Media, Mobilisation, and the #MeToo Movement
by Rhe-Anne Tan
I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to contribute to this special edition. Specifically, how to say something that would not just add to the veritable maelstrom of strong opinions loosely held whirling around the internet, but actually crystallise (for myself and the reader) what to make of the cultural moment we find ourselves the middle of. At this stage of the #MeToo movement, we have had our share of rallying cries and celebrity endorsement – some would say even too much so. Moreover, it’s clear what the broad principles of the movement are, in terms of accountability and creating a safer environment in and out of the workplace for women. With the exception of the fringest far-right fascist, one would be hard-pressed to find opposition to the basic idea of ‘don’t sexually assault women’.
The trouble lies, of course, in the fact that socio-cultural debates are not about basic ideas. As with most mass movements (think Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring, if you prefer your activism socio-economic or political), the trouble begins when momentum has to be converted into action. Credibility is often tied to consistency and cohesion, but that is difficult given the decentralised, digital nature of #MeToo. While the global aspect of the movement is certainly something to be commended – notably, Korean and Chinese iterations which are particularly groundbreaking given the cultural and societal norms of silence in these countries – the spectrum of voices that have rallied behind #MeToo means that the movement has played somewhat to the lowest common denominator. It also means that #MeToo is not necessarily the best platform for grappling with contentious grey areas.
A lot of this work is decidedly unsexy: defining the parameters of sexual assault, consent, and complicity, for instance, or considering the legal implications or due process for unproven allegations. It is also divisive – while a few believe in a scorched-earth approach that systematically upends the power structures in our society, others prefer incremental change through existing political systems. Some focus on female quotas and representation. Still others want to knit vagina hats and take to the streets – fair play, it’s a free world (although much ink has been spilled on whether said hats are exclusionary to trans women, which again opens up a can of worms on sex, gender, and how our conceptions of femininity might need to evolve).
In the absence of some godlike arbitrator, all of these perspectives have to be treated as equally valid. These ideas have to be tested against each other, analysed, defended, and refine themselves over time – that’s the way discourse works. And while some people believe that fragmentation within a movement undermines its strength, the multitude of opinions also suggests that people are thinking critically about where #MeToo sits within the larger feminist canon. Feminism as a movement is not any more illegitimate for having different schools of thought as economics is as a discipline, nor Islam as a religion. So long as the voices that make up this debate are civil, constructive, and respectful, lack of consensus does not necessarily have to be damaging.
The #MeToo movement has its roots in social media – which is an incredibly valuable platform in terms of giving a message breadth. Social media is accessible, instantaneous, and most importantly lowers the barriers of entry for participation. Activists and academics with twitter accounts have democratised access to discourse, where in previous generations the locus of exchange was tied to college campuses and other intellectual spaces that might have unconsciously excluded certain demographics. By focusing on personal anecdotes, #MeToo further allowed those unfamiliar theoretical language to voice their lived experiences – which are arguably just as (if not more) powerful than academic jargon. In terms of reach and intersectionality, social media is the perfect vehicle for the modern social movement. It’s even in the name – the structural mechanisms of liking, sharing, and re-posting are designed to facilitate the spread of ideas, and call attention to trending content.
However, these same mechanisms also pose a challenge to the evolution of the #MeToo debate. Social media is basically majoritarian – the most popular content reaches the most number of people. It is engineered for short attention spans, given the constant influx of content and limits on post length. Under these circumstances, a certain trade-off between breadth (of reach) and depth has to be made, and most media outlets have skewed towards the former. Everyone makes fun of clickbaity Buzzfeed articles (20 Most Misleading Headlines, #12 Will Shock You), but it is a fact that even mainstream media companies are transitioning from longform journalism to video content. Lewis D’Vorkin encapsulates the new mentality of search-engine optimisation, pageviews, and unique hits that has permeated online media and reporting. Hyperbolically described as journalism’s ‘prince of darkness’ in an editorial that, ironically, was calling him out for hyperbole, he was recently ousted from the LA Times after a tumultuous run that involved him fixating on gifs at the expense of journalistic standards.
