On February 12, 2012, thousands of young people watched the Grammys in anticipation of who would win the year’s most coveted awards, such as Best Artist and Best Album of the year. The Grammy telecast encouraged Tweeters to participate in a parallel awarding process based on snap judgments of all the performances and awards, grounded in personal taste. One commentator wrote, “Twitter, after all, is like a T-shirt whose slogan you can keep changing: every new tap of the keyboard trumpets your tastes.” When Chris Brown accepted the award for Best R&B Album for his latest record “F.A.M.E” there was a surge of tweets across the “twitterverse” both in celebration and disgust. Brown’s assault on his ex-girlfriend, Rihanna, after a pre-Grammy party back in 2009 had made him the most contentious character of this year’s awards.
Youth across the world hurled various responses all over Twitter and Facebook, some in disgust at every mention and sight of Brown. Others shouted overwhelming support for the award. Perhaps the most upsetting to witness were the women who made his history of abuse light and trivial by stating their willingness to allow him to beat them.
Their rawness and insensitivity prompted several bloggers and activists to write about the incident. This surge in dialogue in the twitterverse was indicative of several issues, the most important being how complex and nuanced gender-based violence actually is, and how far we still have to go as a movement to end it.
Shortly after this episode, BET.com temporarily dropped Dream Hampton’s “The Trouble with Chris Brown,” which discussed the origins of Brown’s man-childish behavior and his rash attempt to replace critically needed therapy with a small team of tweeters using the hashtag #teambreezy to show he still had support. “TeamBreezy” is simply a group of Chris Brown supporters. It is often referred to as a digital team of fans, whose primary goal is to tell everyone about their position, and share their passion both on- and offline as much as possible.
BET’s permissiveness, the slew of young women and girls who made up #teambreezy, female bloggers (and commenters on blogs), and twitter followers who unwaveringly stood by Chris Brown amidst domestic violence charges and uncontrolled violent outbursts are very telling of some of the issues youth will face, and how they will address it in the future. Nearly 10 million @chrisbrown followers drove his album “F.A.M.E” to the number one spot, but failed to hold him accountable, relentlessly displacing responsibility for his actions onto others.
In this paper, I will attempt to unpack the parameters of what social media and connective technologies do for youth and youth activists. As a practitioner who has seen a diverse range of uses of connective technologies against human rights violations and gender-based violence, it is clear that social media has been important in recent social movements. Numerous cases show that opportunities for participation by youth and members of the public are greatly expanding through social media. However, the “youth” cannot be described as a homogenous category, and the use of connective technology among them is diverse and heavily contingent on context and level of access. I will explain how social media is creating new possibilities and practices among youth and its role in promoting and prompting progressive social change. With regular access to social media, the youth are influential “enablers” and have the greatest potential of spurring change. I will also outline the limited functionality of social media, the need for associated offline action and clear targets, and cases of success and failure in which technology is involved. Gender-based violence both in the developed and developing world are a complex blend of structural and cultural challenges, many of which are enhanced and enabled by communicative technology.
What is social media?
It is first important to define what we mean by social media. Kaplan and Haenlein define social media as “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of User Generated Content.” There are different types of social media, including collaborative web-based projects such as Wikipedia, Pinterest, and Reddit, which are content communities that constantly evolve based on the information that people contribute. Online collaboration platforms, blogs, video, and traditional social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are included in the category of social media. According to this definition of social media, email and short messaging services or texting would not be included because it is content not readily exchangeable by the public. However, this is increasingly changing, as people are using short messaging services as a means of mass public broadcasting and collaboration.
While there are varying definitions of social media, it seems no matter what the tool, the tool itself has no original intent towards a specific end. Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and other platforms were not necessarily established for activism. This may seem obvious, but to those immersed in youth activism, it is easy to lose sight of this. Low barriers to access and use now means that there is a lot of positive and negative noise on the web. Youth, who I call “the great potential,” utilize technology to create positive and negative social environments. The proceeding findings apply to all the following forms of technology, including: mobile phones, picture messaging, social sharing spaces, and crowd-sourced platforms.
