10 ways to make Twitter work for feminist activism

25 Abril 2017

I decided to do a little exercise, I typed #feminism in Twitter’s search bar and the top tweet that came up was this comic that immediately spoke to me.

(Screenshot by author. The user who published the tweet has been anonymised and the creator of the cartoon is Brown Paperbag Comics

I understand that the results could vary but on this particular day and time, the above tweet was the top result and is one of the primary reasons I find Twitter effective. Twitter provides people with a platform to share their opinions, to interact with like-minded people (not always), and to communicate in real-time and on a global scale. Although Twitter has its downsides (trolls, for example), in this article I’m going to focus on the positives and identify 10 ways I believe feminist activists can make the most out of Twitter to achieve their goals.

1. Awareness/advocacy

Incorporating Twitter into their online activism tactics can be an effective way for feminist activists to achieve their goals. Online activism varies from conventional activism in numerous vital ways.

“Online activism affords opportunities for issue-focused efforts that allow activists to identify with and support specific efforts, for promotion of goals and activities that can reach further and more quickly than is the case with traditional activism, potentially reaching beyond its contained status. In addition, online activism occurs in a liminal “third space”, a place where traditional rules governing society can be set aside.” (Newsom & Lengel, 2012:32).

Additionally, online activism offers the possibility to empower marginalised voices, the opportunity for cross-boundary dialogue, and affords a stimulus for social change. Online feminist activist spaces endeavour to present the possibility for enacting the notions of gendered dialogue thus they are an outstanding basis to develop a discussion of gendered identity and dialogue online. Online awareness/advocacy centres on executing action and organising the movement. When coordinating action, Twitter is valuable as it empowers activist groups and participants to create a time- and cost-efficient communication channel, it allows for communication between countless people globally, and can be accessed anywhere and anytime (Vegh, 2003:74).

When coordinating action, Twitter is valuable as it empowers activist groups and participants to create a time- and cost-efficient communication channel, it allows for communication between countless people globally, and can be accessed anywhere and anytime

FeminismInIndia – a feminist platform which amplifies the voices of women and marginalised groups using tools of art, media, culture, technology and community – is a prime example of feminist activism in action on Twitter. For instance, in April 2017, FeminismInIndia promoted the hashtag #UnsolicitedAdvice which looked at how women receive advice which is given or supplied without being requested or asked for. FeminismInIndia shared their own tweets on the topic, retweeted users’ responses and responded to users’ tweets as shown below:

Screenshot by author

2. Organisation/mobilisation

Ok ladies, let’s get in formation! Twitter can also be used to organise and mobilise. Firstly, online activism – in this case Twitter – can be employed to call for offline action (for example, encouraging Twitter users to join a protest), secondly, it can be utilised to call for an action that typically occurs offline but can be accomplished more efficiently online (for example, asking people to make a donation – before the introduction of the internet this was traditionally done offline), and thirdly, it can be used to call for an online action that can only be feasibly executed online (Vegh, 2003: 74-75). A prime example of an online action that can only be feasibly executed online is tweetchats. For instance, in October 2016, KrantiKali – a multi-platform start-up promoting gender equity and feminism through gender inclusive performance – hosted a tweetchat on feminism. Users were invited to participate in the tweetchat, facilitated by KrantiKali, and were also encouraged to make use of the promoted hashtags.

Screenshot by author

3. Create network publics

Network publics are publics that are reorganised by networked technologies. Thus, they are concurrently the space created through network technologies and the imagined collective that develops as an outcome of the intersection of people, technology, and practice. Like other kinds of publics, networked publics allow people to meet for cultural, civic, and social reasons and they help people connect with a world beyond their immediate family and friends (boyd, 2010:1). Although networked publics share similarities with other kinds of publics, the ways in which technology constructs them creates noticeable affordances that mould how people engage with these environments. “The properties of bits – as distinct from atoms – introduce new possibilities for interaction. As a result, new dynamics emerge that shape participation” (boyd, 2010:1).
In light of the above, the Twitter community that feminist activists have developed could be considered a network public.

