4.1. Engaging Wider Audiences and Raising Awareness
Expanding conversations about VAW and garnering attention to its prevalence is an important goal for participants. Some view social media as a place to start a conversation about a topic that has historically been a private issue rather than a public conversation. For example, one NGO director states that
because we are only a small project a lot of this is learning what people would want from us, because violence against women, we’re talking about topics that are pretty much always conversation stoppers, right?
There is a sense among participants that social media is an effective way to push forward uncomfortable conversations about VAW, and to interject feminist research and advocacy into platforms where this knowledge may not be the norm. For example, one advocate working at an NGO explains that social media can help to push stories and conversations into a more central public view:
I think [about] the ways in which we can have those conversations. So I think that, you know, rape culture and social media brings two-sides of the story at the forefront in public. And that’s where some really unintelligent conversations happen, and some really intelligent conversations happen. I think of Anita Sarkeesian,9and her Ted Video… [that] started off this conversation…I think another example is the #WhyIStayed10Twitter campaign. It starts to bring several conversations to light.
There is a two-step process to this work, where content created to raise awareness about VAW (videos, hashtag campaigns) may be produced and distributed in social media, which then provides the space to connect and further discuss the issues raised. In addition to engaging the general public, this social media content enables participants to engage with like-minded organizations and raise awareness collectively, as one participant explains:
I feel like on Twitter I can actually reach people who are following certain hashtags, etc. and who are really engaged in the issues, either activists, activists, or communicators in some way.
By connecting through social media, individuals and organizations can, as one participant explained, work collaboratively to “signal-boost” (e.g., share, like) each other’s content in order to build momentum in their work.
Most participants work in a combination of online and face-to-face settings, and use social media for specific goals such as generating attention and awareness to VAW. In other words, VAW prevention in social media does not replace other forms of prevention, but rather expands this work. For example, one writer and activist explains how she sees hashtag activism as a supplemental, rather than a replacement, modality of VAW prevention:
I know people disdain hashtag activism, but I hardly know anyone who only does hashtag activism. Most of the people I know do hashtag activism in addition to other activism, so I don’t think people are doing it by and large and then saying, ok I don’t have to pay attention to this anymore. I think that it can be really effective in terms of raising consciousness about an issue really quickly and demonstrating that a critical mass of people experience this [VAW]…It is also really effective at generating traditional media attention, which really needs to happen.
A key first step in VAW prevention work is to achieve broad public recognition that VAW is a social problem. For participants, the notion of “raising awareness” generally appears to mean getting mainstream populations (broader audiences outside of the VAW sector) to see VAW as a social problem: to take it seriously and want to take steps to prevent it from occurring. As the participant above explained, this is also aided by traditional media attention, a theme that will be discussed further below as well as in later sections.
In some cases, participants are trying to evoke an emotional response to VAW. For example, one writer and advocate explains that they are trying to break through public apathy surrounding VAW:
I want VAW to be something people are horrified by, but it’s so commonplace it doesn’t even register. People are numb to it. Not everyone, but I get that feeling that as a culture we’re numb. Or culturally we are outraged at the way other countries handle VAW…for instance when the world got upset about the way India responds to rape without taking a look at it at home. It’s OK to be offended at the way other people in other countries treat women but we don’t take a look at ourselves. Like not looking at the high rates of violence against First Nations women as part of a socioeconomic issue, which of course it is.
Several participants noted that social media facilitates raising awareness by enabling survivors to share stories about their victimization (similar to #MeToo), as those with experiential knowledge are effective at connecting on an emotional level. For example, as one writer and advocate explains below:
I’m a huge believer in storytelling and the power of free media. So from that perspective, I think that the Internet is transformative in the fight against gender-based violence. Because, for the first time ever, women can step out of the isolation that they’ve always been subject to, and share their stories…I think [this] can really engage people more empathetically to understand the scope of what we’re talking about.
