You have probably seen the #metoo hashtag in your Facebook or Twitter newsfeed recently. It was launched with a tweet by American actress Alyssa Milano on 15 October encouraging women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted share their stories with the hashtag #metoo on their social media to give people “a sense of the magnitude of the problem”. The hashtag became viral and only in 24 hours there were more than 12 million posts, comments and reactions from 4.7 million people.
The critics would probably ask “So what?” It’s not the first viral hashtag addressing a social justice issue, and we have heard a lot of criticism towards social media activism having difficulties translating into making a difference or leading to actions off-line. There are people who will still just click “like” or “retweet” because they like things and there will be nothing beyond that. Social media activism is useless if it doesn’t lead to action off the internet. Moreover, it’s not the first hashtag addressing gender inequality or sexual harassment. Just remember #HeforShe, #BringBackOurGirls or #YesAllWomen. People will make posts, tweets and re-tweets, traditional media will republish discussion and in few weeks everyone will forget about it or shift their attention to another hashtag. So the main question is does hashtag activism brings any real change?
There are always two sides of the coin. But in this particular case, I would defend the hashtag power. It has a power to raise and bring the attention of many people to a certain topic. Especially, if it’s supported by celebrities who in certain cases have much a bigger reach than politicians or world leaders. As we can see from the hashtag itself, its aim is not to start a social movement or urge people to action, it’s to show the scale of the problem. And when you start thinking about the issue raised, it’s really endemic. We don’t talk here only about extreme cases, like rape, but if we think about all aspects of sexual harassment — sexist jokes, objectivisation of women, inappropriate behaviour towards female subordinates, then the unfortunate conclusion comes that this kind of behaviour is somehow normalised in our society. As someone said, I would be surprised that we can find a woman nowadays who hasn’t experienced any form of sexual harassment. And that’s horrifying!
The power of this particular hashtag, in my mind, is not in bringing real actions or prosecution, it’s in changing perception of women themselves that’s this is not normal. For decades or even for centuries, the topic of sexual harassment was stigmatised and silenced. Women didn’t talk about it publicly. And now they are. Of course, you can argue that’s just talk. Moreover, talk in the online realm which has its limitations. We should not forget about all those women and girls in developing countries who also faced sexual harassment but are not able to share their experiences and be part of this important discussion simply because they don’t have access to the Internet. But many believe that the more we talk about such issues, the more the conversation picks up volume and the harder it is to ignore. I also believe, as soon as the idea that sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour is not normal, takes roots in the minds of both women and men, real actions and real change will come.
The power of one hashtag