4. Create counterpublics

The term subaltern counterpublics was conceptualised by Nancy Fraser as “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counter discourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs” (1990:67). Fraser (1990:67) provides the late-twentieth century U.S. feminist subaltern counterpublic, with its variegated array of festivals, academic programs and conventions, as an example. Fraser argues that in this public sphere, feminist women conceived alternative terms to describe social reality, such as “sexism,” “sexual harassment,” and “acquaintance rape”. Equipped with this new language, feminists reorganised their needs and identities, thus lessening, yet not eradicating, the degree of their disadvantage in official public spheres. The formation of subaltern counterpublics provides subordinated social groups support and collective resistance.

According to Fraser (1996:68),

“In stratified societies, subaltern counterpublics have a dual character. On the one hand, they function as spaces of withdrawal and regroupment; on the other hand, they also function as bases and training grounds for agitational activities directed toward wider publics. It is precisely in the dialectic between these two functions that their emancipatory potential resides. This dialectic enables subaltern counterpublics partially to offset, although not wholly to eradicate, the unjust participatory privileges enjoyed by members of dominant social groups in stratified societies”.

In the above statement Fraser proposes that the dual objectives of counterpublics are recognition and redistribution. First, the subordinated elements of a person’s identity – for instance, race, gender, sexual orientation and nationality – are valued as a fundamental organising principle (recognition). Second, counterpublics present a space “from which agitation and resistance against institutional and cultural hegemony is promoted and maintained (redistribution)” (Carducci & Nicolazzo, 2012).

Fraser proposes that the dual objectives of counterpublics are recognition and redistribution. First, the subordinated elements of a person’s identity – for instance, race, gender, sexual orientation and nationality – are valued as a fundamental organising principle (recognition). Second, counterpublics present a space “from which agitation and resistance against institutional and cultural hegemony is promoted and maintained (redistribution)” (Carducci & Nicolazzo, 2012).

The Young Feminist Visions project – diverse young feminists advocating in UN spaces to hold governments accountable for respecting, protecting, and fulfilling the human rights of women, girls, and young people – could be described as a counterpublic made up of young feminists. In the tweet below, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) shared an image from the project, “” mentioned the author of the quote, included a URL to the project’s website and included the hashtag #YoungFeministVisions. By making use of the hashtag, ICRW is enabling members and potential members of the #YoungFeministVisions counterpublic to find the tweet, spread the message and possibly engage in a dialogue.

Screenshot by author

Although Twitter can be used to create counterpublics, the platform’s lack of privacy could prevent some feminists from feeling safe to express themselves. Thus, platforms such as Facebook could be preferred for creating counterpublics as private groups can be formed where members require permission to join. I strongly believe that feminists should feel safe enough to express themselves openly on Twitter, and other social network sites, and should not have to resort to creating private spaces to feel safe.

5. Network-building

In order to make an impact, a feminist activist cause requires support and solidarity. One way of achieving this is through network-building. Twitter is an effective platform for network-building as it provides opportunities for cross-boundary dialogue and it has features such as “retweeting”, “liking” and “hashtags”. Retweeting, “the act of forwarding another user’s tweet to all of your followers” (Twitter, 2015), alerts the Twitter user who tweeted the original tweet, as well as draws the attention of followers to the retweeted account. Retweets may also be used to establish solidarity or spark a conversation. On the other hand, “liking” a tweet indicates that you appreciate it (Twitter, 2015) and also notifies the user whose tweet you have liked. “@” mentioning a user (which ensures that the mentioned user gets a notification of the tweet), participating in tweetchats and using hashtags are additional ways feminist activists can encourage network-building.

6. If you like it, put a hashtag on it

A key feature for feminist activists who use Twitter is the hashtag which is a word or “tag” prefixed by the symbol “#”. Bruns and Burgess (2011:1) describe a hashtag as a “short keyword, prefixed with the hash symbol ‘#’ – as a means of coordinating a distributed discussion between more or less large groups of users, who do not need to be connected through existing ‘follower’ networks.” Hashtags can emerge organically from within the Twitter community or can be pre-planned offline (Bruns & Burgess, 2011:1). Hashtags have several benefits. For instance, they allow Twitter users to follow and contribute towards a hashtag conversation. Thus, making it possible for them –

“to communicate with a community of interest around the hashtag topic without needing to go through the process of establishing a mutual follower/followee relationship with all or any of the other participants; in fact, it is even possible to follow the stream of messages containing a given hashtag without becoming a registered Twitter user” (Bruns & Burgess, 2011:2).

