Although the COVID-19 pandemic was the headline of 2020 globally, for many countries this past year was also characterized by new and revamped #MeToo reckonings.
In Turkey, an anonymous Twitter user shared that she was sexually harassed by a famous writer. This sparked an outpouring of tweets under the hashtag #UykularınızKaçsın (#MayYouLoseSleep), with users sharing their own experiences with sexual violence.
In Egypt, an anonymous Instagram page was created to warn others about a man accused of being a sexual predator. (Its creator, 22-year-old Nadeen Ashraf, later revealed her identity.) Within a week, the page (@assaultpolice) gained 70,000 followers, and thousands of Egyptian women shared on social media their own testimonies of sexual violence.
Here in Canada, in the province of Québec, the summer of 2020 was marked by a wave of sexual violence disclosures online, many of which were posted anonymously. These posts involved accusations of sexual violence against high-profile figures such as the leader of the Bloc Québécois, to everyday citizens, like schoolteachers and therapists.
It has now been more than three years since the birth of the #MeToo hashtag on Twitter. And women and girls around the globe continue to use social media to share their experiences with sexual violence.
As someone who researches sexual assault policy and prosecution, as well as digital feminist activism, I see the beginning of the new year as an opportunity to reflect on both the benefits and risks of disclosing sexual violence online.
Benefits of online disclosure
In my preliminary research, I analyzed 1,200 #MeToo tweets posted between 2017 and 2019, mostly from the United States, where the movement began. I found that the hashtag was largely used by women and girls to disclose their experiences with sexual violence. And for some, this was the very first time that they ever spoke out about their victimization.
When women and girls share their experiences of sexual violence online, there are benefits for both the individual and the society as a whole.
For starters, disclosing sexual violence online has shown to help with individuals’ healing processes. The simple act of posting #MeToo can give users a sense of justice that they are unlikely to receive elsewhere.
There are numerous barriers to reporting sexual violence. A large proportion of sexual assault reports are dismissed by the police as unfounded. And when charges are laid, the trial process can cause re-victimization; trials seldom result in a conviction. This means that victims most often are unable to have their experiences validated through the legal system.
Social media offers individuals an alternative avenue to feeling heard, which can be accomplished without naming and shaming specific people.
Similarly, through the #MeToo hashtag many users were able to form friendships and bonds with people who shared similar experiences with sexual violence.
Historically, sexual violence has been treated as a taboo topic, despite it being a pervasive problem worldwide.
Everyday stories of sexual violence shared on social media helps to make this troubling reality visible. It forces members of society to face head-on the prevalence of sexual violence, and the devastation it causes.
Risks of online disclosure
Despite the personal and societal benefits of disclosing experiences of sexual violence online, it comes with significant risks.
Many of the women and girls who participated in the #MeToo movement became the subjects of misogynistic attacks and insults online.
In fact, nearly a quarter of the #MeToo tweets I analyzed included attacks on individuals who used the hashtag to share their victimization stories.
The trolling typically included gender-based insults, vicious language, victim-blaming and slut-shaming. Some users were also faced with threats of violence, including rape and death threats
In the most extreme situations, Twitter users who disclosed their victimization were doxxed, meaning that their private identifying information was maliciously shared online.
Gender-trolling under the #MeToo hashtag was amplified by “bot accounts.” Bots are software programs that are programmed to generate simple messages on social media. Bots would reply to #MeToo tweets with abusive messages.
This kind of gender-trolling can have significant physical and psychological effects, including mental health problems, insomnia, panic attacks, self-harm and, in some cases, suicide.
Although the risks to disclosing sexual violence online are serious, it is clear that social media has offered women and girls across the globe a powerful platform to challenge sexual violence.
While there is still a way to go in changing societal attitudes on sexual violence, the increased legal protections for sexual assault survivors is a promising start to 2021.