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#metoo and Twitter: The Feminist Movement on Social Media A guest Chapter by claire-anne ferriere ~ produced by alexandria fripp ~ edited by diana daly

On October 15, 2017 the actress Alyssa Milano ignited a spark with a Tweet.

With this tweet, Miliano was urging those in her publics who had ever been victims of sexual assault and/or harassment to identify as such by saying, ‘me too.’ She did not launch the hashtag as such, but it appeared very quickly – in the following minutes.

In 2006, activist Tarana Burke began a movement for women of color that shared sentiments with those behind Milano's tweet.

Tarana Burke. By Brittany "B.Monét" Fennell - She’s Revolutionary at 01:10, cropped, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71293066

Alyssa Milano and her friend were not the only women who came up with the idea of ‘me too’ to help people express ugly circumstances and violation. Tarana Burke, a civil rights activist, had launched an offline “me too” movement back in 2007 to “give young women, particularly young women of color from low wealth communities, a sense of empowerment from the understanding that they are not alone in their circumstances” (Burke, 2013). Milano's access to expansive networked publics gave a similar sentiment to Burke's the visibility and affordances of an online movement.

Burke's and MIlano's uses of the phrase "me too" have come to be considered as two benchmarks in one movement due to the connected nature of events they describe. Through the hashtag #metoo survivors' accounts of being harassed and violated are aggregated, or pulled together as related. The societal norms of sexual harassment and abuse were became entrenched in the past through many individual incidents that were normalized in families, cultures, and societies. By aggregating survivors' memories of these events, the Me Too movement has led to a cultural shift that centralizes survivor experiences, and shifts the blame to those who caused their pain.

The rapid spread of the Me Too movement is directly linked to the Harvey Weinstein case which started on October 5th, 2017, when The New York Times published an article entitled “Harvey Weinstein payed off sexual harassment accusers for years”, written by Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor (Kantor & Twohey, 2017). Dozens of women have come out denouncing sexual abuse and harassment from the movie mogul, and demanding that the situation in Hollywood change. #Metoo occurs after that case, opening the demands and claims out of Hollywood. Several other events also followed from #metoo, such as the second Women’s March in January 2018 and the opposition to the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States over the summer of 2018, to mention only a few. All those events are therefore linked together and organised around common claims, which is why we can consider that all those events constitute a movement, and #metoo plays an essential role in the construction of this social movement. However, it does not play exactly the same role as social media did in the movements of performative activism, tackled in the previous chapter.

Social media, and in our case Twitter more particularly, is not used the same way and does not play the same role as the Zapatistas or the Arab Spring movement, which is what we will focus on now.

In order to get a full grasp of the “me too” movement on social media and how it is used, sociolinguistics comes handy. Sociolinguistics studies the relationship between language on the one hand (-linguistics – the study of language) and society on the other hand (socio-), more particularly social relations; in other words, it studies how human beings use language and to what purpose. It is therefore an interesting approach to study how social media are used, and how they shape social relations. In this feminist movement, women spoke up, through language, denouncing systemic abuse and demanding that changes be made in society and in social relations between men and women. The movement was built progressively; interestingly, social media was not used the same way throughout the movement, and sociolinguistics helps us understand why it is so.

1. The Harvey Weinstein Case

In order to understand the relevance of the #metoo movement within the larger feminist movement as well as the relevance of the use of social media, we need to go back to the Weinstein case and its characteristics.

