Violence against women and social media

The use of Instagram for feminist mobilisation

Emma Louveau

2020

Introduction

With the recent #MeToo or #BalanceTonPorc campaigns in France, social networks appear as essential for feminist movements. Indeed, testimonies of sexual assaults or daily sexism are becoming more and more visible on social media platforms, reviving discussions around gender relations in the public space. The question of the effects of the internet on social movements and more precisely on the feminist movement appears to be unavoidable. Social networks are an important part of the lives of many individuals, at least in developed countries, and the massive arrival of young people and people from more popular backgrounds allows a renewal of debates and modes of activism and political participation on the model of a participatory web allowing a form of empowerment and emancipation of traditional communication channels. The issue of violence against women has reappeared on the public agenda following the self-media coverage of feminist mobilisations. These militant uses of social media now offer unprecedented opportunities for collective mobilisation by modifying the repertoire of collective action.

The central question of this essay is: are social networks levers of feminist mobilisations? I will focus on Instagram: although MeToo started on Twitter, it is now on Instagram that the majority of feminist contents are shared, thanks to the format proposed by the application which focuses more on images, allowing for visual communication. Moreover, I choose to focus my article on violence against women. Indeed, the health crisis related to the Covid-19 pandemic has largely brought the problem of gender-based and sexual violence to light. It therefore seems all the more interesting to study the use of social networks in the context of campaigns denouncing such violence. During the lockdown in France, social media acted even more as vectors of feminist mobilisations since all meetings and real activities were suspended. However, this did not lead to a decrease in activism. Far from fading away, activism has taken advantage of the special circumstances of lockdown to develop further. Thus, feminist activists have been able, via social media, to move out of the private sphere invested by all during the lockdown, and into the public space mostly reserved for men. 

I will study the case of the Instagram account of the collective NousToutes (translating to All of Us but taking the French feminine form, meaning “All of Us Women”). This feminist collective created in 2018 following the #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc movements is committed to fighting against sexist and sexual violence brings together individuals, associations, trade unions and political organisations, which makes them all the more interesting to study thanks to this diversity. #NousToutes communicates a lot through social networks, for example by recording the number of women killed by their spouses or ex-spouses and organising demonstrations.

Social media: a new repertoire for collective action

For this article, I will study the communication made by NousToutes on social networks and their influence on activism through the prism of Charles Tilly’s theory of the repertoire of collective action. In 1984, Charles Tilly developed the concept of ”repertoire of collective action”, which refers to the limited stock of means of action available to activist groups in every time and place. Each has a limited set of routines that are learned, shared and executed through a relatively deliberate process of choice. It is the idea of a pre-existing structure of means of action constraining the choices of agents. However, the notion implies a certain liberty left to the contenders’ invention.

Social networks have also led to questions about the issue of online collective action. The development of social media has led to profound changes in the way activist collectives organise their communication, creating a new repertoire of action. To account for these changes, Romain Badouard uses the notion of ”keyboard mobilisation”. That is to say, all the militant mobilisations that take place in the digital space.

These mobilisations have the particularity of involving both ”ordinary” citizens and organised activists. This was the case during the BalanceTonPorc campaign, where most of the women who testified were not feminist activists, but simply women who decided to come together around a common goal: to denounce male sexual violence. This strategy of influence, which consists of invading the public sphere, then makes the transition from an amateur practice to a distributed and collective militant practice which here is resolutely feminist. From this point on, it seems that social networks are opening up a new repertoire of collective action that can be used by more people, not just those with strong militant capital.

In the abundant literature on social movements, a growing number of authors highlight the role played by digital media in the evolution of the organisation of militant structures, their production of alternative content and their communication strategies (Cardon and Granjon, 2010). These observations apply to online feminist collectives that share a repertoire of collective actions common to all social movements to express themselves, inform, make themselves visible, alert the media, recruit and raise public awareness of their cause (Tilly, 1984). Moreover, as a communication tool and a mode of self-representation, social networks have the potential to transform relationships within and between collectives. It also raises the question of individual and collective activist identity emphasizing the potential of digital interfaces to create new solidarities between ordinary women and has highlighted the existence of a ”hashtag feminism” (Keller, Mendes and Ringrose, 2016). It is then a question of measuring the place of social networks in the constitution of militant collectives, as a new means of collective action.

In the light of this, it is possible to observe the militant use of social networks as a new tool in the repertoire of collective action that can be mobilised. The main advantage of social networks is thus the low cost of mobilization (Mancur Olson, 1965). Indeed, in the Western world, the majority of people have easy access to social networks. Surveys by the Pew Research Center reveal that women (especially in the 18-29 age group) are more often present on the Internet and social networks than men. 68 per cent of women, compared to 62 per cent of men, regularly use social networks in the United States, and the percentage rises to 90 per cent among 18-29 year olds of all genders. Given these figures, some actors credit online feminism with considerable potential.

Social media as a new mobilising tool in the struggle against domestic violence

Thanks to their ability to spread information at dizzying speed and to react to it simultaneously, social networks offer a virality to feminist mobilisations, capable of mobilising crowds and attracting the attention of the media and political leaders alike. The time for political action is overturned by the immediacy of the dissemination of mobilising messages, especially as, until now this leverage effect has been the prerogative of the traditional media. It is easy to use an Instagram account in the framework of militancy. It is through its Instagram page that the Collectif NousToutes has widely communicated the organisation of demonstrations aimed at attracting the attention of politicians while raising the level of collective awareness on violence against women.

