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Dissent Art in the Digital Age: Insights into the Culture of Artivism on Instagram in India

Bhawna Parmar


The introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in 2019 marked a discernible change in the landscape of online protest art. As protests against the act gathered momentum, a surge in the art endorsing the movement dominated Indian social media and increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. This wave was propelled by a cohort of “artivists” with social and cultural influence who were positioned favorably on the digital spectrum. They used platforms such as Instagram to craft and share protest art, leveraging social media to express their dissent. The intensification of the online protests subsequently led to instances of individual and organized abuse directed at the artists, including mob attacks and threats of First Information Reports. This paper explores this phenomenon through extensive interactions with online “artivists” in India in order to understand the cultural shift and emphasize the similarities and differences between virtual dissent art and traditional forms of art activism. Adopting a qualitative methodology that combines digital ethnography and semi-structured interviews, the author—who also found her artistic voice amidst this movement—seeks to capture the artists’ approaches and subjectivity. The paper further delves into the limitations and constraints posed by social media platforms, addressing the issue of online harassment faced by artivists on Instagram. Lastly, it engages in a discourse on how social media commodifies dissent within the landscape of digital capitalism.

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Introduction: The uprising of digital artivists

“[W]hen the mainstream media is seen to be biased in their narrative or forced to be censored directly or indirectly by the state … independent artists and journalists have played an important role to become the new face of dissent.”

Kamran Akhter, digital artist (Interview, May 2022)

1In December 2019, the Indian government introduced the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The CAA’s aim was to streamline the Indian citizenship process for specific immigrant categories, prioritizing Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis, and Christians while notably excluding Muslims. This initiative coincided with the implementation of the NRC, an official record of Indian citizens, raising fears about its potential use to restrict the rights of Muslims in the country (BBC News 2019). The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern about the “fundamentally discriminatory” nature of the new amendment (Laurence 2019). The anti-CAA movement started as a protest on December 14, 2019, with a few women blocking the Kalindi Kunj highway of southeast Delhi, bordering the neighborhood of Shaheen Bagh that connects Delhi with Noida and Faridabad (Farooqi 2020). A nationwide wave of dissent subsequently unfolded against these measures, which were perceived as singling out Muslims and challenging their fundamental right to live peacefully as legitimate citizens in India. Spearheaded by Muslim women, the anti-CAA-NRC protests soon gained global attention, shedding light on the divisive and polarizing politics of India’s governing authorities (BBC News 2020). The on-ground anti-CAA-NRC protests lasted from December 2019 to March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic brought it to an abrupt halt. However, the dissent continued online. The protests were significantly enriched by the inclusion of poetry, music, plays, and art, which added a crucial and expressive dimension to the movement. A distinctive feature of this movement was the pervasive influence of art and graphic design. Overnight, streets and walls became canvases, public spaces evolved into galleries, and it seemed as though every other individual had become an artist or a designer (Saxena 2023).

Figure 1

Figure 1

Protest art on the walls outside Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, made during the anti-CAA-NRC movement (Ara 2020).

2Alongside the on-ground mobilization led by Muslim women from Shaheen Bagh, social media played a pivotal role as a critical tool for protesters in the anti-CAA movement, which echoed a trend seen in other protests around the world this century. This approach mirrored the Turkish protest movement of 2013, during which demonstrators used social media to share information due to the perceived lack of coverage by traditional media (Jost et al. 2018). Platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook were key in disseminating information about the coordination, synchronization, and logistics of the protests, as well as personal opinions and academic analyses. The protests also gave rise to a new wave of digital artist-activists—commonly referred to as “artivists”—who used social media as a platform to express and record their dissent. The term “artivists,” as defined in this paper, draws on the work of Weij and Berkers, who use it to refer to individuals “seek[ing] social change and highlight[ing] pressing social issues throughout their artistic practices” (Weij and Berkers 2021:1619). While many artivists had been creating and publishing art prior to the anti-CAA movement, there was a notable shift in their work toward a more political focus. The act of sharing art on social media, especially on platforms like Instagram, provided artivists with the opportunity to reach a wider global audience in support of the movement.

3A burgeoning body of literature has emerged that centers on the intersection of social protest and digital activism and stems from various fields of research, notably media studies, platform and software studies, and social movement research (Jost et al. 2018). Poell and Van Dijck note that “major contemporary protest movements have been accompanied by intense social media activity” since the Arab Spring in the early 2010s (Poell and Van Dijck 2018:546). Scholarship in this domain has specifically delved into the molding of collective movements through social media, with a primary focus on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Concurrently, researchers have explored reciprocal dynamics, examining how these channels have served to disseminate, amplify, and reshape the narratives of social protest (Bennett and Segerberg 2011; Poell and van Dijck 2015; Margetts et al. 2016; Mundt et al. 2018). By scrutinizing the techno-commercial architecture of social media, research within the political economy of communication has observed that these platforms, far from being neutral intermediaries facilitating the activities of social media activists, have also “fundamentally shap[ed] it” (Poell and Van Dijck 2018:546), especially as these actions unfold within an algorithmically-mediated environment (Milan 2015). Other studies rooted in social movement approaches question how social media facilitates novel forms of activism and presents new opportunities by virtue of its “public sphere” nature (Mundt et al. 2018). Other works have honed in on how activists have specifically adapted their strategies to the logic of social media, exploring how they leverage the technical properties of these platforms for purposes such as boosting protests and crowdfunding. Additionally, these works delve into the challenges faced by activists, including dealing with abusive comments and encountering new forms of violence within the digital realm.