Indeed, if #metoo really turned to social media, the Weinstein case developed primarily through traditional media – i.e. in those forms of mass media that existed before the advent of the digital age (also called the new media age, as a matter of fact), for example, print media, radio broadcasting, and the television among other things. However, it is still important to keep in mind that, even if the denunciations against Harvey Weinstein were mainly done through traditional media (72 out of the 90 denunciations that were made public), all of them can be found on the internet, facilitating their diffusion. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that those women should first choose traditional media to make their denunciations and claims public. On the contrary, very few were made through social media. One element that is essential to take into account is that the two newspapers that extensively covered the case, with in-depth investigations and analyses, were The New York Times (“Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades”, by Megan Twohey and Judi Kantor) and the The New Yorker (“From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell their Stories,” by Ronan Farrow (Farrow, 2017)), two renown and reliable newspapers. As a matter of fact, these two newspapers were awarded the Pulitzer prize for public service in 2018 for the reporting done by the aforementioned three journalists. The stories these women were reporting were disruptive – Harvey Weinstein was a very prominent man in the business and even outside of it – and as such, they needed to establish their legitimacy in order to be believed. One way they had of doing so was actually by having their stories backed up by established, reliable newspapers. Not all newspapers through which the victims testified are as renown as The New Yorker or The New York Times – some denunciations were published in Variety or Deadline, for example – but the important element here is that it feels like the victims are never alone. Either the stories are reported by journalists, who lend their legitimacy to the victims, or if the victims write in their own name in opinion sections, they still have the legitimacy and weight of the newspapers backing them up. The same goes for the TV or radio shows.

The theory of denunciation put forward by Luc Boltanski et al. (Boltanski et al., 1984) supports that idea. In a nutshell, they argue that the higher the profile of the alleged aggressor and the bigger the difference between their status in society and that of the accuser is, the less “normal” the denunciation seems to be, “normal” in the sense of plausible, even possible. To put it bluntly, the more an alleged aggressor has to lose – status, some important position, wealth, etc. – the more suspicious people are because they might believe that the denunciation is not completely disinterested. In our case, even if some of the women who came out first against Harvey Weinstein were somewhat high-profile people too, Ashley Judd for example, some others were “mere” employees or former employees of one of Weinstein’s companies, and in any case, none of the accusers were actually as high-profile as Weinstein was. Having the support of newspapers such as The New York Times or The New Yorker is therefore extremely important to restore some balance between accuser and alleged aggressor.

This need to legitimise their stories is also apparent in the language they use, more particularly in how they speak about what they went through. Here is an example of a testimony delivered by one of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged victims, Louisette Geiss.

(from 5’29 to 10’47)

In linguistics, we often start from our own impressions, how we react to a text, and then we try and find some formal elements to back this up. We can think in terms of positive impressions, as in I felt/think that, or negative impressions, I didn’t expect that/I would have thought it would be more like that.

One of the first things that is striking in the denunciations against Harvey Weinstein is the very “stick to the fact” style. Indeed, these denunciations are very descriptive, detailed, and sometimes very graphic in what they describe. They are presented as if everything that was done and said during the assault is being reported. Moreover, the denunciations are symptomatic of what we call a paratactic style, also called the additive style: elements are presented, one simple sentence after the other, and there are few elaborate sentences:

After about 30 minutes, he asked to excuse himself and go to the bathroom. He returned in nothing but a robe, with the front open, and he was butt naked. He told me to keep talking about my film and that he was going to hop into his hot tub that was adjacent to the room, just steps away. When I finished my pitch, I was obviously nervous, and he just kept asking to watch him masturbate. I told him I was leaving. I quickly got out of the tub, he grabbed my forearm as I was trying to grab my purse, and he led me to his bathroom, pleading that I just watch him masturbate.

This gives, once again, the impression that they are just providing the plain truth and facts as they happened. On the contrary, it seems that emotions are not so present, as one could have expected of a woman recounting and reliving the assault she suffered. These denunciations are therefore more fact-oriented than emotion-oriented. This also participates in legitimising and having their denunciations accepted and believed.

At that stage – or at the very least in the first ten days of the contestation – the movement was precisely not a movement: it was only centred on one particular man, Harvey Weinstein, and when claims were made, they were also quite specific, around the issues of the relationship between men and women in Hollywood. It was therefore limited to the world of Hollywood, which is also fitting with Boltanski’s theory of denunciation that was previously mentioned: it is only logical that such a disruptive movement in society should start with women who are renown and have some status compared to “ordinary” people. The movement and its claims needed to be legitimised by well-established people before being broadened to society at large with #metoo.