Increased attention to VAW on social media and traditional news media is seen as an indicator of success for some. For example, one advocate and educator who has worked in VAW prevention for many years remarks that conversations around VAW are happening more frequently in her local media in the past year:
I will always think of that big moment when [a local newspaper] had a cover page about rape culture and had the word rape culture. And it wasn’t like “does it exist?” It was “what do we do about it?” … You know, [the story] lacked nuance and they quoted MRAs [Men’s Rights Activists] inside and all kind of other things, but it was the mainstream. The word rape culture in [my city] has hit the mainstream. Good, bad, or otherwise, when I say it now, people still get very defensive, and I still think it’s a really extreme word for a lot of people, but for me that was like, wow…So I think social media has for better or for worse allowed us to significantly speed up where we’ve come. I mean, speaking only on the issue of sexual violence, but I think we have made progress.
Other participants note that, despite the value of starting conversations to raise awareness, there is a need to link these narratives to broader societal and structural change. For example, one communications director explains that “thinking about the stories we tell in order to advance the policies we want is a really crucial piece of prevention”. The idea, then, is that conversations about VAW should be driven with a consideration of broader VAW movement goals in terms of community- and societal-level change.
4.2. Narrative Shifts to Change Societal Norms
Preventing VAW requires changing attitudes, beliefs, and social norms that tolerate, excuse, and encourage VAW, a historically challenging area of prevention [27
]. As highlighted earlier, harmful narratives around VAW include an absence of broader context (e.g., VAW terminology, research knowledge), as well as misogyny and reproduction of rape myths and other ingrained (false) beliefs about VAW (e.g., women frequently lie about sexual assault; violence is gender-neutral; women stay because they like the abuse). Participants explain that public education efforts to promote understanding VAW as a social problem is often met with pushback from anti-feminist groups such as MRA’s, as well as general public apathy or skepticism. For example, one blogger and advocate describes her use of social media around VAW in this way:
The first thing is just raising awareness. And particularly trying to cut through some of the MRA stuff that goes around about the “what about the men” kind of stuff. So trying to say, this isn’t it, we’re not trying to take away that it sucks about violence committed against anybody. The raising awareness about yes, this is still an issue, yes this is everybody’s issue, yes gender is still a factor. So I think that’s one really key thing.
Prevention work in social media highlights the gendered nature of intimate partner violence and sexual violence and specifically targets harmful myths and stereotypes about VAW. As one participant remarks, “I think the opportunities available in dialogue are significant for changing social norms. And social media for me is the natural place to change social norms”.
The speed and reach of social media information-sharing means that it has the potential to disseminate myths around VAW, but also makes it a powerful tool for prevention work. One communications professional explains that their work involves “bringing communications strategy, big-picture narrative framing, to the work that is in the field.” When describing how they viewed changing narratives as a key part of the role of social media in VAW prevention, they explain the following:
I do [see it] in two ways. One, is I think social media, because it moves so fast. It’s both potentially powerful and potentially dangerous because it can really, you can perpetrate a lot of myths very quickly… But I think that social media is particularly important because of the speed and the momentum, but also the reach…changing those really fundamental narratives around sexuality of women is difficult, because a lot of why women have been subjugated over time has always been fear of female sexuality. And I think that that’s really hard for a lot of people to grasp: that something that’s about violence against women, you know, violence around sexuality, is actually rooted in fear of sexual power. That’s complex stuff, and it’s really hard to tweet about it.
Individualized, simplistic explanations that focus on victim behaviors (e.g., “she was drunk, what did she think would happen?”) are easier to digest and are deeply engrained in societal understandings of this violence [34
]. As we see from this quote, one of the challenges of conversations in social media is to effectively discuss community- and societal-level risk factors (e.g., gender socialization; norms around women’s sexuality). This complexity and nuance is particularly difficult to inject in a space where user attention spans and content space (e.g., character limits on Twitter) may be restricted.
