The Hashtag: Building #StandWithLeah
Powerful institutions speak two languages: media and money.
Trigger warning: This article discusses sexual assault. Leah’s name is used with permission.
Leah Sharon Francis is a Stanford undergraduate who was sexually assaulted by another student.
Leah began the disciplinary process at Stanford to hold her rapist accountable, and was further victimized by Stanford’s failure to provide resources for her or hold the person who attacked her accountable.
Leah spent two quarters going through Stanford’s ARP (Alternate Review Process) – Title IX states that judicial proceedings should take 60 days, and Leah’s case took over 120. She had to write over one hundred pages in legal documentation for ARP. After her attacker was found to have “sexually assaulted another student through use of force”, it took two weeks for Stanford to get the perpetrator off campus – and only after Leah reached out to a tenured law professor for help.
Photo by Tessa Ormenyi.
Despite these findings, and after Leah appealed the original decision, Stanford ultimately decided that Leah’s assailant was a threat to no one but her. Stanford did not suspend the student who raped Leah – or expel him. Instead, Stanford allowed him to remain on campus, and complete his undergraduate coursework. Stanford is merely withholding his degree for two years, and allowing him to come back to get his Masters in Computer Science. Thanks to a convenient legal loophole, he will probably not have to tell future employers that any disciplinary action is being taken against him, because Stanford is only “withholding his degree.”
Originally, Stanford mandated 40 hours of community service… until they realized that community service isn’t an appropriate punishment for someone found guilty of perpetrating sexual assault. Instead, he just has to meet with a university administrator to “demonstrate insight” and “reflect” on his responsibility for the sexual assault.
After all of this, Leah had had enough. On June 3rd, Leah sent an email detailing her assault, and asking for students to join her in a rally for survivors on June 5. Leah’s courage captured the attention of the student body. In just a few hours, the email went viral.
After processing Leah’s email, I immediately reached out to her via email. I reposted her email on my personal Facebook, and searched for a Facebook event for the rally. There wasn’t any. I reached out to two friends – Caitlin Wraith and Tessa Ormenyi – who I knew were probably involved. Caitlin and Tessa know how to organize, and I’ve worked in social media marketing for the last five years. Together with Leah, and the help of countless others, we created #StandWithLeah.
Media and Money
I knew Leah wanted to get Stanford’s attention – and one of the best ways to do that is through creating a media storm. Leah and other students created a document detailing what needs to change at Stanford. Our goal was to get as much media attention as possible, in order to involve Stanford alumni and parents.
Powerful institutions speak two languages: media and money. We knew that in order to create any change, we would have to create a large headache for the university, and ask alumni to withhold donations until Stanford acknowledged the mistakes that were made in Leah’s case, and created measurable changes.
It is difficult to maintain the attention of an entire student body – and it is more difficult to hold the attention of the media and a large institution. In order to make our voices heard, we began using the hashtag #StandWithLeah so that people could show their solidarity with her and other survivors of sexual assault. In retrospect, the hashtag had flaws (for one, not everyone is able to stand), but it has created an impact.
Photo by Tessa Ormenyi.
Thus far, we’ve had three student rallies. As organizers, we were nervous about attendance at these events – we knew we had to keep stoking the fire. When students showed up to the first rally in White Plaza, they were directed to make signs stating why they #StandWithLeah. Students were directed (via megaphone) to take photos of themselves with these signs, and upload them to the Facebook event, Twitter, Instagram and any other social media channels. Students were also directed to sign the change.org petition and post about it.
From this rally, we found that folks want to help survivors – but struggle to know exactly what to do to create an impact. During the rally, Leah and other survivors shared their stories – and 500 students rallied outside of Vice Provost Greg Boardman’s (empty) office. Students even taped a Title IX on the door.
We knew we had to get more than students involved – remember, the whole “media and money” rule? Organizers created a group called Stanford Alumni Allied Against Sexual Assault to teach alumni how to use the hashtag and join in pressuring the university by withholding funds.
It’s been interesting going through this process – when we ask folks to use the hashtag, we’ve met some resistance from students and activists. “Really? A hashtag? What the hell is that going to accomplish – we need results, not Twitter slacktivism.” But “Twitter slacktivism” is exactly what a lot of movements need. As activists, if we want to raise hell and demand that institutions change – and hold them accountable to changes – we must use social media.
Photo by Tim Hegedus.
Why Twitter Hashtags Work
1. Hashtags Create Data
In my work as a social media manager, I’ve also found myself “on the other side” of a hashtag gone viral. I’ve been on emergency conference calls with marketing executives, who are trying to cope with activists on Twitter criticizing a brand or organizing against it. These people care about data. Using various software tools, I pull reports on the hashtag: The number of individual users using the hashtag, how often people are using the hashtag, and if anyone using it has large number of followers. These numbers will either convince an organization to change – or show that it is only a few people who care about the issue. Hard data can prove that the activists have a point – and they’re not going to go away. But without a hashtag, there’s no way to know how many people are discussing an issue.