What we now consider to be the next stage of the movement, #metoo, is quite different from the Weinstein case, on different accounts.

2. #metoo

Tarana Burke gave a Ted talk in November 2018 called “Me too is a movement, not a moment,” (Burke, 2018) and indeed, this stage of #me too was essential in the development of the Weinstein case as a moment into a fully-fledged feminist movement.

First, what we witness quite evidently in the #metoo movement compared to the Weinstein case is an opening up of the denunciations and demands. Indeed, #metoo is not limited to Hollywood anymore, nor is it concerned with the deeds of one particular man.

With #metoo, tens of thousands of people are saying that they too, were victims of similar kinds of assault. This was made possible through the use of social media, in particular Twitter, as a new and massive medium of protest. Twitter is accessible to anyone with an account: in the United States, in the third quarter of 2017, there were 69 million monthly active users according to the numbers released by Twitter (Clement, 2019). This represents a great change compared to the 90 women or so who reported having been assaulted by Harvey Weinstein. Moreover, more than numbers, the status of the people denouncing abuse changed. They are now “ordinary” people, like you and me, not Hollywood stars: the movement is not limited to Hollywood anymore, but broadened to society in general.

This is confirmed by the linguistic analysis of “me too” tweets. More than fifty thousand such tweets were posted in the first twenty-four hours following Alyssa Milano’s first tweet; for purpose of ease, we will only focus on the first hour of “me too”, which represents 3,847 tweets. When analysed with specific software tools that scan the corpus (here, the set of tweets) to identify some of its linguistic characteristics, those tweets show that the most significant themes and concepts that come up are all linked to sexual assault and harassment that women suffer. Indeed, some of the most recurrent words in those tweets are “me too” of course, but also “sexually,” “harassed,” “assaulted,” and “women.” The results therefore show a direct thematic link with the Harvey Weinstein case, and outline the scope of the movement.

What these results also show is a tendency towards generalisation. Indeed, there are very few details about the types and circumstances of the assault that people tweeting “me to” are reporting; contrary to the Weinstein case in which denunciations were very specific, with the “me too” movement, specificities are somewhat smoothed and all different types of assaults are gathered under the umbrella expression “sexually harassed or assaulted”, which is used 273 times in the first hour. On the contrary, any more specific kinds of assault, such as reference to rape, being groped, etc. only occur sixty times in the corpus (out of the 3,847 tweets). This tendency not to go into details with the “me too” movement as opposed to what happened in the Weinstein case can of course be imputed to the format of the tweets itself. Indeed, tweets are limited to 240 characters, which prevents victims from giving too much detail of their individual experiences of assault. It is nonetheless significant that the movement should have moved from traditional media to social media, and not any media, to Twitter in particular, with the character limit. It shows that Alyssa Milano’s intention in launching this movement on Twitter was not to provide people with a space to explain what they went through, but rather to identify as part of a community. This community is built on what the members feel they have in common, in this case, the fact that they all suffered experiences of sexual abuse or assault. The specificities of the assault do not matter at this stage anymore. This is also quite evident in the use that is being made of the expression “me too”. What is interesting with this expression is how it is used. Indeed, the software tools can identify what we call “collocations”, that is to say words that often occur together in the corpus. In our case, some of the most significant collocations are “me too”, which was expected, but also “too me,” “me me,” and “too too,” which is striking. This shows that not only is the expression “me too” often used, it is often used on its own, with no details provided, creating series of tweets only composed of the expression “me too,” which the software tools then identify as collocations. Here is an excerpt taken from the corpus:

As we can clearly see, there are series of tweets only composed of the expression “me too,” analysed as “me too me too me too me too me too…” by the software tools, hence the collocations that we saw. This confirms the idea that, contrary to the Weinstein case, very few details are given by the victims who posted “me too” and that the expression itself comes to epitomise all kinds of experiences of assault that women suffer.

