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The Quad: Social media hashtags can be used as a valid form of activism

(Ludi Zhu/Daily Bruin)

By Lionel Deatherage

March 5, 2018 1:39 p.m.

The New York Times’ website displays a running list of men of considerable celebrity or public notoriety accused of sexual misconduct. The list comprises, at the time of writing, 99 men. Of that number, 71 been fired or forced to resign from their high-profile positions as a result of these allegations; 28 of them have taken leaves of absence or been suspended.

It begins with Harvey Weinstein, whose decades-long history of sexual harassment, coercion, assault and rape of women in the entertainment industry was first reported in October 2017 by The New York Times and The New Yorker. Since then, the number of women who have come forward with allegations against Weinstein has swelled to more than 90.

The mainstream reporting of Weinstein’s sex crimes has begotten the #MeToo movement, viral in both the online and public spheres. #MeToo, in its current form, was started by activist Tarana Burke and went viral through a tweet by actress Alyssa Milano. The tweet was liked and shared nearly 80,000 times, and replied to more than 68,000 times. In the days following, #MeToo had been included in over 1.7 million tweets. That number continues to grow.

There has, however, been something of a backlash against the movement in recent weeks. Questions regarding the validity and direction of the movement have popped up in tweets and editorials, including, “What is the difference between harassment and assault and ‘inappropriate conduct’?”; “How do we label those who have been accused of misconduct and not assault?”; “Does this movement ask too much of survivors?”; and “Will this even change anything?”

What is the purpose of #MeToo? Is it effective in that purpose?

Burke has said #MeToo’s purpose is to encourage “empowerment through empathy,” show the world how pervasive sexual violence is and remind survivors they are not alone.

In my opinion, the purpose of the movement is also to destigmatize reporting sexual harassment and assault. If the massive support for this movement – as well as the ever-expanding list of people being outed as abusers – is any sign, then this hashtag has been effective in destigmatizing survivors sharing their experiences. Of course, it will take a lot more than a few months and a few million retweets to stop people from raising their children to disrespect women and electing politicians who enact policies that disempower women, particularly women of color (anti-abortion laws, for example, harm low-income women of color).

What is the efficacy of social media-based movements as a whole?

Arguments for and against the effectiveness of “hashtag activism” generally date back to the #Occupy movement of 2011, which protested income inequality and the influence of money and corporations on the political process. Since then, popular and influential activist hashtags have included #StopKony (trying to remove a brutalist African dictator from power), #NotAllMen (trying to convince women that most men are respectful of women), #BlackLivesMatter (trying to address systemic anti-black racism in the United States, particularly to do with police brutality) and #BringBackOurGirls (trying to raise awareness regarding 276 Nigerian girls who were kidnapped from a school in Nigeria).

An example of the potential for hashtag effectivism to be effective in its goal can be found in the Susan G. Komen controversy of 2012. The Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation decided to stop financially supporting Planned Parenthood in January 2012. (They had contributed $680,000 in 2011 and $580,000 in 2010.) The online backlash was massive for the time – thousands and thousands of new Twitter followers and Facebook likes for Planned Parenthood. The public outcry drove a massive spike in mainstream media coverage, an increase in donations to Planned Parenthood and led the foundation to reverse its decision the very next month.

Criticism of hashtag activism is usually centered around the ideas of slacktivism and “virtue signaling.” The latter involves expressing opinions intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue. Many people have participated in virtue signaling at one time or another, whether that be changing your profile picture to the French flag after the Paris attacks in 2015, or posting “so sad” under a news story about a young person with cancer on Facebook. Social media makes it very easy to project that you are a sensitive, empathetic person to all your friends and family.

Social media may engender a convenient way to socially benefit from real issues and national tragedies, but the fact of the matter is that retweets and likes propel important news and ideas that could be overlooked into the mainstream media and public discourse.

In most cases, it’s not easy to measure the success of an online activist movement. But social media does enable us to have an ongoing global conversation about issues that may have otherwise slipped through the mainstream cracks. Black Lives Matter’s rise to national prominence, as well as local protests and marches, couldn’t have happened without it. Deen Freelon, associate professor in the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote in a study of the effects of social media on Ferguson and Black Lives Matter that many participants in the study cited “education” and “amplification” as their primary goals for engaging in conversations using the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. Twitter can drive awareness, empower the disenfranchised and effect real change. Hashtag activism isn’t going away any time soon.

Much has been written and discussed about hashtag activism in the academic world. Countless research papers, surveys, studies and so on have attempted to measure the impact and effectiveness of this new form of activism. Unfortunately, the results are rather vague. This phenomena isn’t really something that can be measured quantitatively.

I spoke with Tim Groeling, a UCLA communication professor with a particular interest in the impact of new technologies on communication. Naturally, he had a lot to say about the efficacy and impact of hashtag activism, as well as how it drives news coverage.

“Hashtag activism might not actually be about producing change; it’s actually about signaling who you are,” he said. “It’s about cultural values.”

I tend to agree with this: Hashtag activism is a different sort of activism than what has come before. #MeToo is different from previous movements focused on enacting legislation, because you can’t make it illegal for men to view women as lesser than them or as objects in the same way you can make sexual assault illegal. There are concrete goals behind #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, yes – such as ending the epidemic of sexual assault in the entertainment industry and improving relations between police departments and people of color – but the biggest byproduct seems to be cultural change.

These movements also give the oppressed a platform to build solidarity. In a research paper about new online feminism, McGill University associate professor Carrie Rentschler wrote about how these movements seek to fight against and expose institutional racism and sexism through “feminist bystander intervention” that is “anti-carceral.” Essentially, new activism is less interested in sending people to jail than it is in giving people a platform to speak up about how society has failed them, how their encounters with sexual violence have been silenced and how racism has impacted their lives.

Another research paper by Brooklyn College assistant professor Prudence Cumberbatch at talks about new social movements being “new forms of collective identity” that fight against preconceived cultural codes and “transform people’s self-understandings.” For academics, the themes seem to be quite clear: identity, solidarity, and culture.

Groeling, however, warns against the ease with which these hashtag activist movements can crop up and spread, as well as the tendency for online activists to silence those they don’t agree with.

“You tend to have a cheapening of some of those efforts when they’re so very easy to put together,” he said. “If you regard expression as being behavior, in some sense, and regard the suppression of bad expression to be a goal, then the current system seems to actually be pretty well designed to enhance that. You can shame people into silence.”

Thankfully, it seems as though #MeToo is having the opposite effect. The people we are hearing from are women who have previously felt they couldn’t tell their stories of abuse. If we need to shame anyone into silence, or into going away, it’s the abusers themselves.

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Lionel Deatherage
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