So how do youth and young adults pick and chose which social media platforms they will use? Usually, it starts with a personal recommendation. People are inclined to join social platforms under the influence of their friends and family. Usage of various platforms is also largely dependent on accessibility, cost, and ease of use. There are several economic and social rationales for using different platforms. These rationales combined inform the context in which they are operationalized. Any analysis of youth movements can and should begin there.
Activating Social Media
Digital communication technology offers a wide range of capabilities: increased accessibility and opportunities to disseminate information, coordinate action, make decisions, and to build trust and a sense of collective identity. Before an individual considers going through these steps, an original motive is needed. At minimum, people need to feel excited, aggrieved, or worried about something. In today’s digital age, how does anyone become aggrieved about issues beyond what is happening to them directly? It usually starts with a personal connection. It starts with information, and an explanation of how this issue is a violation of his or her rights, the rights of others, and is causing an injustice that has an impact on issues important to them. Social media can both generate and share information, where mainstream news may not reach. This is particularly important when working with young people, who may not be avid newsreaders, but rely heavily on social media as a source of news.
There are countless examples of people using social media to share their grievances. Whether it is activists in Iran or users of Weibo in China, as information on issues such as government corruption or human rights violations swarms over social media networks, these people can mobilize to realize an alternative. Two of my favorite examples of such action include HarassMap in Egypt, and Mensajes de Paz in Guatemala.
In countries like Egypt and Guatemala, regular text messaging, data maps, and social networking platforms are being used to address sexual harassment and report sexual assault. Most women who live here are constantly exposed to a range of offensive and endangering behavior.
The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights in Cairo called harassment in Egypt a “dangerous social cancer” in a survey from 2008. This survey found that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women experience sexual harassment in Egypt. As a response to the rampant levels of harassment, several women came together to found a project called HarassMap, which is a crowdsourcing project that utilizes open-source technologies such as Ushahidi, a web crowdmap and mobile technology to encourage women to report and document incidents of harassment via the web, Twitter, and text. The technology empowers and enables women to share experiences and raise awareness through pro-active reporting. Women can report anonymously in real time, and will receive an automated message that reads: “Thank you for reporting harassment. If you would like to receive legal or psychological assistance or other services, please contact the NGO Task Force on Sexual Harassment at 33464901.” All reports are published (without names or phone numbers) on an online map, which shows the areas where complaints are coming from.
Mensajes de Paz, which translates to “Messages of Peace,” works in as similar manner. Mensajes de Paz is a project of Justice for My Sister (JFMS), a women’s collective and film documentary addressing gender-based violence. At its core, Justice for my Sister is a David versus Goliath story. A courageous woman named Rebeca takes on a giant system to demand answers for her sister’s brutal murder, and she has all the odds stacked against her, but her resilience and power is unstoppable. Violence against women, and specifically femicide (gender-based killing) is an epidemic in Guatemala; nearly 6000 women have been murdered in the last decade and only two percent of the killers were sentenced. The film documents one of the few successful cases from beginning to end. Survivors Connect collaborated with producers of the film to create a text message-based reporting and awareness campaign. The film is regularly screened in villages and communities where violence is rampant and access to resources is bleak. At each of the film screenings, volunteers at JFMS collected phone numbers of viewers who wished to stay in touch with the campaign, receive regular alerts of resources near them, and report instances of violence, which are then mapped.
In both cases of action, connective technology has offered a flexible and decentralized communication infrastructure, which gives way for the public to report, shape opinion, and more easily facilitate action. The Internet has facilitated rapid and cheap communication across vast geographical boundaries and has transformed the dissatisfaction of women in Egypt and Guatemala into collective action quickly and effectively. These online movements helped people find and disseminate information, recruit participants, organize, coordinate, and make decisions.
Though both cases have combined various connective technologies and social media in innovative ways, there is an integral element to their success, which often goes unacknowledged. Both movements include durable activist networks, and the use of technologies alone does not necessarily guarantee this stability. Regular “grass roots” level meetings, online spaces for collaboration, and coordination around well-defined projects and goals can help make networks long-lasting, and achieve impact on this issue, which is constantly evolving with new targets, opponents, and struggles. In both examples, there is a strong element of the “face-to-face” connection, which works to sustain their momentum.