This tendency towards generalisation is also evident in the reference to women that is made in the corpus. The term women is referenced 471 times in the corpus, and only 65 times in the singular form woman. We can therefore conclude that in this corpus, women are presented as a group, not as individuals, which confirms this generalisation tendency: what matters is not the individual experiences of every woman who identifies as a victim, but the commonalities between all the different experiences of these women (which is actually one of the reproaches that was made to the movement).

What comes out of the analysis of those first tweets of the “me too” movement is therefore the generalisation process that is put into place. The different experiences and victims are gathered together into one community, a community that is built through this network of tweets. There are several ways through which this network is constructed, and which are already evident in the first hour of the movement. First, it is important to keep in mind that the movement began from one tweet, posted by Alyssa Milano, encouraging people to write “me too” as a reply if they identified as victims of sexual assault too. This process of reply is essential in the building of the network: indeed, out of the 3,847 first tweets, 2,053 are direct replies to Alyssa Milano’s tweet. All the replies are therefore linked together through the original tweet posted by Alyssa Milano. Moreover, 227 tweets tag Alyssa Milano directly with the @ function of social media, and there are also 1,207 tweets using the hashtag #metoo, although it was not mentioned in Alyssa Milano’s tweet. All those means participate in building a network of tweets, with people identifying with a community of victims of sexual assault, on a general level. The “me too” movement therefore stages a depersonalisation and a generalisation of the movement, from the particular Harvey Weinstein case to thousands of women saying that they too, suffered sexual assault. Specificities and individualities are left aside to focus only on commonalities. What is at stake with the “me too” movement is the move from the personal to the political, which is an essential step in transforming a moment into a movement, to use Tarana Burke’s expressions. This notion of the personal being political dates back to 1970: Carol Hanisch (Hanisch, 1970) explained in an essay bearing the same name that according to her, individual, personal experiences of oppression that women were experiencing were not isolated but on the contrary repeated, systemic at the level of society, and as such, required not individual solutions, but social, political ones. The important step is therefore to recognise the commonality of all individual experiences, to connect them:

So the reason I participate in these meetings is not to solve any personal problem. One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution. I went, and I continue to go to these meetings because I have gotten a political understanding which all my reading, all my “political discussions,” all my “political action,” all my four-odd years in the movement never gave me. I’ve been forced to take off the rose colored glasses and face the awful truth about how grim my life really is as a woman. (Hanisch, 1970).

The meetings she mentions are consciousness-raising meetings at which women share their personal experiences in order for them to recognise patterns in other women’s experiences. This is what the “me too” movement is doing. It is connecting thousands of similar experiences and highlighting the systemic, social character of those experiences in order to move from the personal to the political. Thus, the depersonalisation and generalisation process that is at stake with the “me too” movement also entails a politicization of the movement, that is to say, recognising that this is a social problem that needs to be addressed at the level of society. It is therefore an essential stage in the construction of the movement, which transforms an individual and seemingly isolated case into a social and political movement.

Nevertheless, social media do not play the same part here as they did with other social movements, such as the Zapatistas, or the Arab Spring movement. In cases of performative activism, social media are an organising and communication tool supporting a movement offline. #Metoo strictly speaking has no reality, existence outside of social media. It led to other stages, such as the Women’s March of January 2018 and the opposition to the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh at the Supreme Court of the United States in the summer of 2018, which, as far as they are concerned can be considered as forms of performative activism. However, the movement #metoo itself only occurred on social media, in particular Twitter. In a sense, we can even say that it was its own performance: the sheer scale of the movement is in itself performance enough in the sense that it makes an impression and is a very clear statement for the rest of the movement.

