Why "Me Too" Has The Power To Break Open The Culture Of Silence

Update: October 18, 2018: Late Monday, Alyssa Milano Tweeted again, calling attention to activist Tarana Burke, the founder of Girls for Gender Equity and woman who is credited with beginning the "Me Too" movement over a decade ago. Milano simply renewed the call to action this past Sunday. According to CNN, Burke began the movement after hearing about a young girl's sexual assault by her mother's boyfriend.

This piece was originally published on October 16, 2017.

On Sunday afternoon, actress Alyssa Milano kicked off what is sure to go down in record books one of the most powerful social activism hashtags this year. Milano posted a Tweet encouraging those who have experienced sexual harassment and abuse to reply “Me Too” to raise awareness of the problem's vastness. The hashtag took off, and what has resulted is a movement spanning social media sites, with people sharing their own stories and expressing solidarity with survivors.

Milano’s “Me Too” is the second hashtag geared towards issues of sexual harassment and abuse, which has largely been the result of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, to go viral within a week. On Friday, Rose McGowan's #WomenBoycottTwitter took hold, but was largely limited to Twitter and media coverage. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey responded to the boycott late that night, saying that Twitter will enforce new rules around violent groups, unwanted sexual advances, and hate symbols, among others. By comparison, Milano's "Me Too" has proven more effective — her message is reverberating across Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, with women echoing her sentiment in ways that are unique to each platform.

It's easy to see why "Me Too" has more widespread appeal: Although many women agreed with McGowan's larger point — that no woman should be silenced online for expressing her beliefs about the sensitive issues at hand — some were against the idea of signing off of Twitter. As a result, #WomenBoycottTwitter was as divisive as it was unifying. "Me Too" on the other hand, offers the opportunity for everyone to join in the conversation however they see fit. The phrase is just specific enough that no other words are needed, but still vague enough to serve as a starting point from which survivors can tell their stories.

On Instagram, many are choosing to post photos with the words “Me Too” against a black or colored background, allowing the words to speak for themselves. The hashtag has been used in over 325,600 posts thus far. Shannon Downey, the self-named craftiest whose “Boys Will Be Boys” post went viral last week, has posted her own cross-stitched take on the saying.

A smaller number are representing themselves and their experiences with a selfie or portrait accompanied by their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse.

On Facebook, the types of posts vary to an even wider extent. A few women and men are reposting Milano’s words verbatim, but more are making use of the over 140-character word count to tell their own, in depth personal stories in a format that resembles a diary post. Within 24 hours, 4.7 million people around the world engaged in the “Me Too” conversation on Facebook, with over 12 million posts, comments, and reactions. According to Facebook, more than 45% of people in the U.S. are friends with someone who has posted "Me Too."

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And on Twitter, where the movement began, over 38,000 people have replied to Milano’s original post and 14,000 have retweeted it. According to a Twitter spokesperson, #MeToo has been Tweeted nearly half a million times in the past 24 hours. Users are posting stats about sexual assault, brief messages about “the man who…”, and, in some cases, embedding their posts from Facebook or notes, in order to tell longer tales of their experiences.

As with every other social activism-geared hashtag, the conversation in coming days, weeks, and months will turn to a larger discussion of how to take the community it has formed online and make lasting offline change. "Me too" can't answer that question, but it can help foster an open discussion about sexual harassment and abuse that counteracts the culture of silence in Hollywood and beyond.

If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).