4In India, where protest movements have increasingly adopted media technologies, there has been a sharp increase in the literature examining these phenomena over the past decade. The widespread adoption of social media has positioned the country as the global leader in the number of Facebook users, surpassing 400 million and placing it well ahead of the approximately 240 million users in the United States (World Population Review 2023). This situation requires nuance, considering that access to the internet is still limited to less than half of the Indian population. However, it is noteworthy that approximately 75% of internet users fall within the 15-34 age range (Zaslavsky 2019). Prominent events, such as the #MeToo movement or the Farmers’ protests, have underscored the significant role of social media in contemporary protest strategies. In this context, recent studies have sought to unravel the inherent complexities surrounding such online movements, delving into the issues of inequalities related to access, class, caste, language, and internet literacy that they invariably raise (Subramanian 2023). The digital transformation in Indian political campaigning has garnered growing attention, including diverse research efforts that examine both the strategies employed by political parties and those adopted by government opponents (Martelli and Jumle 2023). Beyond large-scale popular events, communities of digital activists, particularly hailing from Dalit and other backward caste backgrounds, are actively engaged on a daily basis in advocating for social justice and gender equality on social media platforms (Zaslavsky 2021).

5While a growing body of literature has been examining the relationship between social media platforms and protests in India, including the anti-CAA Protest (Bhilwar 2021; Naidu 2022), the exploration of artistic activism during political protests has received comparatively less attention. Instagram and Facebook, in particular, have evolved into critical spaces for artist-activists to address significant social issues, ranging from the caste system in Indian society to patriarchy, through their digital art. This aspect requires further research. This article seeks to explore the motivations behind the cultural phenomenon of digital art as a form of protest in India. It aims to investigate the contexts, locations, and mindsets of artists who turn to social media to create dissent art. Additionally, this article aims to delve into the implications of exhibiting dissent art on capitalist platforms, which are influenced by profits and nation-states, and to examine the impact on both the artists and the movements they support. The three main queries that this research aims to address are rooted in the case of the anti-CAA-NRC movement.

6For the purpose of this research, the definition of art has been narrowed down to include visual art involving static or moving images created digitally or in analogue and uploaded to Instagram. This focused approach will offer insight into the specific dynamics of digital art within the context of protest movements.

Research Methodology

  • 1 It is important to note that none of the author’s personal work has been analyzed in this context.

7My research relies on a qualitative approach based on a mix of data collection processes. This approach includes social media content analysis (visual content and associated text or activities, such as likes, reposts, and comments) and ethnographic study, complemented by semi-structured interviews and on-site observation. It is crucial to acknowledge the subjective lens I have brought to the study, given my dual role as both an academic and artivist. This perspective shapes how the research is designed and lends an insider’s viewpoint to the analysis. The part I have played in the informal artivist community has facilitated access to a broad network of fellow artivists, allowing for a nuanced understanding of the cultural and social dynamics surrounding digital art as a form of protest in India.1

8The primary aim of this study is to capture the specific and contrasting dimensions of digital artivism that arose during and after the anti-CAA movement by focusing on the voices and subjectivity of the artivists actively engaged in the online protest art movement in order to capture their unique approaches and perspectives and provide insight into the diverse contexts in which digital protest art emerges (Evans 2022). Tracing individual trajectories forms a valuable tool for understanding global changes and local reconfiguration processes, including both offline and online spaces. This research draws inspiration from Lane and Lingel’s digital ethnography approach (2022) and aligns with the notion of digital ethnography as an expansive term that complements the growing literature on conducting ethnographic and qualitative work within the context of digital technologies. The approach is further contextualized within a broader political economy of communication framework, which aims to provide a critical analysis of the larger industrial organization and power relations involved in the use of social media. This framework also explores the contradictions that arise for artivists navigating these platforms for dissent.

9The material presented here is derived from a corpus consisting of the artworks and semi-structured interviews of six Indian artivists. The interviews took place between February and August 2022. The selection process for the artivists involved identifying individuals who had been notably active on Instagram for the past three years or more, displaying elements that contributed to the anti-CAA movement and its aftermath. However, there is a variation in the history and presence of these artivists on the social media platform, with follower counts ranging from 4,000 to 60,000. The decision was made to concentrate on artists with two primary backgrounds: digital artists with previous experience on social media and individuals who first became involved in digital artivism following the anti-CAA moment. This dual focus provides a diverse perspective on the evolution of digital artivism within the context of the anti-CAA movement. Furthermore, all of these artivists encountered trolling, surveillance, and threats on social media because they engaged in protest art online. This shared aspect underscores the challenges and risks that artivists face when using digital platforms to express dissent.