As part of raising awareness, challenging behaviors that support and foster rape culture is a priority for VAW prevention work in social media. For example, one public educator and advocate explains the importance of education around abusive behaviors and bystander intervention:
The primary focus of our outreach online is just the awareness, the education component…that public education component as far as educating people about rape culture, and making them understand what comments they made that are actually reinforcing that, or the behaviour that they have witnessed or experienced or perhaps even committed themselves, that it’s actually unacceptable. That kind of component has to take the lead online.
While some participants work at organizations that provide front line support, for the most part, participants are not using social media to target individuals for one-on-one support. Rather, social media work is primarily geared at broader publics and potential perpetrators. For example, one advocate notes:
You’re definitely right in recognizing that much of our counselling and outreach type stuff directly to women is done in person…we have different approaches, and most of it is done in person when it comes to the direct contact to the women in crisis. More of our online stuff is directed at the public per se, when it comes to prevention from that angle as far as how to not be an abuser, that angle tends to be a big focus online.
By educating individuals in a publicly accessible and sharable context, participants are trying to change both attitudes and beliefs (individual-level risk factors) in the short term, and social norms (community- and societal-level risk factors) in the long term.
Interventions can also be used reflexively to highlight problematic practices within VAW prevention work. For example, one activist and researcher explains she will use social media to call out victim-blaming messaging within her own community, as well as the media more broadly:
A lot of the campaigns around violence are still so shitty, they’re still really focused on women’s behaviour. And even with [our organization] I think a lot of the, I don’t want to say older, but I’m going to, are still- they really internalize those messages of “women, you need to stay safe” [and so forth]. And when I see that, I mean it makes me very angry, and so I try to correct it and say, you know this is really problematic. But there’s still not widespread agreement on what even needs to be done to stop violence against women, let alone how we need the media to better respond. And I am thankful for being able to talk back to what’s out there, because I’m not the kind of person who logs on to [a news site] and puts comments, that’s not me. But yeah, I will respond to something I see from the media that’s posted, or something within [my community] that I feel is a problem.
In this case, social media allows for a “talk-back” mechanism to voice dissent and highlight harmful narratives, and to push the broader movement forward. VAW prevention work has moved away from responsibilization narratives [88
] that focus on victim behavior (“don’t get assaulted”) towards accountability narratives that focus on perpetrators’ behavior (“don’t assault”). This can be seen in various participants’ comments when they talk about their goals related to prevention. For example, as one advocate explains, victim-blaming narratives (a central feature of rape culture) are a core target:
We’ve finally made that transition from talking to young women about—it was a form of victim-blaming when we kept telling girls “don’t dress this way” or “don’t walk alone at night” or “carry this with you”. Yeah, we’re trying to do harm reduction here, but at the same time it’s so important- we’ve finally moved away from that.
Victim-blaming narratives from individuals and organizations (e.g., politicians, police, college campus representatives, media outlets), for example, are precisely the situations where VAW prevention workers are aiming to intervene and reframe. The use of social media to critique messaging is particularly important for powerful institutions like news media, which play an important role in public education about VAW, reproducing social norms around VAW, and shaping policy debates [45
4.3. Mobilization around High-Profile News Stories
To understand the importance of intervening in VAW news stories, we can consider participants’ (many) frustrations with mainstream media. As discussed earlier, there has historically been much feminist activist and academic critique of news reporting of VAW as failing to convey context, nuance, and complexity around VAW. Many participants have similar concerns, and several express frustrations over lack of control of the message. One activist, who has extensive experience as a news source in mainstream media, describes this lack of control:
I’m kind of the dog and pony, the right poster girl. And they ask me for comments constantly. And I’ll respond of course, that’s my job. But I’m not in charge of what’s going on, I’m responding, reacting. And you must speak in sound bites. And you must be effective. And you really need to understand that what you’re saying, and the ways that you’re saying it, can change the tone of the story, because someone else is translating that for you. Or they’re translating it to a certain party or public, who then hear it in yet different ways.
