Taking contemporary landscapes of digital politics in India and the Indian diaspora in Europe as the primary focus, Project ONLINERPOL examines how online media recasts questions of faith and nation, and reshapes political participation.

The five-year research project (2017-2022) is funded by the European Research Council Starting Grant. At the core of our endeavor is the value of digital dignity – to study and advocate for spaces where political expression can expand in an enabling culture of contacts, without the fear of shame and intimidation.

We are told we are in the midst of a digital revolution. We were told, with equal conviction, about the print revolution, the information revolution, and several more transformative media regimes. The rapidity of the digital age, however, devours definitions second by second. From the digital revolution, the sense-making labels have shifted to big data, the Internet of Things and smart worlds run by intelligent automation and analytics. Ramifications for political and social relations are here to see, with or without the new overarching labels. ONLINERPOL project will bring to close focus some of these ramifications and the cultural worlds that surround them, by turning the focus on India and its diaspora in Europe.

India is one of the fastest growing digital economies in the world. The country has over 350 million Internet users, surpassing the US in user volume and second only to China. Among these Internet users, social media is becoming increasingly popular. As of April 2017, there are roughly 200 million Facebook users, the majority of whom are mobile Facebook users. Around 25 million active Twitter users are influencing public debates each day. YouTube, Linkedin, Instagram, and Whatsapp are making fast inroads. India, in other words, is in the midst of a wave of “new media.”

“New media” is not only about new platforms of social networking. “New media” is an assemblage and a constellation of practices. It signifies expanding horizontal networks of user-created media but in a polymedia context where organized mass media and digitally-savvy established authorities play an equally significant role. New media are increasingly shaping the cultures of political participation, as common users and established authorities chart their way into the networks of discussions and representations.

Framework

The key objective of ONLINERPOL is to explore this permeating new media milieu in India, by examining the relationship between the expanding Internet media and the political cultures of national belonging mediated by secular-religious-liberal fissures. As opposed to understanding new media as discrete channels of communication or an abstract technological context, the project uses the conceptual frame of “interfaces.” This frame foregrounds the profound mediation of Internet media in bringing distinct actors at various levels of authority with differing ideologies and motivations into close confrontation: the nation state, markets, the diaspora, homeland publics, and divergent religious communities.

A range of projects incubated and curated by ONLINERPOL will ask how these interfaces constitute new mediated spaces of collisions and contiguities, which allow political actors within and beyond the national frontiers to negotiate and collaborate in unprecedented ways. Of particular interest are the ways the globally-shared, common sense cultures of digital media meet local worlds of meanings, habits, and practices, in turn transforming layers of belongingness and ideas about how one should relate to the “public” and to the nation. Together with online user communities, regulatory infrastructure and online engagement of established authorities are other areas of related inquiry.

The theoretical and methodological concept of “practice” is central to our exploration (Bourdieu; Couldry; Postill). With “practice” as a handle, we approach digitally mediated imaginaries as zones of confrontation, affective affinities, and pathways to public deliberation (Udupa).

Aspects of mediated political cultures are captured by a combination of disciplinary perspectives – foremost from anthropology and communication studies – and with methods that fuse social media network and content analysis with ethnographies of actual users posting online content.

The core team of researchers at LMU Munich draws strength from prominent academics on the advisory board and collaborators researching new media in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East alongside North America and Europe. We join the efforts to bring the experiences of new media expansion in regions beyond the West to the forefront of media theory and public debate. These experiences remind us that new media are not just about fake news or filter bubbles.

Project ONLINERPOL is one more step towards understanding the diverse configurations of digital practice, and the politics, socialities, and cultural sensibilities they make possible. We examine digital media as they unfold in the lived worlds of online users, while being at once drawn into them as avid everyday users. We may not be sure about revolutions. But we surely are in a digital trap.

Center for Digital Dignity

ONLINERPOL has created the Center for Digital Dignity to value dignity as a core aspect of online cultures of participation. The center is a virtual network of scholars and activists who also plan and meet at offline events as a collective effort to foster enabling spaces of political expression. It is an effort to rescue digital cultures of contact from descending into regressive tropes invoking gender, race, caste and religion, and even nation.

Funding

ONLINERPOL has received funding from the European Research Council Starting Grant (Agreement Number 714285). The project is hosted at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, in cooperation with the Department of Communication and Media Research at LMU Munich.

Contact

For Digital Dignity, Project ONLINERPOL
LMU, Social and Cultural Anthropology
Oettingenstr. 67
80538 Munich, Germany
ONLINERPOL@ethnologie.lmu.de