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Friday, March 18, 2011

Collective Action in Internet: A glimpse of Greenpeace’ Online Activism in India.Seminar Paper presented in Sir Syed College on 16/03/2011

Biju. P. R.

Assistant Professor and H o D

Department of Political Science

Government Brennen College







Key Words:online public sphere,online activism,social networking,protest politics.

Most discussion on the internet and the public space always revolve around the twin pillar of whether it is a market force driven medium or a liberating medium .The internet will significantly improve the public that enhance the quality of our civic life by creating a commons where citizens can come together to discuss, and deliberate upon, issues of the day. Others have been more skeptical, believing that the Internet -- whatever its inherent promise might have been -- has already been colonized by the same market forces that have had such a deleterious effect on our public square more generally. To assess the Internet's performance and its future prospects as a democratic civic medium is of immense value in the context. India very recently has been found to have larger internet penetration not in terms of the number of people using internet platforms but rather the frequency of people making use of internet. The use and reach of internet is so wide that now it has turned out to be a space for organizing protest and politics in many sense.In India there are a wide variety of online social networking platforms which like any other offline groups can more or less be common platforum for organizing public spaces where discussion on public issues can be organized.This proposal enquires whether such platforms meets the requirements of a true public sphere in the context of Greenpeace India.

What is the relationship between internet and collective action and if internet facilitate public action online are interesting questions for social theorization in recent days.The pro-democracy movement in middle east and in Egypt,the diplomatic tussle created by wikileaks cables, and the representation of Nira Radia tapes in internet platforms has recently crated a renewed interest in the power of internet to influence public action

The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism in an unprecedented manner. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been transformed. It has become easier for the people of poles apart to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns. For a democratic country like India, virtual vigilantism offers new mechanisms of expression, representation and mobilizing of interests and political opinion. The upshot of this novel form of vigilantism is that diverse social and political groups are finding their voices outside the realm of conventional politics. In other words, political parties are no longer monopolizing the public opinion domain. Civil society and voluntary groups are injecting fresh ideas into politics and mobilizing social interests and changing public perceptions. Having bypassed conventional politics, these groups are engaging directly with the public.

What is public sphere?

The public sphere is an area in social life where people can get together and freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action. It is "a discursive space in which individuals and groups congregate to discuss matters of mutual interest and, where possible, to reach a common judgment."

Hauser, Gerard (june 1998), "Vernacular Dialogue and the Rhetoricality of Public Opinion", Communication Monographs 65 (2): 83–107 Page. 86,

It is a virtual or imaginary community which does not necessarily exist in any identifiable space. In its ideal form, the public sphere is "made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state"

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger with Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991:Page 176

“network for communicating information and points of view . . . the streams of communication are, in the process, filtered and synthesized in such a way that they coalesce into bundles of topically specified public opinions.

Habermas, J. (1992/1997). Between facts and norms: Contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy. Cambridge: Polity.(p. 360).

The public sphere is situated between private households on the one hand, and the state on the other. It is a space “where free and equal citizens come together to share information, to debate, to discuss, or to deliberate on common concerns

Odugbemi, A. (2008). Public opinion, the public sphere, and quality of governance: An exploration. In S. Odugbemi & T. Jacobson (Eds.), Governance reform under real-world conditions. Citizens, stakeholders, and voice (pp. 15–37). Washington, D.C.: The World Bank. (p. 17).

Habermas's original conception includes four important elements.

-the public sphere was formed through discussion, often mediated.

- it represented a new space of discussion for many who had previously been excluded.

-Issues discussed are often political in nature

- ideas presented in the public sphere were considered on the basis of their merits, and not on the social standing of the speaker.

Public Sphere Restated?

The public sphere as stated by Habermas cannot be taken for a luxurious analysis of public sphere online.

Since Habermas's original work, there have been various reformulations of and additions to the idea of the public sphere (Calhoun, 1992),

One important addition to the public sphere theory is the notion of multiple publics, rather than of one overarching public sphere (Asen & Brouwer, 2001; Dahlgren, 2001; Fraser, 1992). Fraser (1992) and many others (e.g., Palczewski, 2001; Squires, 2002) discuss counter-publics, which are identity-based groups that are in opposition to the public sphere.

Even if there is one primary public sphere, in this light there are possibly many counter-publics. Garnham (1992) holds the view that there is one overarching public sphere, but notes there may be other public spheres within it, "each organized around its own political structure, media systems, and sets of norms and interests".

Dahlgren (2001) describes publics as "issue publics," where, similar to Garnham, publics are organized around various issues.