In the case of efforts like HarassMap and Mensajes de Paz, participants have explained that while direct advocacy on the issue is key, the solution lies much more in the shifting of cultural perspectives on gender relations. Women argue that the social stigma is no longer widespread and contemporary society tends to trivialize gender-based violence. In order to “re-create the stigma” as some activists have put it, they rely on one-to-one interactions so that interpersonal relationships are built between activists and new recruits. Images, stories, emails, comments on Facebook and Twitter, films and statements convey the mission, and their interactions around the issues, contribute the process of identifying and defining the movement.
The online piece on its own however, is heavily prone to a problem called “flaming” where exchanges online consist of highly inflamed attacks on opinion, rather than discussion. While a degree of conflict is necessary in any social movement, whether it is a coalition or advocacy campaign, flaming does not happen nearly to the same degree when people are forced to talk with each other in person. Discussions happen, forcing people to overcome differences, build relationships and understanding, ultimately resulting in incremental change.
How do HarassMap and Mensajes de Paz encourage people to report? Has the reporting itself made a difference? Not so surprisingly, much of their success can be attributed to its proactive approach on the streets where the violence actually occurs. In the case of HarassMap, over 500 volunteers speak to people as neighbors and remind men of traditional Egyptian values of safety, pride and dignity. Mensajes de Pas works with a collective of women who hold community screenings and discussions about the film in schools, universities, unions, prisons and other youth groups. Misconceptions about gender-based violence are also addressed, such as what constitutes rape or harassment, and how women are not “asked” to be harassed based on what they wear. Volunteers distribute pamphlets and flyers about the project, and many people have been receptive to this type of messaging. In both countries, communities have organized themselves with neighborhood safety groups and protecting the streets. Youth-led activism has also been critical, where the skills and access to technologies are higher than in other populations. In these contexts, there is an economic and demographic imperative for the power of mobile technology. The tools match the goals, the targets, and the context.
Combining Online Activism and Offline Action
In the previous sections, I discussed how powerful combinations of online and offline tactics have helped create sustained youth-led movements against gender-based violence. Of the various tools available today in an activist’s tool box – such as e-petitions, emails, crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, SMS, targeted tweets or Facebook statuses, special avatars and more – these movements chose tactics that fit their target population, context, and need. Though, often times, these forms of activism are considered to be passive, compared to the more aggressive offline tactics of past movements. Malcolm Gladwell, a thought leader in this camp, is skeptical that digital tactics can really make a difference. Several call this pool of tactics as “slacktivism,” “clicktivism” or my personal favorite, “armchair activism.”
I am not quite as pessimistic as Gladwell. Social media and connective technologies for youth activism against gender-based violence can work, especially when the target is easily defined and the goals are clear. Digital tactics are not always passive. Social media and digital tactics work best in the instances where activists are mindful of who their target(s)/opponent(s) are, and what they are likely to see, where they are located, and what their sensitivities are. The phrase, “keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer” could not be more relevant here. Cases such as protests against Village Voice and sex trafficking (in progress), or GoDaddy and its support for Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) worked because public outrage made it easy for clients to take their business elsewhere, which was a direct threat they would listen and respond to. In the case of Susan G. Komen, who relies on donors, the foundation was severely put at risk with the wave of bad publicity after revoking critical funds to Planned Parenthood. E-petitions, Facebook shares and tweets were well heard by the opponents, and there was no choice but to respond.
Activists were smart in placing the tactic to fit the context. This sadly is not always the case. Digital activist scholar Mary Joyce has observed that other forms of digi-activism such as changing Facebook or Twitter icons green did not help much with pro-democracy activists in Iran in 2009. These tactics are the least threatening to the target. Though this act did not have a direct impact on the movement, it should be understood that this action is one of solidarity, and does not make the action wrong. A Facebook status change, changing of a profile picture or a tweet is a symbol of a specific outcome and change one wishes to see. The underlying lesson here is that of all the tactics available, activists should make decisions based on their relative strengths and weaknesses in relation to their fellow activists, their opponents or targets, and the context in which the tactic is operationalized.
