Rethinking online feminist action

  • December 7, 2015
Rethinking online feminist action

Last week, more than 1,200 women in a secret Facebook group launched an online campaign to name-and-shame men threatening to rape Australian feminist columnist Clementine Ford [pictured], a staunch opponent of cyber-harassment, after a man was fired for calling her a ‘slut’ online.

Within 15 minutes of the campaign’s launch, thousands of tweets had been sent and #endviolenceagainstwomen was the top trending topic in Australia before spreading around the world. National television and international news media quickly joined the conversation.

Digital media and social networking have drastically transformed the way people engage in collective action. But, as with most world-changing developments, there has been endless controversy about whether or not this is a good thing.

Writers and academics, including Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov, have argued that easy, low-risk ‘slacktivism’ diverts people from taking real action to address social issues and doesn’t create genuine change.

Meanwhile, listicles discuss powerful campaigns and online feminism is touted as a possible ‘fourth wave’ reinvigorating feminist movements.

How do we know which camp is right? Is this ‘good’ collective action or even collective action at all? Are all those tweets actually changing anything?

Assessing the impact of activism has always been notoriously hard. But as activism takes on new forms online, it may be that old frameworks and measures aren’t even the right place to start.

Action online and off

Ideas about what individual political participation and collective action actually are are being challenged. Traditionally, acts of self-expression like Ford’s tweets about the cyber-harassment she experiences would not have been considered political participation. Germaine Greer has claimed that ‘simply coughing up outrage into a blog will get us nowhere.’ But academics are now arguing that these previously ‘non-political’ acts can have far more impact than first thought.

As both Ford and campaign organiser Kerri Sackville show, activating your online social networks to mobilise your friends and followers can influence others to engage in political action and generate pressure for changes in society and behaviour.

The sharp division between the online and offline world is another idea that doesn’t make much sense anymore.

Until recently, the main criteria used to judge whether an online campaign had been effective was whether it had clear impacts offline. But the idea that ‘real’ impacts only happen in the offline world is far out of touch with people’s digitally networked lives.

The average Brit spends almost three hours online each day. Many people earn their income online. We shop online, date online, socialise online, read the news online. Our engagement online is a very real part of our lives.

As Ford, and many other women speaking up online have discovered, the Internet can be a pretty misogynistic place. So feminist activism shouldn’t just aim to create change in the ‘real’ world, it needs fight for equality offline and on.

Everyday sexism

Ideas about what feminists should be campaigning about and how are also changing. Historically, major targets of feminist action have been legislative changes such as legalising abortion, and outlawing workplace discrimination and sexual harassment. Online feminist activity continues to support these important goals, but a key focus of online activism has been on ‘everyday sexism’.

Hashtag campaigns #YesAllWomen, #YouOKSis and blogs such as The Everyday Sexism Project and Hollaback! allow women to share their experiences of everything from casual sexism at work, to street harassment, cyber-harassment and assault.

When thousands of women share their stories of being catcalled on the street or abused online, what was seen as ‘just a bit of harmless fun’ is problematised as a widespread practice that affects women’s access to public spaces.

Most street harassment is unlikely to become a criminal offence and while we desperately need and can improve legal protections against cyber-harassment, neither problem will be solved with legal solutions.

To combat everyday sexism, we need to raise awareness and change social attitudes so behaviours become socially unacceptable and people are held accountable for their interactions online.

The #endviolenceagainstwomen campaign to name-and-shame misogynistic trolls made a clear statement that cyber-harassment is not socially acceptable and began the process of holding people accountable for what they say and do online and off. In doing so, it’s recasting the way we think about the effectiveness of collective action online.

*Lauren Power [2015] is doing an MPhil in Multi-Disciplinary Gender Studies.

Lauren Power

Lauren Power

  • Alumni
  • Australia
  • 2015 MPhil Multi-Disciplinary Gender St
  • Clare Hall

I completed my MPhil in Multidisciplinary Gender Studies at the Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies in 2015/16. My research focused on the ways young women use online technologies to engage in feminist thought and action and explored how these online practices are affecting feminist political progress.

I now work in Australia as Senior Social Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister, the Hon Anthony Albanese MP.

Prior to coming to Cambridge I worked as a Social Policy Advisor at the Australian Treasury, specialising in schools policy, early childhood education and care and parental leave policy.

Previously I worked as research manager for the global food and water security program run at Australian public policy think tank Future Directions International.

Previous Education

University of Western Australia

Latest Blogs

How Cambridge Analytica influenced Nigeria’s elections

My research broadly tackles questions of technology, equity, and accountability within the Global South. I emphasise the West’s use of sub-Saharan Africa as a testing ground or laboratory for its nascent technologies before launching them in the West. This blog is an excerpt from my recent presentation at the 2022 Gates Day of Research, titled […]

Why algorithms are necessarily value-laden

Algorithmic decision-making systems applied in social contexts drape value-laden solutions in an illusory veil of objectivity. Machine learning plays an increasingly prominent role in mediating institutional decisions in everything from corporate hiring practices to criminal sentencing. This ongoing AI spring has invigorated discussions of the ethical dimensions of these techno-social arrangements. In particular, there is […]

Preparing for all scenarios in an unstable world

On March 9th, Mohamed A. El-Erian joined the Gates Cambridge community for a virtual fireside chat, where he discussed decision-making in conditions of uncertainty, the economic impact of the pandemic and relief efforts and the importance of diversity of thought and scenario planning. El-Erian is President of Queens’ College, Cambridge and Chief Economic Advisor of […]

How can the international community help Belarus?

Last Sunday represented a tipping point in the recent history of Belarus which has had an immediate effect on the lives of its citizens, including mine. Independent exit polls and observers representing the diplomatic community, verified by the crowdsourcing platform Golos, show that, had it been a fair and transparent election, the uninterrupted, 26-year-long reign […]