Additionally, as several participants explain, journalists often have limited understanding of VAW, and can themselves perpetrate harm through representation. For example, this same participant explains:
Journalists don’t understand the nature of the crime. And they’ll tell you that right away…it’s the first, second, third, and fourth case that the journalist who has just graduated is sent out on. So they are using their own biases, their own language, and their own misunderstandings of the crime, and repeating and solidifying myths and stereotypes.
Several participants view the news media as an arena that frequently counteracts VAW prevention objectives; as such, they feel it is important to intervene in these online discussions. Social media enables this to be done publicly; for example, tweeting at the news organization that published a victim-blaming headline [90
]. This provides the feedback to the news organization, while also allowing other online bystanders to see the interaction and participate if so inclined.
Mobilization around news stories, particularly high-profile events, aims to bring a VAW lens to ongoing conversations surrounding current events and trending topics. This provides sociological context to shift understanding from individual level explanations (e.g., the perpetrator was a psychopath) to larger social forces contribute to the root causes of violence (e.g., the role of misogyny). For example, one advocate and public educator explains that social media is an important tool to provide (“force”) missing feminist analysis of current news stories:
When a hashtag is covered in the mainstream media, when #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen11is a story, when #YesAllWomen- with that analysis of what happened in California,12that analysis would not have existed without social media. I firmly believe that people on social media forcing them to talk about misogyny is what made that part of the conversation.
As this quote suggests, in addition to producing news stories about incidents of VAW, mainstream media will cover stories trending on social media. Here, the mobilization around the news event (rather than the original event) becomes the news story. In this vein, several participants pointed to the example of #BeenRapedNeverReported13
,which received tens of millions of tweets and promoted the narrative that whether a survivor reports a sexual assault to police, and/or how long it takes them to do so, should not determine if we believe them, and that there are many reasons why survivors do not report sexual assaults (initially or ever). In these cases, social media (specifically, Twitter) reaches a sort of tipping point where hashtags such as #WhyIStayed or #IBelieveLucy (other campaigns that participants highlighted) begin to trend in response to inadequate social responses to VAW. In these cases, these hashtags challenged victim-blaming myths in response to two high profile events in 2014: (1) National Football League player Ray Rice’s video recorded physical assault on his fiancée Janay Palmer, and (2) Lucy DeCoutere coming forward as one of the first survivors alleging sexual violence from former Canadian Broadcasting Company radio host Jian Ghomeshi.
In these scenarios, rather than the news media reporting on individual cases of violence, they are reporting on the social response to violence. As participants note, these hashtag conversations are visible, sharable, and searchable, enabling journalists to quote directly from this digital record, and other interested stakeholders to consume this content asynchronously.
Conversations in social media gain the attention of those who may not normally pay attention to VAW. While new views and voices are positive in terms of expanding audiences and public education, they also present significant challenges related to 1) resources and 2) abuse and harassment.
For many individuals juggling heavy workloads (often in resource-strapped non-profit roles), the pace of conversation in social media is a challenge. Here, there is a difference between how organization and individuals use social media, where individuals (self-employed, freelance, and/or conducting unpaid labor online) can jump into these debates more readily. Participants working in an organizational role (e.g., using an NGO Twitter account) recognize this opportunity, but they have limited capacity to undertake the rapid response/engagement that is required to participate in that conversation. For example, one non-profit director explains that, given resource considerations, there is a choice to be made in order to have their message heard:
People don’t realize that that’s the commitment they need to make to be able to respond and be timely, [otherwise] you lose the message. So I think the struggle for [our organization] is that I’m the only full time paid employee…we don’t have the resources to be as active as we can, so at times we have to choose. So it’s kind of some competing things, so you just react as fast as you can.
The need to operate at the pace of socially-mediated news and conversation raises questions in terms of where to focus online work. This participant goes on to explain that, within social media, online comments sections place a burden of responsibility on their organization, and are one of the potentially negative outcomes of engaging wider audiences in conversations about VAW. As she explains, responding to trolling and/or negative comments is a particular challenge when it comes to joining conversations:
It’s hard to negotiate, because you want to have a voice, but having a voice requires a person to have that voice…there are these small windows that if you had a team of people doing it, you are going make a great change I think. Because people are seeing that, and people are reading those comments but the fact of the matter is that really the only choice sometimes that we’re given because of low staff and the high amount of time that takes, is not to answer [trolls and negative comments].