2. Media Contacts
Twitter is the easiest way for journalists to get in touch. While working with Leah, I was tweeting in my pajamas when I received a tweet from a news station to call them ASAP. They were on campus and ready to do a segment before lunch. They tweeted at me at 10:40 am. I called the other organizers, threw on pants and met them for the segment just twenty minutes later.
3. Not Everyone Can Attend a Protest
Not everyone can be at a protest, but many can get online and tweet their support and sign a petition. People from all over the world can and do get involved in Twitter protests holding corporations accountable, uniting with people they will most likely never meet face-to-face. You can also use hashtags to search for other activists that are doing similar work, and collaborate.
While I wish I could say that social media activism only leads to press, collaboration and accountability – it’s not the case. Before you begin a campaign, it’s important to keep the following things in mind.
- As with all activist work, practicing self-care is key. While tweeting #StandWithLeah, I encountered MRAs (Male Rights Activists), apologists, and folks who implied survivors somehow “deserved what they got.” It’s tempting to engage with these people – but I find it’s not worth it. Block, report and move on. These people do not deserve your energy. There’s a line between respectful dialogue or disagreement and bullying.
- Identity. Not everyone has the privilege of advocating under a handle/avatar that has their face or name. You don’t have to reveal your real name, or use your photo. I know of quite a few people in tech who have a “professional” Twitter account, and an activist account. While anonymity can’t necessarily protect you fully from hacking, exposure, government surveillance and other tactics, it does play a role in online activism.
- The movement you’ve started on Twitter will probably expand across other social platforms, which requires more management. For #StandWithLeah, it was pretty frustrating to see hundreds of people post on Facebook in support – but know that Stanford and the media wouldn’t see these posts, due to privacy settings. As organizers, you have to give folks instructions on what to do (writing emails, posting to Facebook, etc) in order to make the most impact.
How To Do It
While I wish that I could explain how to make a “hashtag go viral,” I can’t. Here, it’s helpful to read up on blogs and other materials on social media marketing. You can employ the same strategies used for building brands or selling a product to let other people know about your cause. The following are specific suggestions for how we planned #StandWithLeah, and where we’re going in the future.
Community – Build It or Find it
While sometimes it might feel like you’re the only person fighting the good fight, chances are you aren’t going to make the kind of impact you want to have alone.
For #StandWithLeah, we have a team of organizers who each has a different job. We have team members that are specifically focused on contacting press, working with faculty allies, working with alumni, reaching out to other organizations, understanding and working within Stanford bureaucracy, etc. Everyone does a little bit of it all, but generally there is a “point person” for each piece. For this movement, we already knew each other – but this might not be how it works for you.
It is critical to have a conversation with other organizers about their bandwidth and how they see their involvement. Do they want to be part of all planning decisions? Who gets final say? (For us, it’s obviously Leah).
How many hours a day or week do they have? What other commitments do they have, and how will you communicate changes in availability? This is a hard, but incredibly necessary conversation to have. Hammer it out – don’t let anyone (including yourself) get away with being vague.
For #StandWithLeah, we were lucky enough to find supporters who are tenured Stanford professors. Professor Michele Dauber and Professor David Palumbo-Liu were able to answer questions about how Stanford administration works and also gave insight on how the institution came to be. Professor Dauber was the one who helped Leah get her attacker off of campus, and has been a resource for many survivors on campus.
While it may seem that “viral” videos or blog posts spontaneously go viral overnight, this isn’t the case. Things that go viral were planned for weeks – sometimes months. Having a story or movement “go viral” is incredibly helpful – I’m not going to go into how to do this here. There are quite a few books and blog posts on running a successful social media campaign that will be helpful. Make sure to get out a calendar (or use Google Calendar) to plan when content goes out, when you’re going to contact media, and when you are going to present your demands.
Planning is key when using social media for a cause. Be sure to draft a press release, and have all organizers review it. Form a GroupMe (we use Facebook chat) for conversations – don’t get bogged down in email. Keep track of journalist information via Google Docs – you’ll want to keep them informed as you move forward. Do not meet with representatives from an opposing organization until you know exactly what you want from them, and how you think they can change. On social media, you can ask for input from other people on how to approach the opposing side. I made the mistake of sending out communications without the feedback of other organizers – reduce stress and make sure that everyone is on the same page.
While each organizer should have a specific role, it is everyone’s job to get media attention before a big protest or event. There are a variety of ways to get a journalist’s attention. For #StandWithLeah, we looked up all of the major news outlets in California and then nationally. Google “(newspaper name) news tip line” and submit news tips. Make sure to include your Twitter handle and email address. Tweet at activist blogs, Huffpost bloggers and clickbait sites (like Jezebel) with images, and a URL to a story description.
