Hashtag campaigns are an increasingly common part of the activist’s tool kit, with new additions popping up each week. Lauren Chief Elk is the founder of the Save Wiyabi Project, which maps violence against indigenous women. We asked for her take on the feminist hashtag movement as it goes mainstream, where it’s helping and where we need to be skeptical.
In the age of digital activism, efforts to fight injustice often come via hashtag. In just the last month, we’ve seen wide-ranging campaigns from #IfTheyGunnedMeDown — a biting call-out of the subtle racism in news photos — to #VogueArticles, a takedown of the magazine’s tone-deaf pronouncement of "the era of big booty." These hashtags pick up steam on Twitter before inevitably getting covered by the news media as part of the story to which they are a reaction. Recently, two new hashtag campaigns were launched specifically to combat violence against women: #ItsOnUS and #HeForShe.
Done right, hashtag campaigns like these can not just galvanize people to address violence, but also to dissect the dynamics of abuse, provide support to survivors, and look at violence on a societal level. Good intentions though they may have, it’s crucial to look critically at the message these movements send — and who is doing the sending.
#HeForShe is a campaign created by the United Nations and backed by Emma Watson in a recent, high-profile speech. It calls on men to “take action against all forms of violence and discrimination faced by women and girls,” simulating the recently popularized bystander intervention approach to sexual assault prevention. Harvard's Office of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response explains the method as encouraging people to interrupt dangerous situations in which someone could be sexually assaulted. Such programs, its website says, "teach people to overcome their resistance to checking in and helping out."
In the context of the UN's message, feminist writer Amy McCarthy notes, “There is little discussion of what the men who sign this pledge can actually do to improve the lives of women.”
The #HeForShe campaign revolves around the idea that violence and discrimination occur out of the blue, requiring men to protect women against some external entity. Nowhere in either pledge is it made mandatory that you personally not sexually assault or engage in harmful, predatory, or discriminatory behavior. Absent is any actual education on interpersonal violence, consent, respecting boundaries, or unlearning problematic attitudes and behaviors.
A similar project, #ItsOnUs is a new initiative launched by the White House. It has energized college campuses and individuals across the country with its own message of bystander intervention. This is not the first time the administration has pioneered a campaign focused on intervening, and it is not the first time such efforts have gone without scrutiny. Other White House campaigns such as “1 is 2 Many” and “Not Alone” both push the bystander approach and perpetuate the idea that it’s male responsibility to “step in” if they see women being attacked, a concept that's routinely been deemed problematic.
Melissa McEwan, founder of the feminist blog Shakesville, states: “This rape prevention campaign doesn't even include rapists in its messaging about personal accountability for preventing rape.” This perpetuates the idea that men need to demonstrate heroics and involve themselves in problematic situations in order to stop sexual assault. What is not being vocalized is the need for men to not rape in the first place. Both of these campaigns center and privilege men while somehow focusing efforts to challenge and stop what is often male-perpetrated violence.
So, we should also look at who's behind the hashtags. As the activist hashtag becomes increasingly mainstream, it's used more and more frequently by state entities and the non-profit industrial complex (which we’ll define here as corporate interests funding social movements as a way to control dissent). And, it’s easy to uncritically applaud these efforts that are premised on ending violence, since this is something many are invested in, because we assume the messages and content are inherently helpful and constructive. The White House and United Nations are two world powers with political, social, and moral ideas and messages of peace and health — so it feels natural to trust them.
These entities are also heavily invested in keeping the state intact; by co-opting the rape crisis and battered women’s movements, they have positioned themselves as the solver of violence. In so doing, they’re ensuring a de-radicalized narrative of anti-violence work is retained. One of the remarkable aspects of grassroots hashtag feminism is that it allows for a discourse about anti-violence with an intersectional lens, where not just individual acts of abuse and personal stories are shared, but often larger societal factors are identified as root causes — including naming the state as a perpetrator.
And so, when these new campaigns roll out, there are important questions to ask: Who is responsible for the hashtag? Who is backing it? Who is financing it? What are the end goals of corporate- or government-sponsored hashtag campaigns? Look at what type of agenda and ideology is being pushed, and if conflicting interests are involved.
The way to resist the continued co-opting of grassroots organizing is to stop supporting state-created and sponsored microblogging. Instead, we can support work that's independent of the non-profit industrial complex altogether. Organic hashtags created by individuals and collectives — like #NotAllmen, which sprang out of the work of a web comic — have the potential to deliver our most impactful messages, to be the effectual agents of change we need against these social ills.