Decoding Social Media Activism: An Interview with Amir Rizvi Abbas Syed



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Social media as a (more subliminal) tool for revolution and uprisings has always fascinated me more than its more celebrated purpose of shallower ‘connectivity.’ Not to depreciate the value of the latter but if it’s an effective enough means to say, promote insurgent agendas or topple entire governments, then it’s relevant enough to warrant deeper probing within an Indian context. Especially considering that this is a tool of the youth. Then there’s the flip side that we’re always forced to take into consideration–does the push-button activism count for shit when the all the fingers doing the pushing are swarms of uninformed populace attempting to get in on a trend?

Considering that we’re in a more trepid political environment in India than ever before, I thought i’d approach the one man I know who has a stronger socio-political stance via his social media networks than anyone i’ve ever known. If facebook profiles could emit a fragrance, his would reek of anarchy and spilled, innocent blood. The kind he goes out of his way to stand up for both literally and figuratively speaking.






Amir Rizvi Abbas Syed, Rizvi to friends and family, has been a regular visitor in my home for many years now. A young and seriously talented graphic designer, he worked closely with my mother for many years on projects while she headed an NGO called Childline for several years. Even his creative expression was always tinged with a hint of his unshakeable personal beliefs, rooted in ideas of equality and justice. I eventually sought him out hoping to find our own answers by chipping away at his own story. It took one scroll down his wall to know i’d found the right man. It took another to feel gutted at several states of affair in our country but i’ll try not to digress.

Read on as Rizvi decodes the potential of social media as a tool for real change in India:

1. What’s your full name and what you do for a living. rizvi11

Amir Rizvi. I am a freelance graphic designer and writer.

2. Tell us a little about your current social media presence.

Recently, I most frequently use and update FB and g+.

3. What are your most frequented sites of choice?

I love Carlos Latuff’s blog Other sites that I regularly visit are Tehelka, NYTimes and Aljazeera.

4. When did you first start to use social media as a place to voice your political opinions?

I started voicing them as far back as Orkut days. I started off more simply–clarifying doubts and questioning various practices within religion–but it snowballed as the years and state of affairs evolved with me.



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5. You’ve been blocked from Facebook numerous times, tell us about when and why it happened the first time and your immediate reaction?

Blocking on Facebook for me began with the Jasmin Revolution/Arab Revolution 2 years ago. I was blocked for posting Arab anti-regime posts. Interestingly, FB selectively decides which posts are violating their guideline. Soon after I was blocked for posting Carlos Latuff’s cartoon which was against israeli occupation. Shortly after that, I was blocked again for posting Hitler’s image and comparing that with an Indian political scenario. I don’t even remember how many times they have blackballed me, ranging from 1-hour-long bans to 1-month-long bans.

FB has very advanced image recognizing technology. Earlier, they would delete your post without even letting you know. Once, I was shocked to see my posts being deleted immediately from my wall. Every time I posted a cartoon of ‘Kind Abdullah’ by Carlos Latuff, the image would mysteriously vanish.I faced similar vanishing magic when I was trying to post a link exposing Coke and its ill-effects in India. What’s worse though is that I keep getting hate-messages and threats on facebook as well! Now my “blocked list” has hundreds of people who post abusive/threats directed at me everyday.

Another important thing that happened was the ‘Revolution/censorship within FB.’ Facebook went through dramatic changes overnight. They stopped very useful existing options and tools from FB. For example: they limited the number of friends one could have, they archived the groups. Suddenly the option to message all the group members in one go was removed. Even the “Discussion” tab in the group was removed.

rizvi4 6. Tell us a little about the kind of content that seems to get reported quickest in your personal experience?

I have realized that it is easier for FB to ban any kind of political content if your post has any reference to Nazi/Hitler/Zionist icon. (anti-Semitic is usually the excuse) . Anything nude/sex related. e.g. any post related to nude protesst or related to gay rights etc. (porn is the excuse). Anything that shows atrocities/blood/wound e.g. cops shooting down a civilian/protester. (graphic violence is the excuse). The important thing to note here however, is that one can find much more graphic, violent, and pornographic posts all over Facebook but they selectively target political voices.




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7. Who do you think is responsible and how does it make you feel about your freedom of speech in these spaces? Has it ceased to exist?

The bullying on the street has now entered the cyber space. You get mobbed, your posts are dragged into pages and groups, where the cyber ‘bajarang dal’ and cyber ‘right-wing’ attacks you. People are asked to report your post and FB gives in to the number of reporting instead of checking the content. (Though this could also be purely atomized coding). There are people with disguised/fake ids who befriend you simply to extract details.