Hashtags can also be used to help create counterpublics and encourage solidarity. For example, feminists and others who identify with a feminist activist cause can engage with a hashtag with the expectation that they will be connecting with like-minded people. Examples of feminist hashtags include #takebackthetech and #imagineafeministinternet. However, one cannot ignore the possibility of “trolls” hijacking a hashtag in an attempt to deter feminist activist goals. “Internet Trolls are an online subculture who participate in posting upsetting or shocking content, harassing users, and spreading false information for their own enjoyment” (Klempka & Stimson: 2013:2).

Hashtags can also be used to help create counterpublics and encourage solidarity. For example, feminists and others who identify with a feminist activist cause can engage with a hashtag with the expectation that they will be connecting with like-minded people. However, one cannot ignore the possibility of “trolls” hijacking a hashtag in an attempt to deter feminist activist goals.

#GamerGate, an online movement, is a prime example of trolling. Initiated in 2014, the #GamerGate campaign claimed it was targeting corruption in gaming journalism and challenging ethics in the gaming industry. However, the campaign had its roots in hate speech towards women who make and talk about video games and resulted in widespread arguments about gender in gaming. The online movement took a pivotal turn when feminist commentator Anita Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a speech at a college after receiving an anonymous threat on her life (Dockterman, 2014).

7. Act as agenda-setters

Agenda-setting is “a theory about the transfer of salience from the mass media’s pictures of the world to those in our heads” (McCombs & Ghanem, 2008:67). In other words, “the media’s agenda sets the public’s agenda” (McCombs & Ghanem, 2008:67). By taking on the role of agenda setters feminist activists can portray women as multidimensional beings and not minimise them to stereotypes such as sexual objects for example.

Feminist activists can act as agenda-setters by sharing stories from alternative, non-commercial media sources (sources which the public may not be familiar with), and by adding their own commentary to news stories. When sharing articles, videos or blog posts, feminist activist can reframe them with original commentary, and address particular networked audiences, thus drawing them into a conversation. A primary way of acting as an agenda-setter is by rewording headlines. For example, when The Vagenda magazine, a feminist online magazine, asked their Twitter followers to tweet them edited headlines, this is what they came up with.

8. Include URLs

By including URLs in their tweets feminist activists can overcome the 140-character word limit of a tweet. Linking to external media is also an effective agenda-setting strategy as feminist activists can encourage users to visit external sources for additional information and promote alternative, non-commercial media sources.

9. Memes to mobilise

In recent years, memes have become a popular kind of imagery shared online. A meme is “an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by internet users, often with slight variations” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2016). Tweets with images get more engagement, they allow humour (which varies in different regions and cultures), they can make data more accessible (up to four images can be included in a single tweet), and images expand automatically in a user’s timeline so that users can consume the content seamlessly (Stecyk, 2015). The use of humorous images by feminists can be effective as it challenges misogynistic ideas of “humourless” feminists. For instance, Take Back The Tech! – a campaign working with grassroots movements around the world to take control of technology to end violence against women – shared the meme below during their 2015 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Twitter campaign to encourage internet rights and sexual rights activists to come together for 16 Days of Activism.

10. Infographics to inform

Infographics have also become increasingly popular on social network sites and should be embraced by feminist activists to achieve their goals. According to Techopedia (2016),

“an information graphic (infographic) is a visual representation of a data set or instructive material. An infographic takes a large amount of information in text or numerical form and then condenses it into a combination of images and text, allowing viewers to quickly grasp the essential insights the data contains. Infographics are not a product of the web, but the internet has helped popularise their use as a content medium”.

