IWD: Generation #: The power of social media in the fight for progress

13 February 2018

In October 2017, a simple hashtag used on Twitter ignited a spark around the world and immediately went viral across social media. The American singer/actress Alyssa Milano posted on Twitter asking people who had experienced sexual violence to reply ‘me too’ to her tweet. Her aim was to try to highlight the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment experienced by women.

She explained the idea behind her tweet: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”.

While Ms Milano may have initiated the online campaign, the "me too" movement was in fact started by an activist in Harlem more than 10 years ago. Tarana Burke founded the “me too” Movement in 2006, in order to spread awareness and understanding about sexual assault and sexual violence in underprivileged communities.

This was therefore certainly not a new idea. However, in 2017 the “me too” hashtag struck a chord within the public consciousness. The election of Donald Trump in November 2016 and the subsequent women’s marches that were held across the world in January 2017 signified a defining moment in the women’s movement. Then came the news that renowned Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein had been publicly accused of sexually harassing multiple women. Further revelations followed in relation to other high profile individuals. The culmination of all of these events galvanized a pressing need for immediate action and real change. It felt as though we had reached a tipping point.

Within days of Alyssa Milano’s tweet, millions of women – and men – used Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to disclose the harassment and abuse they had faced in their own lives. They included celebrities and public figures, as well as ordinary people who felt empowered to finally speak out. The story moved beyond any one individual; it became a conversation about some men’s behaviour towards women and the imbalance of power within society and the work place.

The French used #balancetonporc, the Spanish #YoTambien, and in Arab countries the hashtags وأنا_كمان# and ‏وانا_ايضا# were predominant. Facebook said that within 24 hours, 4.7 million people around the world engaged in the #metoo conversation, with over 12 million posts, comments, and reactions.

The internet has provided a platform for people of all backgrounds to speak out and to share experiences. Conversations that may once have been confined to discussions between the closest of friends are now being aired on a global platform. By doing so we start to break down the stigma attached to sexual assault and harassment and shift the focus of the conversation. Despite some of its drawbacks, social media has given a voice to women who may otherwise have been forced into silence. Through their bravery and the sharing of common experiences, not only have we been forced to confront the scale of the issue but we have been forced to have a conversation about what, as a society, we are going to do about it.

I don’t think we [should] underestimate how much of an impact is being made by the way in which women can just speak out about their experiences, because we’re just not represented in the news media, and films and literature,” says Caroline Criado-Perez, Journalist and activist. “Until the internet came along, we just weren’t having these conversations about what it’s like to be a woman, what it’s like to walk down the street and be harassed and cat-called. We didn’t know about the idea of everyday sexism.”

#timesup

The #metoo movement exposed the prevalence of sexual harassment within society, gave a voice to many who had long suffered in silence and galvanized a campaign to redress the power imbalance. In the months that followed, there was a real need and desire to move from identifying the problem to actively solving the issues and pressing for social change.

In January 2018, three hundred female Hollywood actors, agents, writers, directors, producers and entertainment executives launched the “Time’s Up” campaign to counter systemic sexual harassment in the entertainment business and in workplaces. The initiative, announced with a full-page ad in the New York Times, includes a $13m legal defense fund to help women in less privileged professions protect themselves from sexual misconduct and the consequences that may arise from reporting it. The initiative’s goals also include promoting legislation to punish companies that tolerate persistent harassment, and to fight against the use of non-disclosure agreements to shield sexual abusers.

The campaign calls for "gender inequality and the imbalance of power" to be addressed, stressing the need for more women to gain positions of authority and parity of pay.

#PressforProgress

Some may be cynical about the recent social media campaigns or the high profile Hollywood stars who have chosen to speak out about these issues. If we look beyond the hashtags, however, it seems clear that we are witnessing a hugely remarkable and significant shift in the conversation about the way in which women are treated within society. These social media campaigns have shone a light on issues that for decades languished in the dark. Many women have previously remained silent and tolerated behaviour for fear of the consequences or because they were paralysed by a power imbalance that was never tipped in their favour.

Progress for women can only truly be made when we as a society are able to be honest and talk openly about issues such as sexual harassment. It is only then that we can effect real and sustained change. We all have a responsibility to use our voice, so let’s all do so to #PressforProgress


IWD is an opportunity to build on the progress that has been made towards gender parity and to celebrate the achievements of women on a global scale. This year, #PressforProgress.

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