While social media offers expanded opportunity for VAW prevention, without the addition of resources and social media expertise, it may be a lost opportunity or additional drain on already resource-strapped organizations. Although many individuals are taking on social media work as personal (and unpaid) activism around VAW prevention, they do so oftentimes at great cost both in terms of time and energy.
These challenges are further exacerbated by experiences of backlash, harassment, and abuse. Several participants described experiencing online harassment and abuse as a result of their VAW prevention work in social media. However, these experiences are not uniform. Some participants talk about being the target of rape threats or online hate-based campaigns because of their work, others talk about their fears of receiving such abuse. Still others speak more generally about “trolls”, “incivility”, “vitriol”, and so forth. For example, one writer and activist detailed her experiences as follows:
The worst, the two worst incidents I ever had, one was after I blocked comments on YouTube, someone [found me online] and basically said, “You’re a liar, and I hope that someone kills you, I hope that it will be me”. So I had to call the police about that, which was fun… And then another time, someone on Twitter said, “someone on Facebook is using your picture, and you should really get it taken down.” And I found that someone had used my headshot as the front picture for this [harassment page]…when I found my picture, there were 600 comments, about how I should head butt a gun, how someone should rape me with a watermelon, all these rape threats, how no one would have sex with me because I’m so ugly and I’m a pig, and I’m fat…And I was very close to just quitting, because it was really awful.
Another advocate and educator explains the effects of this harassment, and also illustrates that harassment is not limited to online abuse:
There’s definitely stuff that has been threatening—I mean someone, somehow got my number and I got all these threatening phone calls last week. But I think to me it’s more- it’s just exhausting. It’s more exhausting…I think the threatening is maybe 5 percent of it and the rest is just like really, fuck off.
Some participants have lobbied for social media platforms to take an active role in preventing violence enabled by their sites. For example, one advocate explains that it is important that social media companies take this abuse seriously because “[online abuse] curtails a lot of activism, and their—Facebook and Twitter’s—official definitions of what is abuse and what is not is pretty disheartening”. Another participant, a writer and activist, details the misogynistic nature of these threats and argues that social media companies have a responsibility to be active bystanders and to explore online violence as a threat to women’s free speech:
I started really paying attention to the nature of the harassment and the threats. And you know, a lot of it was just kind of intrinsically misogynistic language: “bitch” and “cunt” and “slut”. And critiques of my ideas or my work, often in those contexts just came down, as they often do, to violence, like hanging or rape or throttling…I want these companies to understand that women’s perceptions of all of these things- safety, harm, threat, free speech- are legitimate, and that they (the companies) need to take those into consideration…If you want to liberate speech, then you have to remove the violence that women are experiencing in life.
Challenges for discussing gender in the public sphere are well-documented [14
] and gender is a key factor in experiences of abuse and harassment on the internet [95
]. Increasingly, online harassment is recognized as a form of VAW and a gendered silencing strategy [95
]. Given the high burnout rates among service providers, advocates, and activists, it is important to take the depletive effects of dealing with harassment (and/or fears of harassment) seriously. Being forced out of social media, or even just certain social media sites, hinders prevention efforts.
As with historical efforts to mobilize against domestic violence in the home and sexual harassment in the workplace [6
], identifying and responding to VAW online has some time to catch on. As one public educator explains, public recognition of the problem is a critical first step:
In terms of the sort of cycle of raising awareness about an issue and getting people equipped, I think with sexual violence we’re at that bystander intervention and tactical [stage], like practical “this is what we can do to stop it”. Whereas with online violence, we’re still trying to convince people that it’s a thing.
As this work continues, it is important to value and support these efforts and to prioritize the well-being of those doing online work [1
]. In this vein, it is helpful to conceptualize VAW prevention work in social media as bystander intervention.