10Regarding the corpus, additional details are provided in Table 1. The group is composed of diverse gender identities, with one artist choosing to remain anonymous. The artists range in age from 20 to 35, with one individual in their 50s. They are predominantly young people from the middle and upper-middle classes who have been notably active on social media. Despite this commonality, their origins are diverse, with varying socioeconomic, religious, and caste backgrounds. Their professional backgrounds are equally varied, with four being designers, graphic designers, or artists by profession and only two exercising different occupations related to tech or law. This diversity enriches the perspectives and experiences presented in this study. Due to concerns about revealing their identity, some artivists were reluctant to respond to the research verbally and instead chose to engage in written conversations. Additionally, a few artivists from the sample were not comfortable with having their names associated with certain quotes from their interviews. In order to respect this, some of the qualitative data has been kept anonymous. This approach ensures that the privacy and concerns of the artivists are prioritized while still contributing valuable insight to the research.

11This article begins by examining how digital technology has paved the way for new expressions of artivism in India, delving into the motivations and trajectories of the artists in the corpus who voiced their perspectives during and after the anti-CAA movement. It then shifts the focus to analyzing how the nature of art used for social movements changes in the digital realm. The discussion centers on the limitations and constraints posed by social media platforms, probing the question of how social media acts as both a friend and foe (“frenemy”) and addressing the issue of online harassment faced by artivists on Instagram. Lastly, this article engages in a discourse on how social media commodifies dissent within the landscape of digital capitalism.

Table 1b

Table 1b

Tables 1a and 1b: Corpus of Artists Interviewed Between February 2022 and August 2022

The Anti-CAA Movement as triggering event to the Artivist Uprising After December 2019

12Art and social movements are intrinsically linked. Adams (2002) has positioned it in the following way: “Art has political power that can support the status quo, act as a safety valve for discontent or serve as an emancipatory force, challenging dominant institutions, and reinforcing the subversion of existing systems.” Art is one of the myriad ways in which cultural and symbolic production occurs within social movements, representing an interactive process in the construction of meaning (Gamson 1992). It also serves as a manifestation of protestors’ grievances, emotions, and values. In India, numerous instances have demonstrated the use of art in resistance movements, a particularly crucial aspect for a country characterized by diverse languages and literacy levels. An illustrative example is the Sahmat Collective in India, which was established in 1989 following the death of artist and activist Safdar Hashmi. This collective has been a leading force in the intersection of art and activism since the late 1980s, as Jessica Moss and Ram Rahman have corroborated: “The Sahmat Collective’s work has been described as ‘aesthetic resistance’ and ‘artistic activism.’ The collective’s use of art as a means of activism has been particularly effective in challenging the rise of religious fundamentalism in India” (Moss and Rahman 2013).

13Digital technology has revolutionized artivism by streamlining and democratizing the global circulation of art, diverging from conventional channels such as institutional media or art exhibitions. The heightened awareness of global events, coupled with real-time information access, has further empowered art activism to transcend traditional boundaries in unprecedented ways. For Payal Arora (2015), virtual spaces like Instagram foster new political publics and complex communities of practice, which are afforded by the design of the platform as openness is embedded into it. She writes: “New communication technologies have facilitated coordination of protests around common concerns such as the environment, economy, peace, and nuclear disarmament, taking local political movements across geographic and cultural borders” (Arora 2015).

14India experienced this during the anti-CAA movement, with art being one of the drivers of awareness and provocation. As digital art proliferated on social media during and after the anti-CAA movement, numerous media outlets promptly documented the cultural phenomenon of digital dissent art. They conducted interviews with digital artivists, aiming to either showcase their art or comprehend their motivations. Following the anti-CAA movement, there was a surge in the presence of artivists, which coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. News outlets called it a “creative renaissance” (Sikander 2020) under the current regime and acknowledged the creativity that arose through dissent during the movement, while some said online art became the face of the movement (Majumdar 2019). Artivism possesses the capacity to shape the media agenda, and digital platforms not only have the potential to amplify or expedite this influence but also to redefine who holds the ability to impact that agenda. Referred to as “new age activism” (Pardiwalla, 2019), these artworks served to raise awareness while also challenging the government’s narrative around the policies.

15According to Adams (2002), art in social movements serves a dual role as both a framing device and a tool for resource mobilization; movements utilize art to frame and attribute meaning to events, spurring mobilization, garnering support, and attracting participants. In this context, art emerges as a nonverbal framing device, contributing to the production of meaning within social movements (Adams 2002). Additionally, Jost et al. (2018) outline three factors influencing an individual’s political participation: outrage (anger or indignation at perceived injustice), social identification (a strong sense of belonging and shared interests), and group efficacy (belief and confidence in the movement’s success). These factors, combined with Adams’s conceptualization of art becoming a framing device (2002), are evident in how the artivists in the corpus expressed themselves through their art and how their art added to the movement.

16In the corpus of six artists (see Table 1), three can be characterized as early adopters of social media for dissent art, beginning their digital artivism a few months or years prior to 2019. Aindriya Barua, a self-taught artist and software engineer, is among them. They have been sharing art critiquing patriarchy on Instagram since 2018. However, their art turned to questioning the state more directly following the anti-CAA movement. As they explain:

My work mostly started with whatever I was going through. In college it was body positivity and feminism. It became more political and anti-establishment from the anti-CAA-NRC movement. I didn’t follow the news before this but during anti-CAA, the Assam population got affected and I am from the northeast so I started creating art on that. I do call my art activism. Sometimes it feels that it’s not doing any good but then I feel if there’s only one person who’s learning something from my art then at least I am doing something (Aindriya Barua, Interview, April 2022).