When interviewed, ask that your quotes be sent to you via email for final approval. Make sure to CYA (Cover Your Ass) when it comes to legalities. While it may attract attention to make controversial statements, you can also get sued. For instance, we couldn’t name Leah’s attacker without getting sued, or release ARP documents.
Another planning component is funding. A movement is going to have some costs. For #StandWithLeah, we were lucky in that allies donated red tape, paint and other materials we needed. We learned that people want to help – and that you must ask for what you need. It is okay to ask folks (in person or on social media) for supply donations or money. Make sure that you make it clear it’s okay to say no. You can also contact nonprofits, and ask them for supplies or a donation as well.
Make sure you have quantifiable, measurable and specific goals. For #StandWithLeah, organizers created a document that specified specific changes that Stanford needs to make. What things are you willing to compromise on? For each of these items, create a list of decision makers. Who do you have to get on board? How do you think they could be convinced? Create a plan to reach out to these people (after your movement is gaining attention) and track their status.
Capture and Keep Attention
Photo by Tessa Ormenyi.
While you may feel strongly about holding an organization accountable, sending repetitive tweets expressing your anger probably won’t get you very far. You will need stories of other people impacted by injustice, and a way to communicate those stories.
Most importantly, you need a place to store all of this media – I recommend a website. For #StandWithLeah, we weren’t able to do this (we’re working on it now!). For journalists, allies, and folks thinking about getting involved, it’s critical to have a place where questions can be answered.
For #StandWithLeah, the website will include an explanation on the Alternate Review Process, how other colleges have handled sexual assault, Leah’s story in detail, and Stanford’s total mishandling of her case. We’ll also put up links to news stories, videos, and a place to keep all photos that are taken.
Make sure to post frequently. All of the content doesn’t have to be created by you. Link to other news stories on the issue. You can also post infographics from Pinterest or Tumblr, and images of other protests.
When posting on Facebook, always use images. Images are powerful and get more interaction. The more people who interact (likes or comments) with your post tells the algorithm that what you’re saying is important and interesting-and your post will show up in more newsfeeds.
Working Across Platforms
Some of our most staunch supporters for #StandWithLeah do not have Twitter accounts. This creates a problem, because Stanford and the media can’t see what people post on Facebook – even if they use the hashtag. We created events for all of our protests on Facebook, and each organizer made sure to invite their entire network to the event – and to ask other students to do the same. We also created a Facebook page, and a group for Stanford alumni.
After about ten minutes where a dozen people click “invite,” you may have a viable live protest. At the protests, we encouraged students, faculty and alumni to create a Twitter and send one tweet to @Stanford, expressing their concern for survivors and outrage at Stanford’s mishandling of Leah’s case. One alumni sent a single tweet, an image of her response to a Stanford mailer asking for funding. A few days after she tweeted this, a reporter from USA Today contacted her.
For the folks who couldn’t be convinced to use Twitter, we asked them to instead use their Instagram. Most people don’t have a private account, and this was a second-best way to get people involved.
When it comes to creating social media campaigns, start where you are. If you’re not on Twitter, then create an account and begin joining conversations. Follow folks like Suey Park, and find other people who are concerned about the same issues you are working on. You don’t have to conquer the internet in a day, and I wouldn’t recommend trying. Start with ten to fifteen minutes a day-send out a couple of tweets- and slowly ramp up.
I understand that #StandWithLeah is good clickbait – because it’s Stanford University. The organizers behind this are extremely privileged that people already care about, and currently people around the country are working to change how colleges handle sexual assault. Yet even in this privileged context, organizations can ignore sit-ins and protests, but can’t avoid negative PR.
Photo by Tessa Ormenyi.
Through all of this, I couldn’t help but think about how survivor’s stories, Leah’s story, is further evidence for rape culture that is perpetuated in Silicon Valley. After Evan Spiegel’s emails came to light, Stanford Provost John Etchemendy responded by sending out an email rebuking his behavior and telling students that these “emails do not reflect what we, as members of the Stanford community, expect of one another.” John Etchemendy is also the person who ultimately decided on the consequences Leah’s assailant received – and gave the decision in a document that was pornographic and victim blaming.
Etchemendy’s email about the leaked SnapChat emails went on to say, “It does not take many strong and vocal objections to communicate what we consider acceptable and what we do not […] No student should have any aspect of his or her experience at Stanford compromised by conduct of others that violates university policy.”
Apparently, this strong language only applies after someone has graduated from Stanford – not when they are actually a student.
But Etchemendy is right – it doesn’t take “many strong and vocal objections” to raise hell and demand change. #StandWithLeah is just getting started – and we’re not going to leave Stanford alone until real change occurs. As activists, we demand and create institutional change – and culture follows.
Social media has changed the way we communicate, how we share information – and now it has changed the ways in which we can organize. Rallies and protests are still necessary – but now some of them take place online.