Construction of Natures and Protests on Instagram: A Study of Virtual Environmental Activism in India During the COVID-19 Pandemic
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown in India restricted ‘real world’ protests, shifting dissent to digital spaces. In this article we explore virtual environmental activism on Instagram by looking at two case-studies that gained prominence during this period. The first was the death of a pregnant elephant in Kerala by consuming cracker-laden food meant to deter boars from crop-raiding. The second was an oil and gas leak in Baghjan, an ecologically sensitive region in Assam. Through content analysis of ‘Top’ posts, we thematically classified the representations of nature and non-humans constructed through Instagram visuals, identifying overlaps and contradictions in the two cases. Observing that the images of animals in pain generated massive response, we argue that Susan Sontag’s (2003) framework on the haunting power of images of human suffering can be expanded to include non-humans. These visuals highlight certain creatures, excluding other species and vilifying human communities belonging to the same landscapes. We show how unilinear models of economic development and progress, as well as hierarchical and casteist notions in Hinduism continue to shape environmental debates in India. The religious overtones discount the environmental discourse based on scientific knowledge, and disrupt nuances of community driven action. By tracing the online trajectories of the two protests, we also illustrate how virality limits Instagram activism by sidelining local voices and privileging short-lived consumer action over systemic change.
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