Citizen Media Platforms Are Breaking the Silence in India

"A single conversation on social media can trigger a full movement."
May 26, 2017, 12:40pm
Portrait by Vivek Singh

This story appears in the May issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

Anshul Tewari could be called a social entrepreneur, but he is also a revolutionary in the making. In India, where the people and the media often struggle to exercise their freedom of expression, he is inspiring millennials to speak up without fear. The 26-year-old runs an online citizen-media platform called Youth Ki Awaaz, which means "the voice of youth" in Hindi. What began as a personal blog when he was 17 years old has transformed into a full-fledged startup with a team of 26 people. Open letters written by young people on the platform's website have sparked social media campaigns and helped to shape local and national-party manifestos.

The website attracts 2 million people every month, and almost 95 percent of its content—a mix of personal stories and opinions on movies, social issues, and government policies—is user generated. Tewari's team works around the clock to vet submissions and edit them for clarity. Readers have contributed more than 20,000 posts since the platform's inception in 2008. In his office in Noida, India, Tewari and I discussed his vision for Youth Ki Awaaz.

Portrait by Vivek Singh

VICE: How did Youth Ki Awaaz begin?
Anshul Tewari: I felt that young people care; they have opinions about issues, and they have the power to change things. But the media is structured in an extremely top-down and hierarchical manner. With any traditional media setup, whether it is a college newspaper or a national television channel, a few editors run the entire outlet. They decide who writes for them and who doesn't, and that leaves so many people out. I felt the need for something that is more bottom-up. I wanted to create a community of people who can write about issues in a journalistic way.

You've talked about the culture of silence in India. What is it, and why is it harmful?
As young people in India, we are never encouraged to speak up or question norms. We grow up in a culture of silence: Don't question your elders, don't speak up against traditions, and don't take risks. If young people do not question or break taboos and stereotypes, we are not going to progress. We are going to be where we were 50 years ago.

Everyone on the internet has an opinion. Have you wondered if you're just creating more armchair activists?
The internet is a mirror of everything offline. What you cannot say offline, you can say on the internet because you have the garb of anonymity, or you have a safer space. A single conversation on social media can trigger a full movement. Look at the Arab Spring; people were able to organize protests because they were able to create Facebook pages and tweet about where they were. So this "armchair activism" has actually become one of the biggest drivers for young people to go offline and do something. So think of the internet as a space to tell stories. If you tell the right stories to trigger the right emotions, you can get people to act—and they act offline.

"If young people do not question or break taboos and stereotypes, we are not going to progress."

Is there an example that shows Youth Ki Awaaz has had tangible impact?
The Happy to Bleed campaign is an example. The head of Sabarimala temple, a Hindu place of worship in Kerala, said that they should install machines to check whether women are menstruating or not. If they are, they shouldn't be allowed inside the premises. One of our readers, Nikita Azad, wrote an open letter on Youth Ki Awaaz directed toward the head about how he was encouraging menstrual taboos and how women have suffered for centuries because of them. That's how the movement really started. Women went on social media and posted their pictures with placards saying happy to bleed. The campaign helped propel conversations about menstrual taboos into the mainstream-media narrative in India.

But the temple still doesn't allow menstruating women to enter. Are there other examples of successful campaigns?
A young person who is living with a disability wrote on our website about how she was forced to wear adult diapers to work because the toilets at her office were completely inaccessible. The world is built for able-bodied people by able-bodied people. So nobody cares about this issue. But within a week of her story going up, 20,000 people had shared it. The company took note. And they immediately got the toilets—not just on her floor but in the entire building—reconstructed.

Youth Ki Awaaz posts articles as soon as they are submitted. Why?
We realized a lot of people want to talk about issues. They need to tell the stories instantly. If I face a problem [on the train] in the Delhi Metro today, I want to talk about it today—not three days from now. Reasons why platforms like Snapchat and Instagram work are because you can put something up and instantly know whether people like it or not. So we decided to trust our community and open the platform up. It's been pretty phenomenal—we are getting 100 posts a day.