For instance, Squires (2002) details several types of counter-publics, focusing on African-Americans. These publics are organized around the issue of identity (race or ethnicity). Anderson (2003) studied the Islamic public sphere, in which identity is based on religion.

Erimbayer and Sheller (1998) details a schema for approaching different types of publics, and take account of three different dimensions of a public sphere. They do not study one particular sphere, but instead allow for the possibility of many different kinds of spheres.

Other scholars have studied specific issue publics on the Internet, such as right-to-die advocates (McDorman, 2001), and various non-governmental organizations (Mater, 2001).

Others have investigated the relationship between the Internet and different concepts of the public sphere, and have raised important questions about its functionality

What is the connection between internet and public sphere.?

There is a clear connection between the Internet and the public sphere.

However, the Internet is a network of networks and over its history has continually changed in terms of technology, both underlying and on the user end. That "the Internet" is like a public sphere may be an intuitive statement, but it must be empirically grounded. Currently the Internet is a combination of chat, Usenet, the World Wide Web, email, and other protocols.

How the Internet or spaces on the Internet actually function as a public sphere remains to be seen.

Dahlberg (2001) has proposed six criteria that an online space must meet in order to be considered a public sphere. They are:

-autonomy from state and economic power;

-exchange and critique of criticizable moral-practical validity claims;


-ideal role-taking;


and discursive inclusion and equality.

However, Dahlberg focuses more on an overarching, single public sphere and less on one sphere within a multiple public sphere framework.

Based on the assumptions, it can be taken to a useful definition of a public sphere that may be applied to the Internet, and that may allow to identify a space for analysis.

Drawing from Habermas's original conception, there are four following criteria:

1.Public spheres are spaces of discourse, often mediated.

2.Public spheres often allow for new, previously excluded, discussants.

3.Issues discussed are often political in nature.

4.Ideas are judged by their merit, not by the standing of the speaker.

As personal media allow more people to produce texts and take part in communication, the Internet offer new forms of access to public authorities, new channels of coordination and influence for social movements, and a multitude of more or less stable settings for chat and discussions. On all accounts, digital media provide, quite different circumstances for communication than the mass media. The most central ones can be listed as follows:

Platforms for Digital Communication



Discussion and chats among citizens

(blogs, chatrooms, e-maling lists)

Citizen access to MPs and public authorities

(web, e-mail, blogs)

Online ‘participatory’ journalism

(web, email, sms, mms, blogs)

Connections and weak tie networks

(network sites like Facebook, Twitter,Myspace etc.)

User-generated content in broadcasting

(tv, radio, web, sms, blogs)

Social Movement activity


Rise of Social Networking in India

Indian internet users are just hooked to social network sites. What started with the popularity of Orkut in India is now become a cultural revolution. The number of online social networking users in India has grown by 43% in the last year to approximately 33 million unique users as of July 2010, with India emerging as the seventh largest market globally.Most school going teens have an account on some social networking site and almost all IT-Savvy urban youth are on it. In fact, every internet user is online on some of these sites. There are already dozens of local Indian social networking sites trying to be the next Orkut. Rediff.com, a popular portal in India launched its own version recently and claims to have 1 Million subscribers already!. Yaari, Minglebox, Hi5 and dozens of other sites are attracting their own fan base.

In the study, social network sites are defined as web-based services that allow individuals to:

(1) Construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system,

(2) Articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and

(3) View and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. The nature and nomenclature of these connections may vary from site to site.

Once a profile is created, users are then regarded as a member of the online community, and can create a list of friends that will form the basis of their social network. This process is achieved in two ways. Firstly, users establish lists of friends by sending a request to a potential new member until the user accepts or declines the invitation. In this way, group membership in SNSs is based on consensus and mutual recognition, values typically associated with high context Asian cultures such as Japan (McCarty 2009), and unlike the unidirectional process associated with ‘followers’ on Twitter. Secondly, the majority of SNSs also have group or community functions, which allow users to create groups within the SNS based on a particular theme. In Facebook, for example, there are literally thousands of such groups, and these can be found using sophisticated keyword searches. Users can then join these groups, which may or may not be moderated by the creator, and receive information from other users within the group. This may in turn lead users to become friends as a result of attending group meetings.

The table below illustrates the diversity and variety of community groups for activism in Indian Orkut world.

