Silicon Plateau Volume 2 is a collection of essays where contributors responded to the question: what does it mean to be an app user today—as a worker, a client, or simply an observer? Stories about contemporary life in Bengaluru, of conversations spoken and typed, of deliberations and connections, through a simple a tap on our mobile devices find a place in this book. This is edited by curator Marialaura Ghidini and artist Tara Kelton, and published by the Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru.
Below is an edited excerpt from the book, from the chapter written by Nicole Rigillo, a Canadian anthropologist working on a research project at the Centre for Public Policy at Indian Institute of Management (IIMB). She explores how Bengaluru’s tech-savvy citizens have come together on WhatsApp to discuss, collaborate and solve civic issues.
While WhatsApp has recently been marked by associations with mob violence in India and the rise of populist governments around the world, the app is also being used politically in more quotidian and constructive ways—by engaged citizens in Bengaluru.
Citizens have formed what are likely hundreds of WhatsApp groups across Bengaluru that seek to bring together those committed to addressing the Garden City’s municipal governance issues. In 2018 citizens organisation Janaagraha ranked Bengaluru last on a national municipal governance survey, while activists continue to struggle against issues such as inadequate public infrastructure, the city’s loss of green cover, mounting waste management problems, and its polluted and encroached-upon lakes.
WhatsApp groups devoted to such issues — comprising anywhere from 20 to the maximum upper limit of 256 members of any given group — often include not only citizens, but also political leaders such as MPs and Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), officials at Bengaluru’s municipal corporation, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), members of the police, and journalists.
Online collaboration to offline activism
Participation is not limited to debate over the platform only — participants routinely meet in groups large and small to engage actively on the ground, raising awareness about environmental issues, monitoring waste management in their localities, pushing for the preservation and revitalisation of the city’s lakes, and even gathering at local businesses to enforce Karnataka’s 2016 Plastic Ban.
In several cases, the groups appear to be serving as an informal, app-based alternative to the city’s still often non-operational ward committees, mandated under the 74th Amendment to the Indian Constitution in 1992 to ensure citizen participation in and oversight of local governance. Citizens WhatsApp groups are often a highly effective tool for active citizen participation.
I accompanied one such group in their effort to ‘liberate’ 43 trees on the sidewalks in front of the homes of other local residents. The latter had hemmed the trees in with concrete to keep their properties looking neat — a common practice, but one damaging to trees. The group hired a day labourer with a jackhammer to remove the concrete and asked a Forest Department official to accompany them to provide official sanction as they cleaned up the concrete and replaced it with compost, taking on forms of responsibility that elsewhere would be planned and undertaken by governments.
I would argue that the activities of groups like these ones — for the most part unknown, unless one is a member — are contributing to a provocative blurring of the lines between citizenship and governance in India today. They are also creating a new public sphere — what philosopher Jurgen Habermas defined as “a virtual or imaginary community which does not necessarily exist in any identifiable space” , one made up of “private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society within a state.”
While for much of the twentieth century in most contexts, the formal news media was central to the development of the ideas and debates that circulated in the public sphere, today the internet offers multiple — and often competing — sources of informally-generated content and information. For Bengaluru’s many IT-savvy middle-class citizens, WhatsApp has emerged as a powerful site for the production of a parallel virtual public sphere — one they use not only to circulate data and information, but also to actively plan and execute actions for better urban governance.
While many are hopeful about this apparent surge in citizen participation in the public sphere, the choice of WhatsApp as its preferred organisational platform is also troubling — mostly because the platform is not entirely “public” at all. How did a mobile instant messaging app come to occupy this important role?”
WhatsApp preferred over Facebook
While most civic groups in Bengaluru also have Facebook pages and Telegram groups, which permit up to 1,00,000 members, the WhatsApp groups tend to host much more active conversations. In some groups, the bifurcation is strategic, a way to redirect forwards and debates about news media articles to Facebook and reserve WhatsApp for time-sensitive planning.
Deepak* is an active volunteer in various Bengaluru movements, and is currently involved in a court battle to save one of Bengaluru’s lakes from an illegal encroachment. According to him, the shift to WhatsApp use by civic groups gained steam after progressive changes to the Facebook algorithm. In 2012, Facebook began to monetise groups, requiring admins to pay to “boost” their posts. Studies suggest that the changes have radically reduced the extent of what is known as “organic reach”, or the likelihood that an unpaid post will be seen by those in an individual’s social media network.
Deepak estimates that the visibility of an un-boosted Facebook posts hovers at about 5%. “Because of this, Facebook has lost its ability to be a tactical tool for activists, though earlier it used to be,” said Deepak. “Now people typically use Facebook as a platform to organise large groups — to share information, keep people informed, and update things that are not time-critical. We use WhatsApp for small tactical groups and immediate communications — like planning a meeting, or a small campaign — because the message is received in real-time.”
Many civic activists say that a key advantage offered by WhatsApp was the ability to mobilise large groups — applying the power of the crowd in the service of the environment. Santosh* is an active participant in environmental initiatives across Bengaluru; he is a frequent participant in city-wide raids against illegal dumpers and distributors of plastic bags, often accompanying local government workers. He feels that this kind of citizen participation helps ensure that government workers do not have their work undermined by threats or intimidation from lawbreakers. He sees citizen participation as a must in Bengaluru, where “there is often a lack of official support for the law, a lack of awareness of the law… and people also try to use their spheres of influence, political or otherwise, to dodge the law. If there are citizen volunteers involved, the numbers do count.”
One Bengaluru-area Residents Welfare Association also made use of informal crowds during the third phase of a plastic ban enforcement drive in their neighbourhood, planned for June 5th 2018 in commemoration of World Environment Day. A group of citizens, including the RWA’s president, came out in support of their health inspector’s efforts to confiscate plastic bags being illegally distributed by local shop owners. According to Mary*, an RWA member, “It helps to have citizens support the health inspector because that way the shop owners do not feel that they are being targeted unfairly. They can see that the law is supported by the citizens. There is more legitimacy — it becomes a joint effort.” Mary said that the RWA plans to conduct monthly inspections to ensure that shopkeepers adhere to the ban.
*all names are pseudonyms.