At the beginning of April 2024, the University of Michigan hosted its 4th annual Social Media And Society In India conference, co-sponsored by the Center for South Asian Studies (CSAS). 

The conference, founded in 2018, was created by School of Information Associate Professor Joyojeet Pal. Pal studies the role of technology in democracy and labor. He specializes in the use of social media and misinformation, particularly in India.

“I started these conversations because social media has become central to various forms of social and economic activity in India, particularly politics and journalism,” says Pal. 

“My goal was to create an event that featured people who studied social media and active social media users in their professional lives. The event's format encourages stories and accounts from professionals talking about their work, where academics play more of a listening role, engaging in rich conversations that can further their research.”

This year, the conference featured more than 25 speakers, including journalists, activists, influencers, storytellers, political consultants, students, various professors, a poet, a pilot, and even a vascular surgeon. Considered a premier venue for conversations around social media and society, the conference aims to discuss how social media impacts contemporary life in India.

One of the headline speakers was award-winning actress, activist, and filmmaker Rajshri Deshpande. She is the founder of the Nabhangan Foundation, which helps with the challenges faced by rural communities, including agricultural produce crises, farmer suicides, climate-related resource degradation, and poor health markers. Her organization has adopted 20 villages in Maharashtra and focuses on sustainable development efforts.

“I am glad that the University of Michigan team invited me to be a keynote speaker at the conference to share my experience on social media by being a social worker, activist, and an actor in the Indian film industry this year,” says Deshpande. 

“The different perspectives and experiences shared by my fellow participants helped me better understand social media. Apart from listening to the political, economic, financial, and influence aspects, I was inspired to see everyone’s life journey and how they managed their online trolling and toxic behaviors and still worked for the betterment despite it all.

“It was heartening to hear about everyone's journey of hardships and challenges, but I was extremely proud to see how they kept true to their journeys and overcame the challenges,” she added.

“I make sure I handle all my social media so I can connect with people directly, but many times, I need to be careful as a public figure because some uninvited people bring negative thoughts to my timeline. But fortunately, many bring positivity. So, I believe being empathetic, positive, honest, and respectful is the most important thing in the world of reel and reality.” 

The well-attended two-day conference consisted of various panels covering topics such as free expression, politics, the mechanics of misinformation, and people and culture. 

“The symposium featured talks that go beyond ‘the usual’ and had a range of unique insights that may be valuable to casual observers and expert professionals working on various aspects of social media and society in India,” added Pal. “These included insider insight into the ways financial influencers monetize and evolve on social media, the ways political consultants help local and national politicians build online networks, the navigation of safety for LGBTQ activists in India, and the changes in language use by young Indians given the expansion of social media use.

“The goal is to focus on advanced conversations among a small group of experts, which we have ensured remains a feature of the conference this year as well. We have been seeing more than 1000 registrations each year online. While we do get trolled, and a great deal of misinformation is spread about our motives and the outcomes of the conference, we make all the talks available online and offer the student papers free of cost publicly online. We continue to do this work since we are building a corpus of open knowledge in this space, which will eventually serve the general public.”  

For more information on this year’s conference, please visit the SMSI 2024 website.