Table -2




Area of activism

No.of people involved



Community networking

The Protest Vote

376 members



Community networking

Protest against Nandigram

338 members



Community networking

protest against mumbai terror attacks

551 members



Community networking

Protest Against Pollution

149 members



Community networking

Human Rights Activism

604 members



Community networking

Citizen Journalists of India

116 members

Oldenburg (1989) argues that these emerging online communities are transforming the ways in which people are communicating, by providing them with a new place in which to meet people.

Individuals conduct their activities in three locations:

the home,


and social meeting places,

and that in modern society the gradual disappearance of the latter has led to people moving onto the Internet to find places in which to conduct ‘idle banter and socialization’ and feel membership of a group outside of the home or workplace.

Rheingold (1993) developed this idea and argued that researching online communities is like looking into a social space such as a café, and attributes the rise of these virtual communities to the need for people to fill a gap that has arisen through cultural shifts that have led to the disappearance of informal meeting places in modern society.

This issue of metaphors that is used in an attempt to make sense of online communities is an area of research that is still yet to be fully developed. Another key research concept that is at play in any community is that of identity formation (Turkle 1995). Individual members will construct their own personal identity through their profiles and the community as a whole will construct a cultural identity through the linguistic codes (special terminology, emoticons and so on).

Glimpse of Public Sphere Online :The Case of Greenpeace India

“The online campaign cannot work without the offline work. Our campaigners are constantly working on the ground with other NGO networks, local communities etc.”

Avijit ,Online Campaigns, Greenpeace India via email at online.campaigner.in@greenpeace.org on Tue, Oct 19, 2010 at 2:01 PM in reply at bijugayu @gmail.com

I think the online work is just an extension of our offline campaigns. The internet provides us tools (like email, Facebook, Twitter etc) to be able to communicate with larger number of people at lower cost. What other channel can we use to communicate to over 5 lakh supporters in India?

Avijit ,Online Campaigns, Greenpeace India via email at online.campaigner.in@greenpeace.org on Friday, Oct 22, 2010 at 5:28 PM in reply to bijugayu @gmail.com

It is understood that public space can be formed online in multiple forms.Greenpeace which strives to protect the planet Earth through its activism also makes its presence online and organizes protest online by the networking and other online platforms. Greenpeace as it has been established leads to establish an alternative world view to protect planet Earth. In this attempt Greenpeace itself is an end in itself and becomes a catch word for all attempts to ecological movements. In one sense or the other Greenpeace is taken as a parallel to alternative environmental philosophy.Greenpeace organizes its activism through facebook,Twitter,Flickr,Youtube

Public Online and the case of Greenpeace India





No.of people involved




Online networking

-22,539 Like this as on 07/10/2010

-383 notes were posted on the platform




Activism -

Oppsoing nuclear liability bill

-So far 225,621 people have taken action to oppose the bill

as on 07/10/2010




Activism - against GM food -Write to Sonia Gandhi

-Signatures so far: 45,722 as on 07/10/2010

-1,292 Responses to “Write to Sonia Gandhi” posted on the web page as on 07/10/2010









as on 07/10/2010




Online networking,forums,polls on greenpeace

4,866 members as on 11/10/10




Activism, conservation through video sharing

Channel Views: 8,613

Total Upload Views: 153,620

Subscribers: 411

As on 11/10/10




Photo sharing activism

39 photos as on 10/11/10





Members: 155 on 10/11/10




Online Activism

-To fax Mr. Jairam Ramesh asking him not to bow to corporate pressure and to stand by the report of his own regional office?

-It got 33 Tweets as on 15/10/10

Online Social networking cannot be treated as a public sphere from a face value. There are mechanisms that make online social networking a public sphere. Online social networking meets those criteria which are parameters for public sphere. But that the criteria do not make allowances for a radically different form of public merely because the public is online. An online public sphere is still a form of public sphere, online or not, and so must meet basic public sphere criteria.

Our activism however is not limited to the online space. While we use the online space to get members of the public to take action we also have people who are more involved and who actually take action on ground. We engage in non-violent protests and take our message and the messages of supporters directly to those in power.

Avijit ,Online Campaigns, Greenpeace India via email at online.campaigner.in@greenpeace.org on Friday, Oct 22, 2010 at 5:28 PM in reply to bijugayu @gmail.com

Online social networking of Greenpeace in India meets certain requirements of the public sphere-

1.It is a space of discourse; when the Greenpeace opens a space for public debate about proper environmental values, in due course it becomes a means to a noble cause .Anyone online can open an account in any of online platforms for fortification of environment in the name of Greenpeace.It does not mean that in end process, it is not the Greenpeace which becomes a creation but it is the philosophy which Greenpeace represents can be thought to be a noble cause.Therefore, Greenpeace itself becomes a value and attract people to join for activism(see table -3).It generates activist consciousness online. The simple fact is that Greenpeace reaches out to the online platforms so as to organize its protest against the policy makers and to influence the decision making process.The point is that Greenpeace online not only organises activism online it also spreads message and informs the online world about the possible challenges the human society faces in myriad of ways.The question is that Greenpeace is somewhat able to attract followers online.

