Social media protests cannot change the world alone

Online movements are good for raising awareness but we need more women leaders to drive lasting culture change, says Zone's Amanda McKenna...

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As we’re celebrating International Women’s Day tomorrow, it’s a good time to look back at what has been quite a year for female empowerment. We recently marked the 100-year anniversary since (some) women were first given the vote in the UK. The #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns have given women across the world the platform and confidence to speak up against sexual harassment.

When actress Alyssa Milano called on all women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted to write ‘#MeToo’ as their status, 30,000 women responded overnight. In just over a week the extent of the problem was writ large: 1.7 million tweets from 85 countries had used the hashtag, while on Facebook there were more 12 million posts, comments and reactions regarding ‘MeToo’ in less than 24 hours.

Thanks to #MeToo, we now understand the magnitude of the problem.

But while social media has once again proved itself a potent awareness-raiser, I don’t believe this online protest movement alone is going to deliver the lasting, systemic change that the world so desperately needs, for two important reasons:

1) No clear, measurable goals

According to Zeynep Tufekci, author of Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, movements forged over social networks often have trouble gelling, especially those like #MeToo that explode overnight, because they tend to skip the necessary organising structures that more established movements have been refining for years. The Tea Party movement in the US, for instance, had its roots in protest organised through social media, but it became ruthlessly focused on tactical goals once it came together. “These were people who found each other, and were able to get together and do a lot of stuff – they arguably even elected a president,” Tufekci said, referring to Donald Trump.

#BlackLivesMatter is another social media-born activist group that has successfully moved beyond the hashtag. The group has set clear goals that supporters can rally around by taking an analytical approach to the problem, gathering data on the content of police contracts and the laws and policies that are most effective in reducing police violence. 

"Individuals need to be in a circle of trust to stand up to those more powerful than them"

The world needs legislative, institutional and cultural goals if we are to create the harassment and discrimination-free workplaces that we all desire. #MeToo urgently needs to set the agenda (Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has also suggested a framework).

2. Women need complex support to take action

A collective howl of protest on social media, however loud, will not be enough to get people to stand up to their abusers because they have complex needs that aren’t being met. Individuals need to be in a circle of trust and peer support to stand up to those more powerful than them (the 156 women who stood up and confronted former Olympic doctor Larry Nassar were an incredible example of this). They also need legal and financial support.

The actresses standing together against the power brokers of Hollywood are fine examples of Malcolm Gladwell’s close-tie activists’. They are able to undertake high-risk activism because they have a deep, personal connection with each other and the cause through their shared industry network. But this is not the reality for most women (and especially those who have little or no power). I agree with Gladwell that the majority of connections people forge through social media interaction will not be potent enough to galvanise them into taking incredibly daunting actions, especially in relation to such a sensitive issue.

So the onus is on the people in power, especially employers, to act. That’s why I’m so passionate about the Empowered Women network within Cognizant, the global company that acquired our agency Zone last year. We need more women and more women leaders to drive long-lasting culture change. And that would be something to really celebrate on International Women’s Day next year.

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