17SmishDesigns, who prefers to use an alias to safeguard her identity, is a designer and artist in her 30s hailing from Mumbai. She identifies as a humanitarian topical commentator, with the pivotal moment for her artivism being the May 2019 general election results that marked the BJP government’s return to power. Fueled by a sense of helplessness, she felt compelled to address the unfolding events in the country. Having grown up in a secular India, she felt obligated to reject the othering of minority communities that the state was now propagating. She was already regularly posting her political art in 2019, but the movement further motivated her to express solidarity through her artworks. Her most viral art piece, titled Weighing us Down, was published to express her resistance to the CAA. This artwork, in which she depicted the saffron part of India’s flag as a burden (Figure 2), garnered nearly 50,000 likes on Instagram. She elaborates on its trajectory, saying:

I had put it up earlier, but I removed it. I got a lot of threats for it, they said it’s insulting our flag. It was killing me that I wasn’t putting it out there. And when I put it, it went viral, which was my claim to fame I would say. People started taking it to protests. What I value the most is that people were channeling what they were feeling through a couple of art pieces I created. That is where I feel art truly belongs, with the people. That changed my life and I have never looked back ever since

(SmishDesigns, Interview, March 2022).

Figure 2

Figure 2

Weighing Us Down by SmishDesigns (SmishDesigns 2019).

18On the other hand, the three other artists from the corpus fall into the category of artivists whose tipping point occurred in 2019 and 2020. The catalyzing events for them were either the CAA and NRC or the subsequent pandemic, which brought the movement to a halt. The triggering event (Klandermans 2014), that shifted these artivists from latent anti-regime voices to aligning with the anti-CAA protests are detailed in the following sections.

19Krityam Jain, a digital artist and animation student, actively participated in digital artivism after the beginning of the anti-CAA movement, primarily through comics published on Instagram. He says:

I come from Madhya Pradesh. During the anti-CAA movement, I noticed everyone, my family and friends, around me were falling for propaganda, and I felt I couldn’t reason with them as the spaces for dialogue have considerably reduced. There was no way for me to let out my anger, I felt very angry. That’s why I started making art. I thought isse at least mera gussa toh shant hoga (at least my anger will subside through this)

(Krityam Jain, Interview April 2022).

20Instagram provided artivists with an outlet for expressing their emotions and commenting on the state of affairs. Expressing disappointment at not being able to freely articulate himself in his immediate surroundings, he specifies:

Every institution around me is pretty right-wing. When I showed them the comics I create on political issues, my guides and peers asked me to stop and focus on important things. I don’t have anyone around me who shares my political opinion or wants to engage in a dialogue. I feel my art is more accepted online and has more potential to change mindsets

(Krityam Jain, Interview, April 2022).

21Outrage, defined as one of the factors that influences political participation (Jost et al. 2018), can be observed in the descriptions of the artivists’ tipping point. Artivists mentioned feeling “broken” and “disappointed” as well as “helpless and restless” before the state of affairs they were witnessing. Seeing unjust policy changes, lynchings, and violent attacks on students disrupted their understanding of the world, causing cognitive dissonance and forcing them to critically engage with the realities of the current times. Starting with an emotional response, the artists in the sample soon discovered a collective purpose in mobilization. Initially using Instagram for personal expression, they found a broader calling as their art engaged the public. Transforming their skills into a framing device for the movement, their art became an expression against the ruling regime. Penpencildraw emphasized the dual role of their art in informing or entertaining the audience. For many, it acted as a reflective mirror of societal issues. Even those unfamiliar with digital tools learned to create digital art to voice their opposition to injustice. The anonymous artist Penpencildraw is a case in point, a lawyer by profession who delved into digital art despite lacking formal art training and started regularly commenting on India’s sociopolitical conditions and the ruling regime: “Originally the intention was not to draw only political cartoons (it still isn’t), but such are the times we live in that one can’t [help] but respond to the nonsense around us” (Penpencildraw, Interview, May 2022).

22Kamran Akhter, a Muslim artist in his 20s originally from Bihar and currently residing in southeast Delhi, shares his work on Instagram under the handle Chhabikar. His initiation into “artivism” began with his first Instagram post in December 2019 (Figure 3), responding to the police violence at his alma mater (Slater and Masih 2019) that triggered the anti-CAA protests. This artwork garnered 226 likes and marked the beginning of Kamran’s journey into digital artivism. As he puts it:

Figure 3

Figure 3

Kamran’s first “artivist” post in response to the anti-CAA-NRC movement (Akhter 2019).

I never associated myself and engaged in any cause until the anti-CAA protest erupted from the university campus of Jamia and Shaheen Bagh became the epicenter of the resistance movement. When Delhi Police stormed Jamia campus and beat up my friends I could no longer just see everything and let everything happen but [had to] resist in some way. The nationwide protest against the CAA proved to be the turning point for me to go digital, as the only way I could communicate to a wider audience was through social media. I found my art as a friend, I could talk through my art, and it enabled me to let my thoughts out.

(Kamran Akhter, Interview, May 2022).

