Feminist activism on social media

Lars Kristian Millingsjord

Who are they? How do they use social media? And does it work?
Social media is a platform for more than pictures of food, children and selfies. It is also a platform for social activism. In some circles a social media activist is someone annoying who’s getting offended on behalf of everyone for every little thing. And sure, it can be annoying to get all the shit of the world disturbing your feed of fitspo and memes. And does it even have an impact? We’ll take a closer look at some of the campaigns regarding gender equality and other topics surrounding gender, which I have chosen to call feminist activism, although the definition of feminism is often up for debate. How do they use social media? What do they achieve And who’s being heard?

Hashtag activism
The term hashtag activism is often used about the acts of sharing, liking and the use of a hashtag to support a case, but here I mainly focus on the using of hashtags. There has been an increase in the hashtag activism over the last few years, or at least it has gotten more attention in the mainstream media. Movements like #Kony2012, #icebucketchallenge, BlackLivesMatter, #BringBackOurGirls, #PrayForParis, and of course #MeToo, are all examples of different hashtag activism movements or campaigns which can be said to successfully have gotten a lot of attention and support on a large scale.

An interesting point is also how important the hashtag itself is, this phenomenon that first was widely used in 2007 on Twitter by journalists covering forest fires in San Diego. Now the use of hashtags as part of social activism seems to be almost the norm, and feminist activists are not exceptions. Has this changed the way we do social media? Or the way we do activism? For instance, I wonder if the need for a hashtag to make the case go viral simplifies the case. Or if we chose to care about the cases which are easy to show our support trough hashtags and other social media actions. For the record I am by no means saying that #MeToo or any of the other examples of hashtag-activism used here are simple.

In the case of #MeToo, I remember there was a lot of debate on whether different cases of sexual harassment and rape could be placed under the same hashtag, since one could argue they were not comparable in their seriousness. Perhaps is this an argument rather for how you interpret hashtag activism, since it is to be summed up in just a short slogan. And maybe this makes complex cases harder to summarize to few words. Is this also the reason why it is common among feminist activists? Because the cases (although complex indeed) can more easily be put in a hashtag do to its systematic overreaching explanations.

Has this changed the way we do social media? Or the way we do activism? For instance, I wonder if the need for a hashtag to make the case go viral simplifies the case.”

Who’s being heard?
What seems to be in some of the cases is that you start with a story, then people who have experienced something similar reach out. If there are many enough who hear about it, sympathise with it and share the experience, you can build a voice. But there appears to be a certain factor revolving around how loud the participants’ voices are. Naturally getting celebrities involved is something everyone should do, but whether this is realistic depends both on the case and where it comes from. Also, as in so many other fields, it is harder for smaller groups to be heard. There is also an aspect of how wide it is, because it must be wide enough for many people to relate to the problem, but also cannot be too wide so that it becomes vague and too general for people to get engaged in it.

I started up talking about how some may find activists, and especially social media activists, and perhaps feminist activists even more so, annoying, because they take too much offence and they never think things are good enough. This was not just to paint an amusing picture of how activists are perceived, but rather to make a point. If we once again look at the #MeToo-movement, it caught on not only among activists, but among “normal people” too, so to say people who were not perceived as extreme activists or radical feminists, but the everyday woman (and man) in the street. Once this happens, I think the attention it gets increases drastically, especially within the mainstream media. Some lesser known feminist movements and activist I want to draw attention to some of the movements, campaigns and activist who have not gotten as much attention as #MeToo, without saying #MeToo has gotten too much. I could focus on some of the movements that came out of the #MeToo movements, such as #TimesUp or #MosqueMeToo, but I want to point out some who are less related to this campaign.

The first movement is the fight for women’s freedom in Iran, which is connected to several hashtags. To start the known activist, journalist and author Masih Alinejad has founded the campaign against forced hijab-use, with hashtags #WhiteWednesday and #MyStealthyFreedom. The campaign is fighting against mandatory dress codes. The #WhiteWednesday is used to post pictures and videos of women wearing white on Wednesdays as symbols of protest. Women in Iran who use civil disobedience as a means of fighting also use the hashtag #MyCameraIsMyWeapon, where filming with their phones and uploading to social medias is a way of protecting themselves against the morality police and showing the world what happens. I use this example because it shows how hashtag activism is not only a western phenomenon, and to highlight how it is a way to make a collective voice among groups who are not necessarily heard on their own. The fact that the movement also has spread and gotten supporters and participants in other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, in addition to Europe and USA, also shows some of the power of hashtag activism.

“Women in Iran who use civil disobedience as a means of fighting also use the hashtag #MyCameraIsMyWeapon, where filming with their phones and uploading to social medias is a way of protecting themselves against the morality police.”

The second is the campaign in USA with #WontBeErased, which aims to the case of a leaked memo where the Trump-administration had said to make the definition of a person’s legal sex based on biology and science to be objective and administrable. This has made trans people and their supporters to use the #wontbeerased slogan on Twitter to draw attention to the fact that their existence can’t just be erased in the context of law. The hashtags #TransRightsAreHumanRights and #TransIsBeautiful are also popular among the supporters of this movement. Here the hashtag activism is used to stop something from happening in the future, and not what is the practice today.

Lastly, I will also mention #elenao, translated to #nothim. Used by women in Brazil, it was part of a campaign against Jair Bolsonaro in the presidential election, which you can read more about in another article in this magazine. Although he won, the fact that so many people have outed that they did not want him has perhaps informed the world around about what it was about his populistic politics that were indeed problematic, also when it comes to gender. Based on this we can see that just within the topic of gender, there is a huge diversity within hashtag activism. In other words, we can’t say much about which type of cases is most common, but perhaps by looking more closely at both successes and failures we can get a clearer picture of which type of cases that this activism type is most fruitful for.

What’s the impact?
As already mentioned, the impact in general is often raising attention, awareness and support, but this can also lead to change in the outside world. The impact of #MeToo is a large topic and I will not attempt to cover it here, but I will say there is a quite wide consensus that there has been to at least some degree, regarding how one acts towards one another in the workplace, at least in some workplaces.

On the website of UN Women, the United Nations’ organization dedicated to gender equality and empowering women, one can find a list where six women were presented as social media activists making change outside of social media. The list posted June 2018 includes Tarana Burke, who started #MeToo, but long before it took off and as a safe space (on Myspace) for women who had experienced sexual assaults. Also, the famous actor Emma Watson is on the list for starting the campaign #HeForShe, which is aimed at men to stand up for and support women in their fight for equality. Another one on the list is Monica Ramirez, who is the person getting the #TimesUp movement going among the women of Hollywoods #MeToo, focusing on women in the workplace outside Hollywood, inspired by discrimination within farm work. The next is Dina Smailova, using social media for speaking up for those who as her had experienced sexual violence in Kazakhstan. The list then goes to Macedonia, where Ana Vasileva spoke up about rape culture and started the #MeToo-inspired campaign #ISpeakUpNow.

But the impact is hard to measure. The activists mentioned above in the article by UN Women are said to make change also outside of social media. Some have started organisations that help women in practice and others have raised money, awareness and perhaps changed someone’s minds. And perhaps is it important to remember that although social media is a great platform to spread awareness and gather support, the changes also often need to happen outside of the platform. Social media activism is in my opinion however a lot better than nothing, and the fact that it is an action that it available for so many different people, from different places and in different layers of society. That is why I want to finish with the last person on the UN Women-list, which is you. By this they mean to say that you can contribute by getting involved in activism, and you can start by using #TimeIsNow for media to tell women’s stories and for those in power to be held responsible, so that there is no more violence and discrimination and that it is time for gender equality.