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Why #metoo is an impoverished form of feminist activism, unlikely to spark social change

Social media activism leaves women open to online abuse from men. Shutterstock.com

Why #metoo is an impoverished form of feminist activism, unlikely to spark social change

Using the hashtag #metoo, thousands of women around the world have posted on social media sharing their stories of male violence, particularly in the workplace. The posts are a response to the multiple accusations of sexual assault against film producer Harvey Weinstein, as women outside the film industry join in online to share their experiences of harassment, assault, and rape. As the stories continue to pile up, women undoubtedly hope that this mass of digital content will be a turning point for change.

Scholars such as Lauren Rosewarne and Jessalyn Keller have argued that hashtags such as #metoo are a modern-day form of consciousness raising. But the latter term is traditionally understood as a political process where women come together to share experiences and ideas without men. Hashtag activism is different because social media is a mixed-sex space.

On social media, women have little room to progress beyond simply sharing individual experiences, and these platforms leave them open to online abuse. This means there’s little chance that hashtag activism will make a real dent in the ubiquitous experience of sexual assault among women.

Consciousness raising originated in the Women’s Liberation movement, coming to prominence in the 1970s in countries like the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. The movement was characterised by small, local face-to-face groups, women-only conferences and the regular publication of newsletters boldly proclaiming that they were to be read only by women. Recognising men’s ability to censor and misrepresent feminist speech in mainstream print media, women also set up their own press houses to distribute their ideas.

Consciousness raising involved women meeting regularly in small groups of around ten — sometimes for years on end — to talk about their experiences, find connections between issues, and understand the scope of men’s control over their personal lives.

For these activists, a male presence in either consciousness raising or the broader movement, was inconceivable. Men, they believed, would influence the direction of conversations and monopolise discussions with their own concerns. Many democracy theorists stress that women-only spaces such as these are vital to successful movements for social change. They were non-negotiable for Women’s Liberation activists.

Social media’s male problem

Hashtag activism doesn’t have the same emancipatory effect as consciousness raising, because it takes place in public view of a mixed-sex audience of thousands. Social media also comes with its own problems for women. The platforms are male-owned, male-controlled corporations that reflect male values in their policies.

For example, Facebook and Twitter continue to do very little about the harassment of women online, yet Twitter recently banned Rose McGowan, one of the most outspoken celebrities regarding Weinstein’s offences, for her tweets.

It is also common for social media moderators to refuse to remove what women report as misogynistic posts, instead classifying this content as “controversial humor”. Social media allows men to watch, search for and intervene in feminist conversations, derailing feminism by harassing the women participating or by redirecting their focus.

If you are a regular follower of feminist conversations on Twitter, you will know that women have done this public confessional dance before. In 2011, it was under the banner of #mencallmethings, a hashtag used by women to recount examples of the abuse they had received from men online.

In 2014, we had #yesallwomen, a response to the killing of six people by Elliot Rogers at the University of California. A YouTube video revealed that the killer was driven by a hatred of women and the “girls [who] gave their affection, and their sex and love to other men but never to me … I will punish you all for it”.

The campaign #yesallwomen produced a similar catalogue of women’s experiences as #mencallmethings — harrowing, ordinary stories about what it is like to be a woman in a world where male power and entitlement remains unchecked. The mainstream media reported on both hashtags widely, and yet nothing changed.

The hashtag #yesallwomen was also met with #notallmen. Similarly, #mencallmethings was deemed offensive from men’s point of view, and when the discussion morphed into a general conversation about online cruelty it was depoliticised.

Physical spaces for women, such as women’s centres and feminist bookstores, largely no longer exist. Face-to-face consciousness raising groups have also gone out of fashion.

In this cultural climate, hashtag activism represents an impoverished form of feminist activism, containing few possibilities for sparking real social change. Feminists need to recreate women-only spaces if they want to freely discuss ideas and challenge men’s dominance.