Celebrity activism also exemplifies the difficult balance between garnering attention and maintaining the principles of a movement. After high-profile exposés of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, women in Hollywood banded together to create #TimesUp, a movement against sexual harassment that created a US$20 million legal defence fund and brought together volunteer lawyers to increase accountability and erase the stigma around assault. Its efforts towards gender parity are laudable, but #TimesUp has also been criticised as more of a high-profile publicity stunt or virtue-signalling activity. While some celebrities are undoubtedly putting their money where their mouth is – for instance, Jessica Chastain actively using her leverage to lobby for equal pay for her black co-star Octavia Spencer – others were criticised for merely jumping on the bandwagon. As activism become further integrated with social media – #TimesUp had its own special hashtag and icon – the propensity to leverage social movements for social capital increases. James Franco, in particular, was criticised for his participation in the movement, given his past (and apparently ongoing) indiscretions with underage females.
That said, social media also raises important questions over to extent to which our past actions define us. Callout culture has become a notable feature of social media discourse, where anyone violating principles of social justice (not just limited to #MeToo) have their past indiscretions exposed, personal privacy violated, and professional lives impacted. This has led some to describe #MeToo as an indiscriminate witch-hunt. While there’s little sympathy to spare for abusers, one must concede that there are ethical dimensions to callout culture that need to be further explored. Given the viral nature of social media, fact-checking and due process are practically impossible before allegations take on lives of their own. The accused do not always have time to explain themselves, and even if they do, there is little recognition for the fact that people can change, or that they sometimes speak in ignorance rather than malice.
Callout culture thus becomes problematic when it acquires a mob mentality, a scenario that was sensitively explored in a piece by Quinn Norton, a New York Times correspondent who was fired after social media users tracked down her past comments (she was accused of racism on the basis of a nine-year-old retweet) and her friendship with Andrew Auernheimer, who helps run neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer. The jury is out on whether or not Norton’s decisions are morally sound, but the process by which she was terminated is definitely a cause for concern. In her article, Norton describes the internet as creating a “döppelganger” version of herself. “The internet lets people create and then interact with a character” based off of impressions that were unrepresentative of her body of work. Norton further writes that “When the backlash began, I got the call from the person who had sought me out and recruited me. The fear I heard…was the fear of a mob, of the unknown, and of the idea that maybe they had gotten it wrong and done something terrible.”
Norton lost her job on the New York Times’ editorial board. And yet callout culture can also seem strangely arbitrary. Mel Gibson was caught on record saying far more direct and compromising things – anti-semitic and racist language, threats against his ex-wife – yet Hollywood was willing to welcome him back after a token period of exile, nominating him for six Oscars, including Best Director, for Hacksaw Ridge in 2017. Armie Hammer recently questioned the double standards and selective memory behind the backlash that director Nate Parker (Birth of A Nation) received for being charged and acquitted of rape, compared to similar dropped charges against Ben Affleck, who later won an Oscar for Best Actor. Again, the issue with the decentralised #MeToo movement isn’t so much a pluralism of its beliefs, but an inconsistency in the actions it takes. As Hammer put it, “I’m not saying Nate should not have been in trouble. I’m saying that they got in different levels of trouble. And that’s the disparity.” #MeToo has become more than just a hashtag, but has yet to develop the organisational structures to manage the cultural power it wields. And in the interim, it has the potential to do real damage to people’s lives, as well as its own credibility.
Thus, there is a clear need for discussion not just on the content of #MeToo, but also its processes. But yet again, social media structurally inhibits this. The algorithmic nature of feed content means that social media sites predict what people want to see. And unless you’re a masochist, people tend to prefer seeing things they agree with. This leads to the oft-cited echo chamber effect, that effectively separates users on a ideological basis, eliminating the opportunity for dialogue. This has several implications. Firstly, it means that users have less of an incentive to pitch their content objectively. If you know that your audience agrees with your fundamental premise, there less emphasis on substantiation, and a tendency to be more radical – in turn alienating the few opposing individuals who stumble upon activist’s content.
Secondly, even if there was opportunity for dialogue, social media is not the best place for it. Take Twitter. Users have tried to get around character limits by creating ‘threads’ of tweets that chain together as an argument, but even this is ineffective, given the ability of other users to cut in with less-than-intelligent comments. It’s also a largely one-way exercise. Although a ‘reply’ function technically exists, Twitter’s mechanism for filtering through responses is underdeveloped. A lot of the time, replies are bots deliberately created to distort online discourse. This makes it easy for the one or two thoughtful replies to get lost in a sea of hate comments. The constant onslaught of abuse (especially for female activists) means that engagement comes at a significant emotional cost – leading many to decry the ‘emotional labour’ of repeatedly educating others. Whether or not that’s a valid complaint is up for debate, but it’s undeniable that the design of social media sites does not sustain meaningful discussion. Snappy one-liners, on the other hand, fit easily within a character limit – and probably earn more likes and shares, too. And in a media climate dominated by people like D’Vorkin, who pioneered the unpaid contributor model at Forbes, likes and shares have become a currency in their own right, introducing a inherently corporate aspect to content generation.
