which set off a wave of anger, both offline and online. But, more recently, with the Tehelka sexual harassment case, social media users actively took up the case of the female journalist and enforced the need to guard her identity.
Raheel Khursheed of online petition platform Change.org says, “Social Media is increasingly turning into an agenda setter. Invariably, a story breaks on Twitter first and then the mainstream media follows it. The Tehelka sexual abuse case broke on Twitter and was followed up by TV channels till it became hard to ignore. More and more people are taking to online tools to amplify the power of their voice and facilitate a two-way conversation about stories of national importance.”
Among the significant social media initiatives born after the December 16 gang rape was Blank Noise’s Safe City Pledge which sought to recognise and establish sexual harassment on the streets as an issue. Then there is Vijay Soni, a 29-year-old engineer from Pune, who started the online initiative iCanSaveLife to help source blood for people in emergencies. “There is no faster and more effective medium than Facebook and Twitter to reach out to a maximum number of people in a short time,” says Soni, whose initiative now covers 15 Indian cities. Other such social initiatives are CleftToSmile, Nanhi Kali Project, Bridgestone India’s road safety campaign and Dilip D’souza’s stem cell awareness campaign.
Anita Shyam of animal welfare NGO WorldForAll reports that since 2009, her organisation has organised over 4,700 adoptions, 4,500 sterilisations and attended to over 10,000 emergency medical calls with the help of Facebook and Twitter. “Practically everyone is on Twitter and Facebook. The job gets done much faster and easier,” says Anita.
YODA co-founder Priya Agarwal seconds the view saying, “One tweet by Neil Nitin Mukesh helped us get eight labrador puppies with severe skin infection adopted. Even one Facebook post for a dog, who may need a home, results in approximately 200 phone calls a day to our group’s founders. Over 100 dogs and cats, who have been stolen or reported lost, have been reunited with their families due to Facebook and Twitter.”
Leading animal rights organisation, People for Ethical Treatment to Animals (PETA), too swears by the social media. Emylou D’Souza, PETA India’s online marketing coordinator says, “At PETA, we are able to use social media to win campaigns and/or create a buzz around an issue. A recent example of this is when celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan, Madhuri Dixit, Madhavan, Raveena Tandon and others expressed their support of our #FreeSunder campaign on Twitter sharing PETA’s video of a mahout violently beating a 14-year-old elephant, and urging their fans to help the campaign. More than 33,000 supporters asked authorities to transfer Sunder to a sanctuary immediately as a result.”
Social media expert Zankrut Oza says that people often take their stories to Facebook and Twitter with the aim of gaining empathy. “The social web’s biggest comfort is that you are no longer alone. No matter what has happened to you, it has surely happened to somebody else,” says Oza. “The possibility of finding credulous and empathetic audiences is unprecedented. Retweets and comments are perceived as a sign of support.”
The strength of social media’s ability to reach out can be gauged from the case of Nalini Ambady.
The professor at California’s Stanford University was diagnosed with leukaemia earlier this year and her survival depended on finding a bone marrow donor — the chances of which are slim.
Only 30% patients find a match within their family; at least 1,000 people die each year in the US alone because they can’t find a matching donor, according to the Institute for Justice. Nalini’s friends and family in India launched a social media campaign to spread the word and urge people to register as bone marrow donors. Miraculously, two donors were found but time had run out for Nalini and she died before a transplant could take place.