23As Jost et al. describe (2018), social identification is another factor influencing the choice to participate in a movement. Transforming artivism into a practice of consistently creating and posting dissent art was greatly influenced by the role of the audience and the platform. During the anti-CAA movement, Instagram evolved into a political space where numerous artists discovered a sense of solidarity (Kaur 2019; The Print 2020). Witnessing their art reach various parts of the world virtually served as an encouragement for artists to persist in creating dissent art. Success for artivists was not only measured by the resharing or sharing of their art on platforms like WhatsApp but also when digital art found its way into offline spaces, as highlighted by one artivist. “My friend told me that my artwork is being forwarded in many groups on WhatsApp, that was a moment of pride for me,” says Aindriya Barua (Aindriya Barua, Interview, 2022). Ashish Bagchi expresses the same thought, “One of the greatest joys in my life was coming across one of my creations being used in a poster during CAA protests” (Ashish Bagchi, Interview, May 2022). Several artists, who are not included in this paper’s corpus, …took their online art to the protest spaces, translating it into physical form. Figure 4 shows the work of artist Sanitary Panels, who, during a visit to Delhi, transferred the comic she initially shared online onto the walls of Jamia Millia Islamia University in support of the anti-CAA movement.

Figure 4

Figure 4

This artwork on the walls of Jamia Millia Islamia University (left) was initially posted online (right) by artist Sanitary Panels (Sanitary Panels 2020, Sanitary Panels 2019).

24Numerous artivists also noted the significant number of people, both young and old, participating in the uprising during the anti-CAA movement. Kamran, for instance, says, “The most interesting thing is to see that so many artists have joined to speak the truth to power” (Kamran Akhter, Interview, May 2022). The act of seeing their art reshared provided artivists with a sense of hope, indicating that their work was reaching an audience and generating a reaction. This phenomenon points toward the establishment of group efficacy, a crucial element in sustaining the movement, as highlighted by Jost et al. (2018).

Social Media as “Frenemy” and Online Lynching

“Social media is the frenemy from hell.”

(PenPencilDraw, Interview, May 2022)

25The artivists interviewed collectively recognized the instrumental role of social media in providing their art with a platform and purpose. However, they also acknowledged the platform’s limits and constraints, often referring to social media as their “frenemy.” While it grants them the freedom to reach a broad audience, the platform is subject to the rules of digital capitalism, compelling artists to navigate the algorithms. Khalid Albaih, a political artist, reflects on this dual nature of social media, saying:

Social media platforms have community guidelines which translate into a form of censorship which curb artists’ freedom of speech. Other than this there are shadow bans; if you talk about certain topics, you will get a lower number of views. But many people have creatively circumvented these censors to reach people online.

(RightsCon, Panel Discussion, 2022)

26The online ethnography of artivism reveals a significant increase in online violence. Every artivist in our sample has experienced trolling, including abuse, doxxing, vitriol, and threats of violence. Madpaule, a Delhi-based artist, emphasized the online trolling faced by artists challenging the status quo, deeming it “online lynching.” Through Instagram, Madpaule drew attention to the parallels between virtual attacks and offline assaults, where artivists encounter continuous organized online abuse and harassment. (Figure 5).

Figure 5

Figure 5

The Online Lynching by Madpaule (Madpaule 2020).

27Undemocratic attacks on freedom of speech and expression for artists are not confined to social media. Rather, they are a general consequence of public visibility. Malvika Maheshwari (2018), who extensively examined such attacks on artists, states:

What was once the privilege of the state—to oppress individuals and groups by curtailing certain forms of expression in the name of ‘sedition,’ ‘public order,’ ‘morality,’ and so on—began to be exercised by power-wielding groups based on allegations of ‘hurt sentiments’ or ‘disrespect to a community,’ at the same time claiming to be liberal like the state

(Maheshwari 2018).

28Historically, artists have faced public attacks, like those targeting M.F. Hussain and the art students of MSU Baroda, based on accusations of hurting religious sentiments. This phenomenon predates the digital era. However, the dynamics shift when these attacks transition to the online realm. The broader online audience offers increased exposure while simultaneously amplifying the risk of being targeted for trolling and online harassment. Social media, often perceived as offering anonymity, enables individuals to express dissent without directly disclosing their identity. However, this perceived anonymity also facilitates easy access for trolls to target artivists by commenting on their art, sending unsolicited messages, and involving them in organized group attacks without their consent. Consequently, social media has introduced a form of digital surveillance for artivists (Milan 2015), who lack sufficient protective measures.

29Many artists, both within and beyond the sample, face the risk of being doxxed, causing some to erase their entire online presence due to threats. The surge in attacks, particularly following the anti-CAA-NRC movement on social media, has prompted artivists to reevaluate their practice when it starts impacting their real-life security. The increased radicalization after the BJP came to power in India has intensified direct attacks, aligning with Maheshwari’s observations on the escalation of threats faced by artists: the “intensification of attacks on artists corresponds with the radicalization of the Hindu nationalist movement and the rise of its political wing, the BJP, in the 1990s” (Maheshwari 2018).

  • 2 Caste is a form of hereditary hierarchy in Hindu society that is prevalent in India. It divides peo (...)