3. Social media after #metoo

The use of social media in the feminist movement after #metoo is quite different and is on the contrary closer to creative online performative activism. Social media was for example used during the different Women Marches to organise the events, communicate, and motivate people. The different elements defining performative activism can be identified here too. For example, after Trump’s election, activists needed to organise with speed to mobilise people for the first Women’s March, which was held the day after Trump’s inauguration. If speed is less of the essence for the following Marches since organisers could coordinate the events ahead in time, speed was also important for the opposition to the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. Social media enabled organisers to spread the word and mobilise people.

As far as visuals are concerned, the different events organised around the feminist movement also rely on symbolic visuals, such as the feminist symbol, pictures from previous marches, or, as in the case of the “National Walk Out” event organised as part of the protest against Brett Kavanaugh, pictures of women walking out of the homes or places of work as a sign of dissent. The visuals are both shared before events to mobilise people and during the performances. Hashtags are also used a lot in the different events, also creating a form of unifying visual element.

There are performances that are organised, such as marches of course, but also rallies against Brett Kavanaugh when, among other events, hundreds of protesters flooded a Senate office building, shouted slogans, and displayed banners to express their anger. Chants are also used in those events as another form of performance.

The latest feminist movement really emphasised its inclusiveness to all women – or more particularly to all people who identify as women – all races, religions, social backgrounds, and so on. Inclusiveness, or intersectionality as it is theorised in feminism (the theory according to which different forms of oppression intersect and must be taken into account – for example, a black woman suffers discrimination both from being a woman and a black person. It also aims to recognise that not all experiences of women are similar), is an essential element for the feminists involved in this movement.

Finally, organisers are not masked per se, on the contrary, they do not hesitate to publicly express their minds, unmasked, and in their own names. Nevertheless, the movement is also coordinated through different organisations, either feminist groups which existed before the movement or organisations created as part of the movement. Organisations such as the Women’s March communicate on social media under the name of the organisation, through which activists therefore take a step back and therefore let the faceless organisation speak.

We can therefore clearly see that the use of social media in the #metoo movement and the rest of the feminist movement is not the same. #Metoo is quite particular in this respect and developed solely online, contrary to the other events, for which social media is used as a communication and organising tool and which therefore corresponds to creative online performative activism.

Bibliography:

  • Allred, G. (2017, octobre 10). Gloria Allred Represents a New Accuser of Harvey Weinstein (Louisette Geiss). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4x4vtuJKDs
  • Boltanski, L., Darré, Y., & Schiltz, M.-A. (1984). La Dénonciation. Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, 51(1), 3‑40. https://doi.org/10.3406/arss.1984.2212
  • Burke, T. (2013). The me too Movement. JustBeInc. https://justbeinc.wixsite.com/justbeinc/the-me-too-movement-c7cf
  • Burke, T. (2018, novembre 30). Me too is a movement, not a moment. https://www.ted.com/talks/tarana_burke_me_too_is_a_movement_not_a_moment/transcript?language=fr
  • Clement, J. (2019, août 9). Twitter Monthly Active Users in the United States 2019. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/274564/monthly-active-twitter-users-in-the-united-states/
  • Farrow, R. (2017, octobre 10). From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault : Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/from-aggressive-overtures-to-sexual-assault-harvey-weinsteins-accusers-tell-their-stories
  • Hanisch, C. (1970). The Personal is Political. In S. Firestone & A. Koedt (Éd.), Notes from the Second Year : Women’s Liberation.
  • Kantor, J., & Twohey, M. (2017, octobre 5). Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/05/us/harvey-weinstein-harassment-allegations.html
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Created with an image by Dulcey Lima - "Tohono Indian Women led the Tucson 2019 Women’s March with a show of strength, resilience and power. This woman’s sign said: My Mom, Sisters, Aunties and Grandmas are sacred. Her son was by her side. International Women’s Day" Tarana Burke MeToo image - https://www.vox.com/identities/2019/10/4/20852639/me-too-movement-sexual-harassment-law-2019 Oslo Women's March - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oslo_Women%27s_March_IMG_4217_(25945662328).jpg