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Informatics Professor Bonnie Nardi received a Council on Research, Computing and Libraries (CORCL) grant to support research into online activism – particularly, how social media can act as a tool in building public awareness about ongoing problems. The $3,000 received in funding will help cover travel expenses for one of her master’s students, Vishal Sharma, who plans to spend 10 weeks in Bangalore studying the RallyForRivers campaign to revitalize the rivers of India.

Studying the Campaign

Prior to coming to UCI, Sharma received his B.E. in computer science from Chitkara University in India and worked as a software engineer in Bangalore, where he also volunteered at the Isha Foundation. In September 2017, Isha founder Sadhguru started the RallyForRivers campaign. The goal was to leverage offline and online resources — meetings, rallies, phone calls, text messages, ads and social media — to educate the public about how deforestation and population growth have impacted India’s water sources.

One of the RallyForRivers campaign ads distributed via social media to raise awareness about the depletion of India’s rivers.

A signature component of the campaign was Sadhguru’s 30-day road trip from southern to northern India. Using a variety of media platforms, the trip instigated more than 140 related events in 16 states. It concluded with Sadhguru proposing that the government plant millions of trees near rivers so the roots can help absorb rain and replenish rivers.

Nardi and Sharma plan to study this social movement, which they say has gathered pledges of support from 160 million people, along with Memorandums of Understanding from six states that support the cause. In traveling to India, Sharma will dig deeper to better understand this support, conducting field studies at RallyForRivers campaign locations and interviewing people in person and online to gauge their use of social media and level of awareness about the river-depletion problem. He will also analyze the RallyForRivers Facebook page, which has more than 7 million followers. Nardi and Sharma want to determine whether social media can help spread awareness of not only “newsworthy” events (such as a recent earthquake) but also of less publicized, ongoing crises (such as water depletion).

Exploring Citizen Engagement

Nardi and Sharma also plan to explore if and how awareness can lead to action. They will follow the progress of the campaign’s proposals, outlined in its Draft Policy Recommendation, and its use of media to determine whether social media can motivate people to participate in larger sociopolitical campaigns. As Nardi’s notes, “462 million people have access to the internet in India, and there is ample scope for positive social action.”

The study results should contribute to the existing body of literature on politics and the internet by creating a better understanding of how social media can inform and engage citizens. “The model that RallyForRivers follows has promise for other geographies,” says Sharma. For example, he says that there is potential for social media to raise awareness regarding ways to address Cape Town’s water crisis. “The challenges are great, and social media by itself cannot do the job, but in conjunction with an organized political campaign, progress is possible.”

— Shani Murray