On a broader level, the use of social media for any kind of social movement or fact-based policy discourse is problematic. Recent studies by MIT’s Laboratory for Social Machines reflect that falsehoods not only go unchecked, but actually spread faster than truth. On average, factual accounts took six times as long to reach the same audience as false ones. The conclusion they reached was that “things spread through social networks because they are appealing, not because they are true”. Of course, this plays on human nature – content is geared towards eliciting an emotional response, be it positive or negative, that one wants to share with others. All of these factors suggest that social media is structurally problematic as a activist platform. It can sensitise the public to issues, but it can just as easily sensationalise them.
All of this is not to discredit #MeToo itself – it played a critical mobilising role and will probably be seen in retrospect as a watershed moment. But moving forward, we have to be conscientious about what platforms the larger debate is played out on, the nature of this discourse and the agendas of those who contribute to it. Again, a pluralism of opinion is not a bad thing. There are plenty of people, probably within this edition alone, who are going to say things and believe things that I disagree with. What is important is that they be given the opportunity to say them in a manner that does their ideas justice (i.e. not a 280-character tweet) and that we engage with them thoughtfully and (to the best of our ability) respectfully.
Right now, the way that we use social media does not align with that. That’s not to say that social media platforms are not valuable to activism – there is a lot that is commendable about how they cut out the middleman of corporate media outlets and allow real-time updates, especially in countries where the news is heavily state-controlled. It is also important to acknowledge that some ‘establishment’ centrist critique of online activists as angry keyboard smashers also comes from a position of privilege – it’s much easier to abstract oneself from the issue and take a clinically objective, devil’s advocate standpoint when one has never been personally victimised by said issue. Besides, angry keyboard smashers are still a step up from angry window smashers of protests past. Radicalism and the role of Antifa is a whole separate argument, but suffice to say that the presence of more aggressive users should not disqualify the use of social media entirely.
So where does the middle ground fall? I do not presume to have the answer, but a start would be to shift the centre of gravity away from social media as the context and needs of the movement evolve. It’s a good place to start, and can act as a springboard to spotlight issues and situate them in the popular consciousness, but to remain there would be to fall into the trap of ‘slacktivism’. This is something that Micah White, co-founder of the Occupy movement, has talked about – “Activism has become about spreading ideas, changing the way people see the world. Those are positive and good things, but activism is supposed to be about positive, transformative social change that is inherently political.” He concedes that the challenge faced by Occupy Wall Street was its lack of a coherent political strategy, and now advocates for direct political participation as a way of effecting meaningful change. The #MeToo movement has to be taken offline – into our daily lives and institutions, and enshrined through structural change. Only then can #MeToo capitalise on the groundswell it has created.
The trend of social media and technology in our socio-political discourse is not about to be reversed. The issues mentioned above are merely the tip of the iceberg in the larger debate on how information and data are instrumentalised as a tool to shape public opinion. Thus, part of the puzzle has to be developing best practices in conjunction with the tech industry to better facilitate debate on existing sites, or better yet, develop new and more productive platforms. But technological solutions have to come in conjunction with better education for the people who use them.
At the end of the day, social media is but a tool in the hands of real flesh-and-blood humans who get angry and triggered and sometimes have bad cups of coffee that make them say stupid things with consequences they are not aware of. When we talk about technological literacy, we need to expand beyond teaching students how to change the font size on Microsoft Word. If students could be equipped with the skills to sift through online data, identify fact from opinion, and have a heightened awareness of the dynamics of new media, it would go a long way towards improving the quality of our online discourse.
Rewind to me, two nights ago. It was past deadline, and facing writer’s block, I turned to a friend of mine to ask for his input, since he “seemed like an opinionated person”. His response was rather timely – “I certainly have a lot of opinions. I don’t know if they qualify as thoughts.” In today’s day and age, when knee-jerk reactions dominate media discourse, and we become increasingly desensitised to polemic and polarisation, a little self-reflection would not go amiss.