If you want to viscerally understand the power of Twitter, think of the global impact two small words (“Me too”) and their variations in languages other than English have had. Capturing an enormous emotionally nuanced message (we all know someone affected by sexual harassment and/or assault, so what are we going to do about it?), those two words have been repeated countless times to inspire positive action by men and women using Twitter and other social media platforms after actress Alyssa Milano used them in a tweet on October 15, 2017: “Suggested by a friend: ‘If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.’”
Milano quickly achieved her goal of increasing awareness regarding sexual harassment and assault: the hashtag is drawing attention to the often dramatically different reactions people have to the allegations and reality of sexual harassment at local, regional, national, and international levels; I was among those made even more painfully aware of the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault than we already were; and it has drawn me—and many friends, acquaintances, and colleagues—into efforts to shine a spotlight on it and combat it at whatever level we can—via social media, through face-to-face conversations, and through support for actions that can decrease the presence of harassment and assault whenever we see opportunities to do so.
Let’s be clear about the role Twitter and other social media platforms played in what has, through the use of the #MeToo hashtag, become another highly visible and extended global conversation (and sometimes bitter argument) about sexual harassment and sexual abuse. The conversation did not start with the breaking of a significant news story on Twitter, nor did the hashtag #MeToo become a widely-recognized unifying call to action the same day it was created. (The hashtag was first used by social activist Tarana Burke in 2006.) Stories about sexual harassment and abuse in a variety of settings including workplaces, schools and universities, and religious organizations have been published and discussed for several decades by those who accept the veracity of the allegations and want to make positive changes as well as by those who deny the allegations and object to what they see as exaggerations or outright falsehoods. Attitudes and disagreements about sexual harassment and sexual abuse were clearly on display during the 2106 presidential campaign in the United States when a recording capturing Donald Trump boasting, in 2005, of his ability to harass and assault women were widely disseminated through traditional and social media outlets.
The #MeToo conversation expanded rapidly after articles published in The New York Times (October 5, 2017) and The New Yorker (October 10, 2017) documented gut-wrenching allegations that Miramax entertainment company and The Weinstein Company co-founder Harvey Weinstein had engaged in sexual harassment and sexual abuse involving dozens of women in the film industry for at least two decades. Reading the first lengthy and well-documented story in The New York Times that October morning left me disgusted and heart-sick; I found it difficult to even finish reading the lengthy article as I thought about this latest set of allegations showing how someone in a position of power could take advantage of people perceived to have less—or no—voice than those who were making their lives miserable.
Absorbing the numerous follow-up reports about Weinstein and many others became even more emotionally challenging when women—lots of women, far beyond the boundaries of the entertainment industry scandals documented in The New York Times and The New Yorker—began using #MeToo to acknowledge themselves as recipients of unwanted sexual attention by friends, acquaintances, employers, workplace colleagues, or complete strangers. I was absolutely stunned by the large number of women I knew who eloquently joined the conversation through short #MeToo posts. And that’s one of the many ways in which the power of Twitter and other social media tools becomes apparent: what at one time would have been stories about someone else continually become stories about those I know and love and care for—because Twitter and other social media platforms provide a way for voices that might otherwise not have been heard to be heard in ways that inspire people to work together to actively promote the changes they want to see to create the world of their dreams. What might at one time have been stories told within small, isolated groups of people or discussed in local communities became stories shared globally—and very quickly.
“The #MeToo movement is an obvious, but powerful, one [an example of Twitter used to effectively promote social change],” Samantha Becker, the independent consultant and President of SAB Creative & Consulting, observes. “Suddenly, people who were scared to share something deeply personal were empowered to tell their stories because other people were doing it. I don’t think that movement could have spread as rapidly on any other platform because of [the] continuous-conversation factor. There’s Snapchat, Instagram, and new social platforms emerging all the time, but Twitter has remained loyal to the idea of words. And in spite of the growth of videos and infographics, etc. Words. Are. Still. Powerful currency.”
Shining a social media spotlight on those situations you want to change is often seen as positive even in the worst of situations; it is, therefore, well worth noting that the same shining spotlight, used with less-than-honorable intentions, can cause tremendous grief for those unfairly at the center of that spotlight—a theme I will explore fully in a later chapter of Change the World. Using Twitter and other social media platforms carries tremendous responsibility—a responsibility that often is inadvertently or intentionally overlooked by users. As you consider incorporating—or further incorporating—Twitter into your social media toolkit, you would do well to follow advice I frequently give: think before you post. If you are in doubt as to whether your tweet meets the highest, most positive ethical standards to which you subscribe, don’t post. Tweets and other posts can wait; once they are out there, they are impossible to undo.
There is obviously plenty to be done with Twitter to positively change your world; it begins with using it to give voice to those—you and many others—whose voices are not often enough clearly heard. There are plenty of examples, from some of the hashtags (e.g., #BlackLivesMatter, #DACA, #Dreamers, #Ferguson, #LoveWins, #MAGA/MakeAmericaGreatAgain, #OccupyWallStreet, and #ParisAccord) I mentioned in a previous post, of the impact a well-designed and well-used hashtag can have. Whether you agree or disagree with the goals implicit in the movements represented by those hashtags, you can easily recognize that their effective use is part of contemporary social and political discourse—a resource not to be ignored by anyone involved in activism.
N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Media, scheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in 2020. This is the sixth in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.