Often times, activism on gender-based violence (or any issue) is incredibly difficult because the movement lacks clearly defined targets. In the cases of HarassMap and Mensajes de Paz, their targets are not specific individuals or institutions, but rather a culture. This is harder to change, further making a compelling case for smarter offline work. Digital communication tools and social media however, are integral now because it creates a short stepladder of engagement for people new to the cause, which is giving rise to “the great potential.” A tweet to an elected official may not necessarily do much, but it also requires very little of activists in terms of the personal time, resources, and commitment, which in the case of offline action, such as a rally or meeting, are incredibly high. Today, the first step of engagement with many social movements is risk-free and as easy as clicking a button. One may be inclined to continue their involvement, however it is up to good organizers to keep people engaged and demonstrate impact.
Perhaps this is where we should be looking towards our predecessors who organized without social media, and remind ourselves of how they spurred change. In the span of just under 50 years, the British Government outlawed the slave trade and went on to abolish the practice throughout its colonies. It is still by far one of the most successful reform movements of the 19th century. This win was tremendous for its time; people believed that the nation’s economy and the economies of its colonies would collapse if slavery ended, vital labor would be lost, and that it was a right to have a slave. Against all odds, the Society for Abolition of the Slave Trade tasked itself to create a constituency of anti-slavery activists through what we would now call traditional means of organizing – through distribution of books, pamphlets, prints, and artifacts. It took courage for people to participate in the movement. They had a network of country committees scattered throughout the country working on getting vital petition signatures, and had travelling agents who served as links to the organizing hubs, offering advice to newly-joined activists. If youth plan on creating movements for the long haul, they will need to remember these challenges, strategies, and tactics. Given the widespread accessibility of social media and connective technologies, I fear that youth may become increasingly predisposed towards “slacktivism.” Technology is usually the first medium of entry to causes and news, because this is also where their social relations are. Technologies can be effective in getting people to be more active participants, however, sustained and meaningful progress will always rely on good organizers.
The Internet offers an unprecedented flexible and decentralized communication infrastructure, facilitating rapid and cheap communication across vast geographical boundaries. The Internet can transform dissatisfaction to a mass collective action quickly, as well as organize, coordinate, and spread information. While the digital revolution provides us with a plentiful box of tactics and tools, it doesn’t necessarily mean that these attempts at activism are any more successful than before. It may possibly lead to faster responses from well-defined targets, in the case of GoDaddy or Susan G. Komen. For larger, more broadly defined social ills of society, such as sexual violence, we need durable activist networks. Social change is never achieved just through one action alone.
We must abandon the idea that digital communication tools will bring about radical change to our generation. Successful youth-led movements will be predicated on how new tools and old practices are combined in modular and innovative ways. The most important consequence of digital technologies for youth movements will be neither a creation of a futuristic digital politics nor full-scale transformation of politics as usual, but rather in the integration of novel practices and technology, creating a new normal for youth going forward; this is where “the great potential” lives.
Powerful technology-driven initiatives such as HarassMap, Mensajes de Paz, and others will be important steps in recording and combating gender-based violence. If these small steps succeed in the countries of origin, I am positive that youth will seek to follow suit in further exploration of how technology can increase awareness, shift public opinion and attitudes about violence, and create safer communities. I am reminded by the Chris Brown example that his fans and youth are the most influential “enablers” of all, however, in some cases, at their own dismay. It is a testament to young men and boys across the country that this is what women indeed want, and that the behavior can be acceptable and tolerated because Chris Brown can. We often refuse to call abuse when we see it, and refuse to acknowledge the problem because of the regular depictions in our entertainment. We have a long way to go, but when youth stop accepting, and defend the behavior less, the change will be obvious on the web and in our culture. The ways in which youth and social movements balance their presence on and offline will be integral to their success.
AASHIKA DAMODAR was a Zimmerman Fellow and Freedom Award winner in 2008. She is the founder of Survivors Connect, a non-governmental organization working to develop innovative technology platforms to support the anti-trafficking movement.