8. Has it ever reached a point where you’ve been afraid of more aggressive action being taken against you especially when you take into account that political parties have gone to all lengths to even go after young women for voicing the most basic of concerns?
Definitely. I thought of reporting certain matters to the police and stopped just because I don’t trust the cops much either. The police dept. is highly politicized in itself, I don’t know whether it will help or add to my problems. Nowadays I have started taking screenshots and posting it back on FB to expose the hatemonger posts which attempt to threaten me.

9. What’s your take on how the creator of was shut down recently?
It is terrifying! Look at the attack/bullying of Aditi restaurant’s owner by the congress goons! The entire idea of Indian democracy is its approach of being inclusive. That is why our constitution allowed even those people who were completely against democracy to exist and express their opinion. I mean, look back even to our first general election. It is awesome to see the number of parties and the kind of parties which contested in it! In my opinion, we only existed for 60 years in a fairly democratic country because of this “inclusive” factor. Look at Iraq/Syria/Lybia/Egypt etc. their democracies simply don’t have space for dissent. New governments kill the allies of the older regime, that is the reason no democracy is successful in the middle-east. Indian governments never killed the allies of British raj, the Hindu Rashtra or even allies of Muslim nations. They were all given equal rights to exist. Today, Indian Democratic value is under threat. These things should not be taken lightly.

rizvi310. What according to you is the scope of freedom of speech via social media? Are there any dangers to unchecked amounts of freedom you’ve come across personally?
Social Media is a feel-good “free” space which gives you an illusion of being free but ultimately these are privately owned businesses. They are trading our data, they have been sharing personal data of people with the oppressor governments/corporations. Once you are into any social media space, or even owned a smart phone, you are tagged for life. You can’t escape the ‘Big-Brother.’ Freedom of expression has never been so controlled. Social Media is now connected with cyber police which will be connected with national security grids through UID Aadhaar card, that will completely seal the little freedom we had. Between corporations and corrupt governments, everyone will be controlled.




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11. How do you feel about social media from a purely user perspective though?
It is a beautiful space from a user perspective because it connects you to the world. It enriches our opinion, it teaches you tolerance. People are coming out of the era of petty provocations, that lead to riots. For e.g. you can see disrespect to your faith/icon and you can’t do anything about it. You may not like it initially, but slowly you can learn to ignore it. This was impossible 10 years ago. People were going berserk with Rushdie’s book and Hussain’s painting and what not. Now there are so many similar things right in front of your eyes that people are actually ok with it because they have no choice. They have learnt to ignore it.

12. What according to you is the scope for change/revolution through ‘push-button activism’ or inciting change (even if it’s just in people’s mindsets) through social media in India? Its been known to cause revolution in other parts of the world, do you believe it is possible over here and why?
It is definitely a very powerful tool and surely one can bring in changes through social media. But expecting a revolution in India is difficult through social media. Only a small fraction of Indians have access to it. One of my fb groups “flats without broker” has managed to bridge a huge gap between accommodation and tenants which was exploited by the brokers. Now many newcomers to Indian cities are finding PG and small flats without any broker. I am scared of misguided revolution though. E.g. A revolution without understanding about basic democratic values.

rizvi813. Any examples?
The best example would probably be the protest for Delhi’s Nirbhaya case; masses asking for beheading and violent forms of killing/revenge. Such things are scary, the world is going forward against capital punishments and we are going backward to medieval eras. Definition of Juveniles, Juvenile Justice, age of consent, everything is being compromised to please the angry mobs. The newly formed and recommended laws are full of intentional flaws. Politicians are flowing with public demands, instead of educating the public about the real issues.We have very popular news anchors, politicians, neo-activists, neo-gandhians who are making it extremely difficult for these same people to be heard. Intolerance is everywhere and propaganda is overtaking facts. There has to be an official reliable source where people can go back to confirm floating hoaxes.

13. Do you prefer using your graphic design abilities to create satirical posts?
My posts are mostly graphic design. I use visual mediums to convey my point because they tend to have maximum impact, especially within this space. You can trace the headlines through my posts of the last 3 years and find many such examples.

14. And finally, I know this is very broad, but what are the more immediate changes you’d like to see in the governmental structure we’re witnessing today? “Tolerance, co-existence” Bringing back the basic foundation of democracy on which freedom of expression is built.
Words: Mandovi Menon


(First Published in Homegrown)

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