I’m an English PhD and so when I was in grad school, the Modern Languages Association Conference (MLA) was THE annual event to attend – not only to get a teaching job, but to take the pulse of humanities scholarship from around 10,000 specialists in the most obscure sub- sub- sub-niches of academia. Attendance has declined about 40% since those heady days, but, at the 2016 convention last week in Austin, where I gave a talk on Gender & (Anti)Social Media, I still felt that anyone I met was the only person in the world doing the particular kind of work they were doing. Every presentation was like an exotic hybrid flower, a specimen brought to life through years of laborious research and experimentation in the hothouse climes of the academy.
This specialization is both inspiring and tragic as you encounter lonely scholars who have been toiling in their own very narrow silos, hoping that perhaps 10 people will show up to a talk that took them five years to prepare.
It is one of the main reasons that I departed from the typical English PhD path, casting my lot with a web startup and a giant computer games company. But it was a pleasure to return to the esoteric world of MLA, where new media is now something that cannot be ignored. I was especially keen to join the roundtable on Gender & (Anti)Social Media, which focused on recent bouts of social media–based harassment (e.g., Gamergate) but also on the potential for social media to create change for the better through cyber activism and coalition building.
Ever since I gave my TED talk on gender and social media, which was optimistic about the benefits that social media offer to women all around the world, I’ve been keeping an eye peeled for convincing case studies that demonstrate the potential for social media engagement to result in real-world change – things like increased awareness, attitudinal change, civic engagement, and the coup de grâce of civic intervention strategies, policy change.
I wanted to know what evidence we have that activism on social media is not simply self-congratulatory “slacktivism.”
It’s often unclear whether things like Twitter hashtag campaigns accomplish much more than increased awareness (which is nothing to sniff at). A tragic example is the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which, despite its high profile supporters, appeared to have absolutely no impact on the situation on the ground.
However, here are three examples that should give us some faith in social media-based efforts to address gender equality:
2015 Saudi Election
I first became aware of how social media was being used by women in Saudi Arabia from a novel I bought in a bookstore in Japan. Girls of Riyadh was a real page-turner, set up as an anonymous epistolary serial, issued on email, that galvanized the attention of the singles scene (male and female) in ultra-traditional Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Because of strict physical gender segregation, social media platforms offer a radical new channel for social interactions between males and females, and Girls of Riyadh paints a portrait of the profound pleasures and dangers to be found there for women who have been effectively locked out of the public sphere.
Of course romances in Saudi Arabia are blossoming on Facebook, but we can also see that political campaigns are triggering unprecedented conversations between men and women. Just last month, women were allowed for the first time to vote and run for political office – which meant that candidates needed to reach voters of all genders. Saudi Arabia has one of the highest Twitter penetration rates in the world and so it’s not surprising that women voters used Twitter to testify to their participation in the public sphere. In the picture below, this Saudi woman took her children with her to the poll so that they could see first-hand that she had the power to vote.
I’d argue that much of the activity on social media platforms is driven by a desire to testify – to one’s beliefs, interests, affiliations, desires, achievements . . . the list goes on and on. Twitter, in particular, is positioned as a kind of digital public sphere, where participants who do not often have access to physical public places, can test their voice before a global audience and respond to the call of communities that they may never have known existed.
I went to India last year to give a talk on the social impact of social media in India. I was absolutely blown away by the adoption rates among women, and the near constant use of platforms like WhatsApp among the college students I got to know. There are currently 70 million WhatsApp users per month in India, and India has the fastest rate of growth in Internet access in the world. According to a UN Women’s report on cyber violence and gender, Indians also have a greater optimism about using the Internet for freedom of expression – compared to the French, Canadians, Americans, Spaniards, and Germans.
The infamous #DelhiGangRape had already happened in 2012, and people had already seen the political impact of the story’s dissemination on social media. Not only were massive protests coordinated, but rape reports proceeded to double and anti-rape legislation was passed that criminalized stalking, included a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years for gang rape and required the creation of six new fast-track courts created solely for rape prosecutions. Experts on the ground emphasize that this is just the beginning of the process, but making an open secret the subject of public conversation is a very important step toward broader social change.
And the ramifications go beyond gender rights. According to the Nieman Lab at Harvard, the protests were a “watershed” moment for the use of social media in news gathering and reporting in India.
Is it true, as this headline from vocativ asserts, that Cosby was brought to his knees by social media? If you’ll recall, it was a YouTube video of a bit by the comedian Hannibal Buress that renewed interested in the long-forgotten accusations. Often the most powerful campaigns on social media are either triggered by mainstream media reporting, or amplified by it. In this case, the very low-quality video of Buress’ rant only caught fire when it was posted by Philadelphia magazine.
Cosby made the mistake of ignoring the firestorm. In fact, he seemed so confident that no one would pursue these allegations again that he invited his fans to generate memes about him on Twitter: The result was a user-generated public relations disaster for Cosby, and a huge victory for his accusers.
All of this public interest evidenced on social media platforms led to serious investigative news reporting. The New York magazine’s cover story, which featured pictures of 35 of his accusers, along with an empty chair, ended up triggering another unplanned, user-generated social media campaign. #TheEmptyChair signaled tweets from people who had been raped, but did not come forward publicly.
There are many more examples to explore, such as the #NoMorePage3 campaign which convinced the Sun to eliminate its regular topless babe spread. But it’s definitely the exception and not the rule to find a social media campaign that plays a key role in triggering obvious real-world action and shifts in the status-quo. As with all media, social media platforms provide the opportunity to put an issue on the public agenda: translating growing awareness, however, into a massive protest or policy change, is still quite rare.
When it comes to gender equality, it’s clear that an epic battle is being fought in the digital public sphere: some are using new media platforms to punish and chastise women; others are using it to empower them. But what encourages me is the fact that there’s a battle being fought at all. And I think it’s telling that in a 17-country survey, 85% of women said the Internet provides them with more freedom. If you happen to be one of those people who poo-poos the revolutionary potential of social media, I would suggest you contemplate just how transformative these communication technologies can be in the hands of people who have been shamed, bullied or otherwise discouraged from participation in any kind of public dialogue. For them, registering their existence, let alone their political opinions, can be a revolutionary act.