Infographics are an effective and efficient tool for feminist activists to disseminate information to their followers on Twitter, and various other online platforms. Furthermore, infographics are an effective communication strategy as research shows that humans suffer from information overload. Studies have shown that humans receive five times as much information today as they did in 1986 (Alleyne, 2011). Infographics counter the abovementioned information overload as they summarise complex information in a visualised manner whether that be a graph or image. This visual representation of information can also help overcome language barriers thus helping feminist activists spread their messages globally. Furthermore, according to NeoMam Studio’s (2016), infographics are effective because they are accessible, persuasive, are easy to digest, fun to share, and engaging. For instance, the infographic below, shared by the Women’s and Gender Studies program of Minnesota State University Moorhead, makes use of icons, statistics and graphs to communicate the gender gap in media.

Ultimately, there are numerous strategies feminist activists can employ to achieve their goals. Although Twitter has its flaws, it does have features which lend itself to being an effective communication tool. I hope that after reading this, more feminist activists will be encouraged to embrace Twitter and incorporate some of the suggestions discussed above in their campaigning efforts.

Although Twitter has its flaws, it does have features which lend itself to being an effective communication tool. I hope that after reading this, more feminist activists will be encouraged to embrace Twitter.

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Footnotes

Reference List

Alleyne, R. 2011. Welcome to the information age – 174 newspapers a day. Available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/8316534/Welcome-to-…

boyd, d.m. 2010. Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications. Available: http://www.danah.org/papers/2010/SNSasNetworkedPublics.pdf

Bruns, A. & Burgess, J.E. 2012. Researching news discussion on Twitter: New methodologies. Journalism Studies. 13:1-13.

Brown Paper Bag https://www.facebook.com/brownpaperbagcomics

Carducci, R. & Nicolazzo, Z. 2012. Qualitative Counterpublics in Higher Education. Available: https://counterpublic.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/an-introduction-to-counte…

Dockterman, E. 2014. What Is #GamerGate and Why Are Women Being Threatened About Video Games? Available: http://time.com/3510381/gamergate-faq/

Fraser, N. 1990. Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy. Social Text. 25/26: 56-80.

Klempka, A. & Stimson, A. 2013. Anonymous Communication on the Internet and Trolling. Available: https://comjournal.csp.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/12/TrollingP…

McCombs, M. & Ghanem, S.I. 2008. The Convergence of Agenda Setting and Framing. In Framing Public Life: Perspectives on Media and Our Understanding of the Social World. S.D. Reese, O.H. Gandy & A.E. Grant, Eds. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 67-82.

NeoMam Studios. 13 Reasons why your brain craves infographics. Available: http://neomam.com/interactive/13reasons/

Newsom, V. & Lengel, L. 2012. Arab Women, Social Media, and the Arab Spring: Applying the framework of digital reflexivity to analyze gender and online activism. Journal of International Women’s Studies. 13(5):31-45.

Oxford Dictionaries. 2016. Meme. Available: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/meme

Stecyk, J. 2015. #TweetTip: use photos to drive engagement. Available: https://blog.twitter.com/2015/tweettip-use-photos-to-drive-engagement

Techopedia. 2016. Information Graphic (Infographic). Available: https://www.techopedia.com/definition/27808/information-graphic-infographic

Twitter. 2015. The Twitter glossary. Available: https://support.Twitter.com/articles/166337-the-Twitter-glossary

Vegh, S. 2003. Classifying forms of online activism: The case of cyberprotests against the World Bank. In Cyberactivism: Online Activism in Theory and Practice. M. McCaughey & M.D. Ayers, Eds. New York: Routledge. 71-96.

 

Responses to this post

Great sum up of the effective feminist strategies to engage on Twitter. One more way I recall Twitter being priced by some activists is that it helps them better than any other channel to reach politicians and journalist in their advocacy work. See http://www.genderit.org/podcast/social-media-plays-critical-role-todays-…

KF - 29 weeks 2 days ago

Hi KF, sorry for the extremely late response, for some reason I am only seeing your comment now. Thank you for taking the time to read the article and for the link to the podcast – very interesting!

Samukelisiwe Mabaso - 20 weeks 3 days ago

I recently joined the Twitter community because I found a lot of poignant posts about feminism that really spoke to me. I actually found two communities that pulled me in: technology and feminism. I run a technology company (www.techmedics.com) twitter account and wanted to also express my own opinions so I started one. It’s great to hear to that it’s a strategy! Very effective.

Sandy - 16 weeks 3 days ago

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