More Than the Message

Media, Safety and Attribution in Online Activism

We aren’t all in this together.

The risks, rewards, and danger for bringing about any kind of major change is weighted on prejudice, access and sometimes sheer luck.

The perception that we can form an amazing bond stretching across class, culture and geography to create moments of fantastic affinity through hashtags, fundraisers and shared emotion: find the message, get it out and get everyone on board. It sounds idyllic, it plays simplistic. The rush to get “the message” out ignores the real consequences of safety, power and sustainable support. PR management of these moments of affinity become more important than the policy shifting.

A visualization of world travel and communications recorded on Twitter, juxtaposed over a map of the world. It shows thousands of wisps of connections between countries and continents all over the globe. CC-BY Eric Fischer, filtered.

In a new media landscape where the old school values of racism, classism, and sometimes well-intentioned but utterly selfish savior complexes run rampant, the necessary care to protect the most vulnerable is slipshod at best, if not absent altogether.

Social Media and The News Cycle Frenzy

Social media provides an amazing stage for some of the best and worst examples of the dangers of ready-made affinity. A hashtag starts, a particularly sharp tweet is made. It can circle around the world in less than a baseball inning.

A wonderful way to focus shared interests, the actual substance of the phenomena has often been ignored in the news cycle frenzy. The most recent news-worthy hashtags have been started largely by women of color responding to an event or discussion in tightly knit and highly active groups. Most importantly, those groups provide each other with support not just to the message of the hashtag but to the creators and sustainers of it. Proliferation of hashtags has not lead to a proliferation of the support structures or of their original intent. Rather than serving as parts of a movement toward accountability and camaraderie, they become flash points of opportunity to be “relevant.” My blog/org/media site never misses a moment, rather than joining in to collectively develop responses to a shared experience.

While the desire to be relevant isn't always a bad impulse, the desire to do so without acknowledgment of context can have powerful consequences. The hashtag #yesallwomen, started by @gildedspine has been a case study in the best, worst and most mundane of social media messaging. Started as a response to the Elliot Rodger shooting, the hashtag had over one million tweets in one weekend.

What it did not have was proper attribution. In posts from People and Time, gildedspine was not mentioned at all. Most distressing was that, while unattributed publicly in many spaces, the hashtag’s originator was still being harassed and subjected to misogynistic and racist violence, to the point that she requested being removed from other stories for her safety.

While the powerful stories about the fear and danger women face simply existing in the world were talked about as a movement, the subsequent abuse of women responding to abusive ideologies was not worthy of consideration -- to the point that even the person who ignited this moment had to reconsider participation for her own safety.

Message-Focused Movements

A large 3D hashtag erected by painted boards of wood against a concrete background. CC-BY romana klee, filtered.

Over the course of writing this article, the problems of a message-focused movement were made abundantly clear. User @yesaiiwomen, who stylized the handle to appear like #yesallwomen, had amassed 33K followers and started a mailing list for a website that the hashtag’s creator knew nothing about. Selling t-shirts, collecting money for the launch of a 501(c)(3), without a single call back to the original circumstances of the hashtag, the safety of the individual who started it, or safety of women in the original context.

When confronted with the disturbing discrepancy, the user made a reference to their good intentions and future plans, not the very real issues of respect for authorship, the spirit of the original campaign or the safety of its originator. After all, there is a story to be told, a movement to be made.

This sort of ideological falsehood was even more evident in a hashtag that developed from the media coverage of #yesallwomen. #Stopclymer arose after a contributor to the Huffington Post and Policy Mic was found to have been abusing and insulting women under the guise of feminism. If that sounds uncomfortably familiar, then you aren’t alone. As Clymer was questioned, inquiries to his editors went unanswered.

What was shocking was that Policy Mic then published a positive, complimentary list of 37 male activists to “Show Us What Real Men's Activists Look Like” and included Clymer on it. When confronted, their silence was deafening. When finally addressed, no mention was made of the accusations or the delay. Although the list is now noted as having been edited, and Clymer has been removed, why or how goes unmentioned.

A tweet that reads: Charles is a freelance contributor & until we've fully reviewed the situation, he will not be published. Tweet by @feministabulous

Even in a moment for the protection of women, the illusion of a “unified” and diverse movement is more important than telling the complete story of how it was actually accomplished. Rather than telling the story of how social media was used to provide safety through #yesallwomen and responding to Clymer’s questionable credentials, Policy Mic quickly showed Clymer the door, dismissing him as a “freelancer” - after all, freelancers are no one’s responsibility and not indicative of policy or lack thereof in the “movement.”