30On Instagram, artivists consistently face trolling characterized by violent threats—including sexual ones—and the mobilization of “online troll armies.” Art that is critical of the ruling regime is at times mass reported and shared in “right-wing” groups, directing emotionally charged individuals toward the profiles of artivists. On top of all this, trolling intensifies when gender and caste2 come into play. Women in the sample report receiving threats of rape, while artivists from marginalized castes face casteist slurs. In their report on online caste-hate speech, Kain et al. (2021) observe that discriminatory factors in the offline world also translate to the online realm, making it less safe for individuals with marginalized identities. Their research demonstrates that “hateful expression could sometimes silence caste-marginalized groups and individuals, exclude them from conversations, and adversely impact their physical and mental well-being” (Kain et al. 2021).

31Since 2019, an organized online machinery has actively sought to discipline and silence artivists expressing dissent, mirroring offline forms of violence. Attacks on artivists swiftly follow the publication of artworks criticizing the government, often within the first ten minutes after art is posted online. Trolls immediately begin commenting and abusing them, although how they track the artists remain unclear. Unlike earlier sentiments tied primarily to majoritarian religion, trolling on social media now includes self-proclaimed protectors of Hinduism defending the government and its leaders. This has heightened the contentious nature of critically questioning the ruling party and its ministers.

32The screenshots provided (Figure 6) display comments posted on the artworks of SmishDesigns and Kamran Akhter. SmishDesigns’ artwork (left image) criticizes seven years of blind faith in the prime minister, and the second image comments on the saffron flag associated with RSS (Rashtriya SwayamSevak Sangh), the parent organization of the ruling party, both of which received Islamophobic slurs and other abuses. Kamran Akhter’s artwork, criticizing the impunity of hate speech under the current regime, also received Islamophobic slurs (right image). Artivists reported that such comments became a recurring phenomenon, prompting them to refrain from engaging and often just deleting them.

Figure 6

Figure 6

Comments received on SmishDesigns’ (left and center) and Kamran Akhter’s artworks on Instagram (right).

33The trolling sometimes translates into offline physical violence or legal action taken by some right-wing groups. Aindriya mentions how the trolling targeted her and extended from online to her offline life:

In the online world no one knows me. One of my art [pieces] went viral and started getting a lot of hate. Some right-wing people shared all the information about my sister and family. They started putting up stories on Instagram with that information and asked me to apologize, threatening that they are going to share my information more widely. I got even more worried because a guy from my college was in their group. They even threatened me with an FIR (First Information Report). That’s when I got scared because I have a job and I might lose everything. I got a panic attack because of all of this.

(Aindriya Barua, Interview, April 2022).

34In addition to the fear of online mobs is the fear of coming under state surveillance. For example, comedians like Kunal Kamra and Munawar Faruqui have faced legal action for their statements that seemingly criticize India or Hinduism (Indian Express 2021). Similarly, Sanitary panels—created by Rachita Taneja, a political comic artist from Delhi—was on the receiving end of contempt of court proceedings for a comic strip (News Laundry, 2020). The fear and anxiety surrounding online abuse, as reported by the artists, would lead them to put an art piece online and then repeatedly remove it. This would inevitably take a toll on the artists’ mental health as they constantly feared coming under the scrutiny of either the state or the mob. SmishDesigns recollects the horrific experience she faced when one of her artworks became viral: “I was very scared of putting art online. Someone shared my viral artwork and got an FIR. That was a near escape for me” (SmishDesigns, Interview, March 2022).

35Despite the fear of getting attacked, trolled, and jailed, artivists have continued to post their art. Many believe that the state wants them to be silent but that they need to keep going, seeing it as their responsibility. They take trolling and fears of backlash as part and parcel of being dissent artists on social media. “In India, anyway, the state is the biggest canceler,” says PenPencilDraw (PenPencilDraw, Interview, May 2022).

36Considering the artists’ various caste, class, and religious locations, some do not see publishing art as a threat because they recognize that they come from privileged positions. Acknowledging her privileged caste position as she belongs to an upper-caste Hindu community, SmishDesigns says, “So many artists have it harder, [those] who come from marginalized communities have to face the wrath of the trolls; so many put their lives at risk to publish their art. I recognize my background and my privileged position which helps me ignore the trolls … . It doesn’t stop me from creating art, this is the bare minimum I can do.” (SmishDesigns, Interview, March 2022). Other artivists have learned to ignore the trolls by not paying attention to them. As Ashish Bagchi says, “Most of them are faceless or nameless, so I ignore them. Never engage unknowns even if they complement, is the mantra” (Ashish Bagchi, Interview, May 2022).

37Even when artivists continue to publish their art on social media, their art is heavily influenced by the fear of the online right-wing army’s response. Artivists in the sample noted how trolling has influenced the way they create dissent art. Through trial and error, they have identified the elements that attract trolls and have adapted their approach. Strategies include creating subtle art that avoids direct references to political figures or organizations and masking words that symbolize Hinduism. The fear of abuse from trolls, the state, or the platform itself has reshaped dissent art. For instance, Krityam Jain shared an experience where another well-known artivist offered advice on being more subtle and avoiding direct provocations to prevent unwanted attention and continue raising his voice with fewer obstacles. He was told to focus on the long-term goal of raising his voice against the regime and tone down the message to avoid getting attention from the troll armies. He adds, “I am scared that they will find my home and attack me. I censored myself and stopped drawing on a few topics. Like I wouldn’t make anything on the armed forces or if I have to make a man from the RSS, I will change the colour of their clothes” (Krityam Jain, Interview, April 2022). The phenomenon of online lynching dilutes the artivists’ intended message, hindering their ability to convey their political views through art. This digital surveillance poses a threat to the artivists’ political participation and contributes to a culture of self-censorship as they find ways of maneuvering the digital spaces.

