Challenging violence through social media

Lorna O’Hara

Posted: 17 August, 2017


Lorna O’Hara is a PhD student at the Department of Geography in Maynooth University. Her research focuses on so-called ‘fourth wave feminist’ movements, examining the similarities/differences between international feminist groups and artistic projects that have a focus on increasing awareness about/changing violence against women and the control of womens’ bodies. She joins us to mark our #LoveIrishResearch theme for August looking at the world of social media. 

If you’ve been involved in any demonstrations lately, you may have noticed that social movements almost always have their own unique Twitter hashtag, how organisers signal upcoming actions via Facebook events, and attendees are actively encouraged to live-tweet photos from the demos. While some may discredit social media activism as “slacktivism”, it has become an essential part of how many people now interact with one another. In addition to embodied physicality in a particular locale, we can be co-present with others in other locations through hybrid forms of “continuous connectivity”. From my own experience as a feminist activist and researcher, I have found that the use of new technologies and social media is one of the most defining features of so-called ‘fourth wave’ feminisms.

Two of the groups I have researched, Hollaback! Berlin and Hollaback! Dublin, for example, were part of a global online network of activists who use the internet, social media and smartphone technologies to report and share instances of street harassment. Users submit their stories via an innovative online platform and map, which is also available as an app. Not only has this been successful in creating awareness about this form of everyday violence against women, it has also created a network of support for victims of harassment, especially for young women and girls.  According to leaders of Hollaback! in Berlin and Dublin, when a young woman first experiences harassment, this act of “overt sexism” can be incredibly shocking and upsetting. Instead of struggling alone with this issue, they can now go online and access the support they need, as well as build an awareness of the systematic nature of harassment, and become exposed to feminist concepts and ideas. Indeed, as Kitsy Dixon explains in her paper on “hashtag feminism,” such practices create a “virtual space where victims of inequality can coexist together in a space that acknowledges their pain, narrative, and isolation”.

This example illustrates how the creative actions of modern feminist activists span  technologically “augmented” hybrid spaces and open up new avenues for cross-border political engagement. Social media not only makes an issue visible, but also results in real feelings of connectedness and closeness to others . One such example is ‘Anti-Street Harassment Week’, a global online solidarity campaign aiming to tackle street harassment. As part of this campaign, activists around the world went out into the streets and wheat-pasted anti-street harassment art while simultaneously photographing and sharing their actions online using the hashtag #EndSHWeek.

If, as one activist pointed out to me, the most important goal is to ensure participation, then social media is an important tool in doing so. As Julia Brilling, leader of Hollaback!Berlin put it, the internet is just another venue, a space like any other: “You have your problem. You have your issue and you take it somewhere. You take it either there … in front of the Bundestag or wherever, or you take it to some hashtag and fight for it on Twitter”. Through this mix of social media and embodied forms of action, women of all ages, races, classes, backgrounds and abilities can connect with others, engage directly with political actors, and draw attention to issues of inequality such as everyday harassment and sexism at local and international scales.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in our guest blogs are the author’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of the Irish Research Council or any employee thereof.

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