I use freelancer here to describe the transactional “piece by piece” of new media “moments.” Sparked by a video, an article or a hashtag, media production around activism is isolated from the conditions that inspired it -- through no fault of the original creators. In the media “moments” around online activism, if you are participating you are “in.” Sharing in the media moment is mistaken for doing the work of examining the conditions. Someone who says all the correct things, like Clymer, is insulated from critique about DOING all the wrong ones.

Conversely, as these “moments” are separated so quickly from those who create them, no one feels any responsibility for cultivating the results they claim to desire. Troubling interactions, when made public and complained about, are “not our problem” according to media outlets in the midst of a frenzy.

Media and Money

But what happens when opportunistic freelancers aren’t just excited leftists or misguided pickup artists? What happens when these “good intentions” are backed with the full power of media and money?

In the case of #BringBackOurDaughters / #bringbackourgirls, Rana Mosley and the handle @girlrising appropriated the hashtag to bring attention to her own documentary, going so far as claiming to have started the movement. Profiled by CNN, who paid 500K to air her documentary, Mosley’s claim was eventually modified to “independently launched a social-media effort”.

While such splitting of hairs is bothersome, more troubling is the pledge @girlsrising took to donate to a list of Nigerian charities -- donations that still had not materialized WEEKS after. For a media moment she claims to have started, when held to accountability it became magically silent.

Mosley’s reasoning was that she saw no coordinated campaign behind #BringBackOurGirls, even though Nigerians had long been discussing and using social media to raise awareness. The fact that it was active and was being pushed by the people most affected was not good enough, or it didn’t occur to her to look for it.

This ignorance of social media and the consequences for its more impassioned users becomes a place of authority when backed by access. Even more troubling, it becomes an echo chamber. Mosley, Policy Mic, @yesaiiwomen can USE the affinity created around online activism, can CLAIM to do good and build a connection, but they do not take any responsibility for the results, or for the work done in their name. The story has to be told by SOMEONE. We’re getting exposure for the cause! We’re all just freelance here.

But all too often, these “stories” comes from a blatant disrespect and almost targeted critique of the very people they claim to represent… all while insisting that those people are too naive to critique them. In the past few weeks, experienced writers Jessica Luther and Shanley Kane (editor, Model View Culture) were instructed in how journalism works by media outlets building “stories” around their work and experiences. Luther, a prominent TX reproductive justice activist was adroitly lamenting the rush of non-local reporters being commissioned to speak about Texas while ignoring the media generated by Texas itself. Rather than accept that it was a valid concern about how media was failing the women of the state and then eulogizing them prematurely, many argued that someone has to tell the story, even as the voices of the women of Texas were actively erased through all the national “exposure.”

Kane’s interactions were much more disconcerting, especially in the wake of the violence and abuse that have mounted as hashtags receive attention. Protesting invasion into pre-determined boundaries, Kane was baited as being unaware of how reporting works and paranoid by a reporter profiling her.

Rather than being believed or respected, women are harangued and abused by people who less than two weeks earlier passionately participated in hashtags like #YesAllWomen. So while a message of women's personal defense was great for hits, an actual practice of safety and respect for them was totally absent when it made observers uncomfortable.

Getting to the Meaning

This talk-a-good-game policy results in ever-mounting rugs with ever-growing things swept under them. As much of the left defaults to a “freelancer” attitude of polishing an important history for optics rather than purposefully developing methods of support, big business, government and anti-feminists have committed to deeply researching how marginalized voices shape social media space. FEMA has an open position for a Digital Communications specialist, based on understanding and activating online communities.

A tweet that reads: Digital Communications Specialist is a job at FEMA, but it's 'just' the internet. Includes a link to the job description and the hashtag Not Your Resource. Tweet by @Karnythia

Even large companies have started posting openings for media jobs for people who ”get” the new social media landscape, while those who generate these moments both specifically and demographically (WOC, non-tech insiders) are unrepresented and unpaid. Meanwhile, the hashtag #Yourslipisshowing has been created by @sassycrass and curated to block sock puppet accounts from a coordinated troll/interference attempt by members of #4chan, and it is already being attacked.

If the reasons for hashtags are to become more than media blips, the people who generate them and the struggles they face must become more than “PR problems” and move into strong indicators of policy. If we want a media that does more than just reify extant prejudice, knowing how journalism works must be a precursor to discussions on how to change the worst aspects of it, not reason to attack women who find ways to defend themselves against its status quo.

If you clamor to be part of the moment, you should clamor to be part of the movement. When media impact is public and visible, moments of shared affinity can not be mistaken for moments of shared consequences. These moments arise because of imbalances of power, systematic oppression and violence. If they are to become real change, HOW we use them -- the mechanisms, the safeguards, the community around them -- must become more important than being seen using them in the latest media cycle.

We’ve proven we can handle the message. What we need now is the meaning.