Dissent Art as Commodity and the Politics of Visibility

38Within the framework of social media conceptualized as factories (Allmer 2015), the artivists find themselves both participants and commodities. The social media factory offers a space for expression while simultaneously commodifying their creative labor. Discussing the political economy of mass communication, Murdock and Golding (1997) underscore the industrial and commercial nature of mass media and highlight its role in producing and distributing commodities. This dynamic extends to social network websites, characterized by an asymmetrical relationship wherein corporate new media accumulate capital through the commodification of users’ personal information and generated data in social and creative processes (Allmer 2015). Tatarchevskiy (2011) introduces the concept of “marketization” in social media, framing it as a realm of performative and symbolic representation, thereby complicating civic engagement and activism practices. As PenPencilDraw says,

Audience is important for any artist. I wish I could say that I draw only to express myself, but to tweak that old thought experiment, if a joke is cracked in a forest and nobody hears it, is it still funny? I’ve given up trying to understand or game the algorithm, because that way lies madness. So I just try to focus on making stuff that I like, and doing it often.

(PenPencilDraw, Interview May 2022).

39Being a public creator on social media involves willingly or unwillingly participating in the algorithmic race, defined by the numbers of followers and likes on one’s account. While many artivists claim to no longer be as concerned about these metrics as they were in their early artivist days, they also acknowledge that increasing followers directly correlates with gaining social capital, leading to more visibility, recognition, and potential financial security. One artivist emphasizes the importance of maintaining likes and shares: “If my art does not get enough likes or shares, then why am I creating it? It needs to speak to people” (Interview, May 2022). This aligns with Leistert’s perspective on social media politics (2015), which shifts the focus to the “like economy” of individual expression, emphasizing the pursuit of likes and followers over the ideals of social movements. Artivists also succumb to the pressure of consistently creating dissent art to maintain relevance on the platform. They sense the need to respond to every injustice, policy change, or incarceration that resonates within their echo chamber. One artivist says, “I constantly felt pressure from the app and felt obligated to react to the news of the day during the pandemic as the government would do something that would be so outrageous” (Interview, April 2022).

40The platform’s design plays a crucial role in pushing artivists to keep posting. As Allmer (2015) outlines, the imperative of raising productivity drives a capitalist society, and social-networking sites serve as powerful tools for enhancing productivity by functioning as mediums of capitalist dynamics. Given that social media revenue is derived from advertising, maintaining a diverse and engaged user base is crucial. Therefore, while users may perceive themselves as social and creative subjects, they are essentially treated as objects catering to the platform owners’ capitalist interests (Allmer 2015). The continuous pressure exerted by social media to react to trending news stems from the desire to make art go viral and capitalize on the ongoing discussions taking place on the platform. The inherently capitalist nature of social media transforms dissent into a commodity that is sold to users as content, consequently turning dissent artists themselves into commodities. The commodification of dissent becomes more acceptable for the platform as it aligns with the platform’s objectives. Payal Arora draws focus on scholarship that explains the co-option: “such corporate branding of mass activism by Twitter and Facebook are seen as a common ploy to capitalize on the tremendous human struggle, turning a potential virtual public sphere into another branded empire” (Arora 2015), emphasizing the platforms’ contradictory stance of feeding on such dissent. Artivists unwittingly fall into the cycle of incessantly creating art for consumption within social media systems. The original purpose of dissent art—aimed at mobilizing, provoking, and nudging—runs the risk of losing its essence and becomes more about accumulating views and quick reactions to boost the artists’ numbers. SmishDesigns acknowledges the democratization of art through social media but observes that dissent art inevitably gets shaped by social media, noting:

I sometimes ask myself, am I an artist or a content creator? Because I am creating fast art depending on the time limit I have. If an issue has happened today, you have to speak about it today… I don’t put my best work out there, sometimes I feel I should take a step back and hone my skills. But it’s not about skill on social media … . I use my training for the projects I take up. On social media, I just opine.

(SmishDesigns, Interview, March 2022).

41Denick et al. (2015) suggests that social media promotes a politics that diverges from the emancipatory ideals pursued by social movements. Instead, it aligns with a politics that is “devoid of genuine meaning formed around corporate ownership of data points based on a ‘like economy’ of individual expression” (Denick et al. 2015). This co-option by social media platforms poses the risk of inadvertently contributing to the systems artivists critique, perpetuating a cycle of constant creation and consumption. Dissent art on social media may become reactionary, aligning with the commercial platform’s capitalist design. The emphasis on highly templated “real-time” content by algorithms prioritizes immediacy and abundance over depth and embodiment, eroding the ideals of emancipatory politics (Barassi 2015). In this dynamic, artivists inadvertently function as content creators, contributing to the generation of both absolute and relative surplus value (Allmer 2015) for the platform. Many artists in the corpus suggested that they recognize the demands of the algorithm and the effect it has on their art. They have subsequently employed measures to navigate it and not give in, something Payal Arora (2015) reflects on as she delves into the creation of novel modes of communicative practice. Krityam Jain comments on this,

I used to feel pressured by the algorithm in the beginning and felt I had to make something every week. I felt the audience may forget about me. But then I realized that if I keep making art every week, the quality of art will decrease inadvertently. It also started feeling a bit opportunistic to opine on every issue. So I decided to not create political art for art’s sake and only create art for issues I feel deeply for.