2.It opens a space for a wide range of people to come together and discuss many issues, and it is meta-topical as what Charles Taylor described-large space of non-assembly ;it is evident that when Greenpeace itself represent an environmental vigilantism, there are many other cautious groups’ which also make contribution towards environmental vigilantism on the same issue.

3.Including many political ones;there are plenty of online groups in the networking platforms (see table -2).In the offline world people have different networkings,that does not mean that networkings are exclusive.Like any other networkings,people network for a genuine political cause that does not mean or networkings are political or all networkings are non-political.

4. Ideas are judged by their merit; these criteria have mostly been applied to offline publics, but online publics should not have a form that is radically different from their real-world counterparts. In fact it is an extension of the offline public sphere, not different from the previous one.many users have different interest while coming online. People have different concerns ,like they are in offline relations;so the fact is that only those people used to network on issues that affect the larger society based on their public mind.So not all networkings are publics only those platforms are space which really discuss the public issuesbased on the merit of the topic. Since there are plenty of platforms for communicating via internet ,the way political communication takes shape is of immense important(see table -1).

But when it comes to online, Greenpeace is present in multiple forms through different platforms. The fact is that the presence of Greenpeace in multiple platforms is symbolic of the multiplicity of its parallel world view. Here Greenpeace itself is not the end product; rather what Greenpeace represent becomes the end production. In this sense networking through different platforms are fundamentally catering to the needs of a space that forms an avenue for activism online. The space can be relevant to people to get together on a rational topic and organize discussions and debate.


(Palczewski, 2001; Papacharissi, 2002; Poster, 1999). Papacharissi (2002) identifies three contradictory issues for the Internet and the public sphere. One is that although the Internet allows for great amounts of information storage, access and literacy are likely to be unequal. Second, although people around the world can communicate with each other far more easily with Internet technologies than with previous technologies, there may be audience fragmenting. The third issue, essentially, is that any online public spheres will face the problems of Habermas's bourgeois public sphere, and become corrupted by commercialism. Dahlberg (2001) finds that "the Internet is facilitating discourse that replicates the basic structure of rational-critical debate and that in various ways approximates the requirements of the public sphere." Yet, he feels that this discourse falls short of the requirements of the public sphere.

Findings and Conclusion

The public sphere, as described by Habermas, was unkindly a "bourgeois" public sphere. Many discuss "the public sphere" without the qualifier, as a more generalized form. Although it represented a new avenue for some people, it was restricted in terms of class and gender. Habermas's original conception includes three important elements. One is that the public sphere was formed through discussion, often mediated. Second, it represented a new space of discussion for many who had previously been excluded. Last, ideas presented in the public sphere were considered on the basis of their merits, and not on the social standing of the speaker.In those only bourgeois men could participate (Fraser, 1992). Three elements of a public sphere are important to the present analysis for the following reasons. Discussion of ideas, often in mediated form, is characteristic of web based communications and social networking tools as a mediated discussion space. It is difficult to imagine the public sphere without discussion of ideas, because it was such discussion that brought the sphere into existence. This new space of discussion also entitled those who had been excluded from issues of governance to have a voice. Social networking tools itself is a space that allows many who could not have done so easily before to discuss political (and other) issues. That ideas were evaluated on their merits flattened the political hierarchy into a more equal, democratic arena. Social networking has a system for judging users' comments that is primarily based on the comment itself, and not the identity of the commenter, and it could be described as a space of rational-critical debate.

The "public" of the public sphere represents the idea that the people taking part in such discussions are acting not as private citizens, but in a public role by speaking in public and discussing issues of relevance to the wider public, issues of governance. They have the potential to affect public opinion and public policy. The "sphere" of the public sphere denotes that it is a space, often a mix of formal and informal institutions and organizations.

The possibility for multiple public spheres is relevant here, given the large number of people who use the Internet. It is doubtful that a single public sphere could consist of millions of people and still function, since deliberation would be difficult. Allowing for multiple publics, with different interests, allows for smaller and thus workable, yet still global, public spheres through the Internet.


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