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Illustration by Alyazia Alremeithi

Creating Lifeboats in the Kerala Floods with Social Media

Can a #hashtag create change for the good?

Oct 14, 2018

During last week’s controversy with the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, the rise of #WhyIDidntReport and #TimesUp emerged, not just as trending hashtags, but as global rallying cries that draw attention and action against sexual predators.
Social media has become a platform for a new type of activism that resonates with generations that grew up with the internet. Last week’s controversy was not the only time that I have seen hashtags lead activism. I saw #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo and other such hashtags enter the spotlight, and I saw the impact they made to our conversations.
I have always been hesitant about posting anything of my own on the internet. During my time on social media, I internalized the belief that to be opinionated was to ask for trouble, and to post too much was to take up too much space. I never knew if I was afraid of engaging in public discourse online because I would be labeled an attention seeker or be mocked for trying to be a social justice warrior without contributing anything tangible to the issue. I also avoided voicing any personal opinions regarding India. I always felt that as a non-resident Indian, Malayali and member of the diaspora, I did not have the right to comment on or contribute to the conversation.
This completely changed for me with the 2018 Kerala floods. In August 2018, the flooding in Kerala, the southern state of India where I am from, was the worst in almost a century — since 1924. More than 483 deaths and damage worth 2.7 billion USD were reported. While the people in Kerala suffered, the diaspora, like myself in the UAE, watched in helpless horror.
While the floods worsened and the state government, local news channels and volunteers rushed to help, one sore thumb stuck out. Indian news channels did not seem to award the emergency the coverage it deserved. The Central Government of India seemed oddly detached from the situation. As a Malayali and non-resident Indian abroad waiting for urgent news on the developments, I was angry — did they not see what was happening?
I was not alone. In response, #KeralaFloods, #StandWithKerala and #DoForKerala were created to spread the news. These hashtags flooded social media, sharing the link to the official donation fund created by the Chief Minister of Kerala.
Malayali youth and the diaspora took the torch. If the news industry wasn’t going to say anything, we would. Politicians, government officials and celebrities took to Twitter to post regular updates and opinions on the floods. Instagram posts shared pictures of the damage and development of the situation. Facebook posts became news articles. A popular Malayali meme page on Instagram started posting resources, news and ways to help, and other pages followed. Soon after, people across the world joined in.
With #StandWithKerala, I actively joined a social media-based campaign for the first time. Fueled by a mixture of righteous anger and diasporic helplessness, I shared resources and opinions on my Instagram story. Every day, I would look through my feeds on various apps for posts that I could share. I made sure these posts were accessible to everyone, especially my friends who were non-resident Indians in the UAE or other countries. I made a #KeralaFloods highlight on my Instagram account titled #KeralaFloods to ensure the information remained accessible.
Initially, my motive was to just raise awareness. I didn’t expect the response. I had friends message me asking what the issue was and how they could help. People I did not know shared what I posted and encouraged me to keep posting. My actions also started conversations among other Malayalis I knew. Since they were also sharing information, we exchanged resources, checked in on each other’s families and supported each other’s initiatives regarding donation drives and contact sharing.
Then something powerful happened. International and Indian media networks, seeing the attention the floods were gathering, started reporting on the disaster. Donations to the Chief Minister’s fund collected over 100 million USD. Malayali diaspora across the world set up donation drives that collected money and essentials to be shipped back to affected communities. I was overjoyed when the UAE government offered to help, because of the impact that the Malayali community has had in the UAE.
In their helplessness, Malayali diaspora rose together to support Kerala through social media and online donations. We could not do anything directly but our presence on social media had a tangible impact. I remember thinking at the time: what space was I afraid of taking? The little public space I took up on social media was mine to use in any way. To be afraid of even using it was to keep silent all the time and be worried about what others would think; that was me refusing myself the right to use my own rightful space. To stay silent was to stay compliant.
Towards the end of the efforts, I made several posts on my Instagram story to give my last words on the issue. I told people that they could keep helping and asking me questions.
The entire situation has made me reevaluate a lot of my stances on many issues. I was the kind of person who was selective on what I shared online, and I often avoided posting a lot because I felt like I was taking up too much space, whether I was allowed to or not. After the Kerala floods, I realised how important my online presence can be if I chose to utilize it properly. In a time where one voice willing to speak out in public can change our world, I allowed myself the choice to use my voice, and to use it responsibly.
Aathma Nirmala Dious is a staff writer. Email her at
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