The particularity of these mobilisations is that they concern both ”ordinary” citizens and organised activists. This strategy of influence, which consists of invading the public sphere, then makes the transition from an amateur practice to a distributed and collective activist practice. Thus, the Instagram account of NousToutes carries out a count of the number of women killed by their spouse or ex-spouse, accompanied by the hashtag #OnNeLesOubliePas (WeDon’tForgetThem), combining the duty to remember, collective awareness and an attempt to put it on the agenda.

Social networks, by lowering organisational costs, but also costs of participation and dissemination of ideas, have enabled a number of people, isolated geographically and socially, to show their support for the movement. The drastic lowering of the costs of entering the cognitive market, in terms of both financial and symbolic capital, is also a consequence of the possibility of anonymity. On March 3, 2020, the collective NousToutes distributed a survey on sexual consent on social networks. Although this survey is not necessarily based on a representative sample, it lead to the creation of a new campaign #JaiPasDitOui (I didn’t say yes) to invite women to testify and denounce the abusers. In order to reduce the cost of these testimonies and guarantee anonymity, many Instagram accounts propose to make the intermediary between the testimony and its publication as it is the case of the “PayeTon….” accounts. (“PayeTonAgression”, etc.).

However there have been criticisms of the growing importance of a ”call-out culture”, which consists of denouncing the authors of comments or acts considered as sexist, misogynistic or even racist, in an intersectionalist reading that reflects the possibilities offered by social networks. Furthermore, social media also allow for action to be taken in real situations of violence, as shown by the implementation of a gesture, which being made during a video on social networks, is in fact a code allowing a victim of violence to be identified. Social media are a way to circumvent omerta by anonymity, orientation and awareness raising.

If social networks make it easier to organise real mobilisations, they also allow the maintenance of an activist base that remains permanently mobilised around the Instagram page. Activism then becomes digital and less punctual. The Instagram account of NousToutes keeps the attention of its audience thanks to posts on scientific studies, but also prevention posts, which are easy to share on one’s personal account, guaranteeing a wide diffusion of the message, in a few clicks.

While women have traditionally been marginalised in the physical public space, the architecture of digital spaces based on the principles of horizontal exchanges and hierarchical levelling has favoured their political voice. Women can express themselves in places that do not belong to the classical patriarchal order of space and where their voices can no longer be stifled or ignored. The collective and activist speaking out on social networks constitutes an appropriation and subversive diversion of these new communication technologies in that it enables the dissemination of information beyond political control (Hongwei Bao, 2020). Social networks and their activists use open up spaces for horizontal and participatory enunciation, constituting real zones of temporary autonomy where power is then redistributed. Feminist self-media coverage presents itself as a form of resistance to the relations of power and domination which weave reality. 

As feminist practice and ideas are confronted with the specific structure of the cognitive market of the internet, adaptation is necessary. The mechanisms structuring social relations on the internet affect the content of the ideas and proposals. NousToutes relies on the virality of the contents relayed by its activists on social networks in order to gain visibility.

Today, activist work involves managing a virtual community of social movements. The forms of activism lead to learning skills on the job, and to the enhancement of certain profiles of younger activists who are comfortable with digital technology or communication professionals. A double movement is taking place: on the one hand, feminist collectives are places of digital socialisation and, on the other, the pre-digital socialisation is now a valued asset for this activism. This delimits an active core of a wider circle of sympathisers who are integrated into a second circle by mailing lists. The risk of this type of strategy of online activism is the creation of multi-speed activism, with a range of behaviours from a ”Like” mention on a publication to being present at a demonstration. While this form of politicisation known as “slacktivism” may seem weak or even insufficient, it allows for the inclusion of populations with limited potential for participation due to low cultural and activist capital.

However, while online activism is interesting in many ways, it must remain only a lever for traditional mobilisations, allowing for the creation of links and organisation. It must therefore give way to real mobilisations. The recent example of the demonstrations organised by NousToutes throughout France clearly shows the interpenetration of offline and online issues. 

Finally, studies on the issue of the emancipatory, deliberative or even democratic potential of the internet impose a certain caution regarding the social obstacles it may encounter. Thus, the confirmation bias and tendencies towards homophily that can already be observed in the social world are exacerbated by the configuration of the participatory web.

Conclusion

Social networks have contributed to transforming feminist activism by putting communication issues permanently at the centre and influencing objectives, modes of action and skills at the same time. The web has renewed activism by making networks visible and by raising the question of individual and collective identity. The group effects allowed by social networks materialise both a virtual community of social movement and a potentially mobilisable space for the women’s cause. Online feminism works to the extent that the campaigns are followed by ordinary feminists and find a media and sometimes even political echo. 

To affirm that there is a new feminist wave, we must rely on two decisive indicators: the observation of a growing feminist commitment, or a marked increase in interest in feminism and the issues it raises in the public arena; and the renewal of the methods and main themes addressed by activists. The development of online feminism and the transformation of activist practices through the particular configuration of web spaces are concomitant phenomena with a rise in interest in feminist issues in the public space that help validate the hypothesis of the emergence of a Fourth Feminist Wave.

Emma Louveau is a student in political science at the University Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne. She is studying both law and social sciences. After returning from her exchange year at the University of Helsinki, she will enter a Master’s degree specializing in international relations and humanitarian aid.

References

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Media

Wright, Marisa (December 10, 2019) “We must learn from #NousToutes”, The Michigan Daily

Granillo, Gabriel, (October 6, 2020) “The Role of Social Media in Social Movements”, Monthly Portland

http://www.noustoutes.org

NousToutes Instagram account