(Krityam Jain, Interview, April 2022)

42Furthermore, social media activism witnessed the emergence of a distinct form of “individualized activism,” with artists in this study remaining unaffiliated with any political groups. The artivists’ work reflected their personal opinions, and their audience followed them as individuals rather than as members of any political affiliation. This aligns with Milan’s observation that social media regimes prioritize the individual over the collective, “enabling loose temporal connections and affect-based decisions rather than democratic (consensus based) processes” (Milan 2015). This phenomenon highlights a redefinition of the activist identity, emphasizing a collective identity based on shared experiences rather than traditional affiliations. Visibility plays a crucial role in collective action on social media, where recognition is manifested through likes, shares, and an increasing number of followers. Milan (2015) characterizes this as a “politics of visibility,” suggesting that the process revolves around the individual, and the building of a group or collective serves as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

43Commercial social media platforms like Instagram are inclined to commodify artivism by pushing artivists to align with the platform’s design and algorithm, treating them as conventional content creators. This necessitates a reorganization of their practices according to the platform’s industrial and economic logic to enhance visibility. Consequently, this influence compromises the emancipatory ideals of their art by placing emphasis on quantity and recognition. Artivists often find themselves adapting their dissent art to align with the commercial platform’s trends. In this process, both dissent art and artivists become commodities within these platforms, contributing to the platform’s surplus value and becoming data points. Despite social media’s usefulness for mobilization and disseminating information, its structure, which is rooted in commercial interests, places artivists in a vulnerable position with limited control over their own art. This vulnerability makes them susceptible to being targeted by trolls and the state when using commercial social media to share their art.


44In this article, I have explored the concept of art as a framing device for social movements, drawing on Adams (2002). The creation of digital dissent art is analyzed through the framework provided by Jost et al. (2018), examining the factors influencing individuals to challenge the status quo and speak out against the regime. Additionally, I have critically examined the consequences of utilizing commercial media platforms such as Instagram, informed by Allmer (2015) and Leistert et al. (2015). This exploration highlights the inherent challenges of commodification and the surveillance faced by art and artivists, impacting their intended use of art as a framing device for social movements.

45During the anti-CAA movement and its aftermath, numerous Indian artivists turned to Instagram as a platform to express their dissent through art. While art initially served as a framing device for the movement, it eventually faced challenges within the social media structure. Artivists became targets of online lynching, leading to a transformation in their artistic expressions. The influence of commercial social media platforms like Instagram was evident, shaping artivists’ principles and altering their art to align with the platform. This shift raised questions about the compatibility of emancipatory ideals with the structures of commercial social media, resulting in a novel approach to dissent. The use of corporately-owned technology, as highlighted by Denick et al. (2015), introduces a “fundamentally contradictory juxtaposition” in the pursuit of meaningful social change. This shift affected how art served as a framing device for the movement, with the frame being increasingly shaped by commercial social media platforms. Despite artivists viewing themselves as subjective creators contributing to the movement, the platform treated them as objects serving its interests. The commodification of all social relations by social media extended to artivism, as observed in the case of anti-CAA movement artivists, prompting considerations for further research in diverse contexts.

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1 It is important to note that none of the author’s personal work has been analyzed in this context.

2 Caste is a form of hereditary hierarchy in Hindu society that is prevalent in India. It divides people into different sects, and one’s caste informs one’s access to resources. Oppression due to caste has been widespread in the country for centuries, with people belonging to Upper Caste groups continually dehumanizing people belonging to marginalized castes and denying them access to resources.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1
Caption Protest art on the walls outside Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, made during the anti-CAA-NRC movement (Ara 2020).
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Title Table 1a
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Title Table 1b
Caption Tables 1a and 1b: Corpus of Artists Interviewed Between February 2022 and August 2022
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Title Figure 2
Caption Weighing Us Down by SmishDesigns (SmishDesigns 2019).
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Title Figure 3
Caption Kamran’s first “artivist” post in response to the anti-CAA-NRC movement (Akhter 2019).
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Title Figure 4
Caption This artwork on the walls of Jamia Millia Islamia University (left) was initially posted online (right) by artist Sanitary Panels (Sanitary Panels 2020, Sanitary Panels 2019).
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Title Figure 5
Caption The Online Lynching by Madpaule (Madpaule 2020).
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Title Figure 6
Caption Comments received on SmishDesigns’ (left and center) and Kamran Akhter’s artworks on Instagram (right).
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Electronic reference

Bhawna Parmar, Dissent Art in the Digital Age: Insights into the Culture of Artivism on Instagram in IndiaSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 31 | 2023, Online since 31 December 2023, connection on 19 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Bhawna Parmar

Independent Researcher, Ambedkar University Delhi Alumnus

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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