What do #MeToo, #TimesUp, #BlackLivesMatter and #NoBanNoWall have in common? At first, like me, you may think nothing except perhaps the fact that they all have a hashtag. However, although some may be radical and some more conservative, some highly organized and others extremely jumbled, they are all contemporary examples of social movements.
A “social movement” is no new concept, in fact the early growth of social movements dates to broad economic and political changes in the mid-18th century. At that time, rebellious political figure, John Wilkes, unbeknownst to him, became a figurehead to a growing movement for popular sovereignty among the middle classes.
Dear John Wilkes:
Nevertheless, over the years, the underlying meaning of social movements has remained the same – purposeful, organised groups striving to work towards a common goal and create transformational change. Many sociology theorists still view social movements as an attempt to create change, resist change, or to provide a political voice to those otherwise disenfranchised.
Now, I understand that a key part of any successful social movement is a precipitating event – an event that takes the energy of sustained activism and thrusts it into the public consciousness. For example, flashback to 2006 when Tarana Burke coined the phrase “Me Too” as a way of supporting women who had survived sexual violence. Fast forward more than a decade, and the phrase has been reignited as a slogan for the anti-sexual harassment movement. A movement that holds many offenders accountable for their actions. A movement whose timeline continues to rapidly instigate and evolve. So, what was the driving force behind the global renaissance of Burke’s 2006 phrase?
To help you (and myself) better understand what goes on ‘behind-the-scenes’ of social movements, I’ve chosen to analyse the #MeToo social movement. I chose the #MeToo movement for two reasons; (1) my passion for what the movement stands for, (2) the way the movement exemplifies the way in which activists use and manipulate contemporary media to convey their demands and spread their protests: from alternative digital media, through mainstream media, to social media.
It is clear that political communication has entered a new era whereby the diffusion and rapid evolution of new communication technologies has reshaped modern media and politics. Notably, the sheer passion and determination demonstrated by the activists of this movement, coupled with their use of modern media, has been instrumental in facilitating the growth and influence of the movement
It is often thought that social media platforms are profoundly shaping political participation, especially when it comes to activism. Therefore, it could be said that the rapid emergence of social media has become one of the main driving forces behind recent popular social movements like #MeToo. Take, for example, actor and American activist Alissa Milano’s part in the movement. Milano, as a way of conveying the magnitude of the problem and shifting the focus from perpetrator back to victims and survivors, tweeted ‘If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.’
It was the two seemingly inconspicuous words in that tweet that created the perfect storm, resulting in #MeToo making waves across the globe, active in 85 countries on Twitter and posted 85 million times on Facebook. By conveying a simple message via social media, Milano was able to reignite Burke’s movement and join the fight to denounce sexual assault and harassment.
Another way that many have popularized the movement is (as odd as it sounds) through emojis, as a way of circumventing censorship. For example, the opening line of the #MeToo campaign in China, is as follows: Rice bunny says, “the only thing I want for the coming Lunar New Year is anti-sexual harassment rulings… You can take my plate away, but you cannot shut my mouth.” To clarify, ‘rice bunny’, was the nickname given to the #MeToo campaign by Chinese social media users. The #RiceBunny hashtag, accompanied by emojis of rice bowls and bunny heads, is used by several Chinese women to expose sexual harassment.
At first I thought the chosen words were a bit odd…however, I soon realised that there was a method to this madness. The adoption of nicknames and emojis is designed to increase the popularity of the campaign, and additionally serves as a tactical response to circumvent online censorship. In countries like China, internet censorship is a constant challenge for campaigns like #MeToo, with many reporting instances of posts and chat pages relating to the topic being removed. The #RiceBunny hashtag, is a brilliant example of activists rising against political pressure and continuing to use their creativity to circumvent the system and push their cause.
Finally, let’s take a look at the role celebrities have played in the movement. From the very beginning, celebrities like Ashley Judd and Oprah Winfrey have been some of the main drivers behind the movement. It was Ashley Judd who, in a revealing interview with Time magazine, exposed Harvey Weinstein for the pig he is.
It was Oprah who used a powerful platform like the Golden Globes to directly call both men and women to action, employing them to shape the future political landscape. It was Oprah’s speech on such a big stage, particularly a forum that is broadcast to millions, that was a particularly effective method of exposure. Oprah used her words and the Golden Globes to further promote awareness and campaign for the #MeToo movement.
The #MeToo movement is ground-breaking and continues to upend the public conversation about women’s issues around the world, and elevates the global consciousness surrounding the obstacles women encounter in their daily lives, both personally and professionally. Undeniably, contemporary media has played, and will continue to play, a pivotal role in the growth and success of social movements.
I am glad to live in a society where serious issues are brought into the light and where perpetrators of negative behaviour and ignorance can’t hide and aren’t tolerated. Social movements give a voice to those who previously had no voice and empower people to create a better society.
I for one am looking forward to seeing more #movement in the future.