#MeToo and human rights language in the social media era

By Kat George
Me Too written on a woman's back

The #MeToo movement has brought women’s rights to the forefront of global conversation in unprecedented proportions, and is part of a growing body of evidence supporting the idea that the future of human rights advocacy lies in the democratisation of rights language. Coined by activist Tarana Burke in 2006, the hashtag went viral following a Tweet by actress Alyssa Milano in 2017. What began as a social media movement focused on sexual harassment in Hollywood quickly manifested in physical space as communities around the world took to the streets to protest violence against women. The almost instantaneous uptake of #MeToo in eighty-five countries around the world has revealed how the spread of human rights-based expectations of social justice can be fuelled by social media, as they are translated by common people through their lived experiences.

Every woman who shares an experience via the #MeToo hashtag adds to the unfolding conversation, by interpreting her own perception of rights in light of her personal experience.

Indeed, defining the meaning of #MeToo has largely fallen to a diverse cohort of engaged global citizens. These new translators have used social media, the dominant means of communication and information gathering for more than half the world’s population, to distribute a strong rights-based message adjusted from traditional rhetoric to instantly recognisable, local language. Anthropologist Sally Engle Merry calls this ‘vernacularisation’, whereby local translators interpret human rights concepts that might otherwise be obscured by inaccessible language, to give disparate individuals and communities the opportunity to participate in global human rights advocacy on their own terms. In the case of #MeToo, the global becomes the local, as social media allows for the creation of a kind of global language, communicating women’s rights in a way that can be easily and broadly understood.

By filtering human rights through the social media lens, #MeToo creates a new human rights language without the terminology used by traditional actors such as international institutions, governments, academics and NGOs. Instead, #MeToo focuses on ‘people’s lives… a very touchy private, deeply personal thing.’ This use of personal language and experience has been shared by women around the world in a way that the legal language of human rights has not. The movement is unique in that it does not rely soley on traditional power brokers to demystify human rights ideas. Every woman who shares an experience via the #MeToo hashtag adds to the unfolding conversation, by interpreting her own perception of rights in light of her personal experience. The seemingly unending cascade of women who are continually adding meaning to this ongoing movement are evidence that human rights in the digital age can increasingly be spread by way of grassroots advocacy and are less reliant on “trickle down” institutional approaches that might have been assumed in the past.

Though these campaigns of naming and shaming have been successful in some cases, they still focus on punishment rather than structural change.

But #MeToo isn’t a perfect model for the translation of human rights. As Twitter keeps users beholden to brevity (when #MeToo began the site only allowed 140 characters to be published per Tweet, increasing to 280 in November 2017), #MeToo relies on compactness and sensationalism. As a result, #MeToo can be accused of reducing complex human rights issues to ‘sound bites’, choosing what to advocate and promote through a contest of popularity.

Further, #MeToo places a heavy burden on individual victims to seek justice through the reliving of trauma, and does not provide a clear pathway to sustainable justice-making, focusing on naming and shaming of abuse rather than prevention. Though these campaigns of naming and shaming have been successful in some cases, they still focus on punishment rather than structural change. The recent arrest and indictment of Harvey Weinstein, while welcomed, is an example of this: justice is served on an individual basis, rather than as a means of changing a system that enabled Weinstein’s alleged crimes to continue unchecked in the first place.

#MeToo can therefore fail to target the root causes of sexual violence. By framing women’s rights in the context of sexual violence alone, it largely ignores the varied and complex systems that lead to gender inequality, and the extremely nuanced circumstances that cause oppression. The format of one-sided story telling leads to a narrow framework for identifying the problem, ultimately promoting individualism and sacrificing intersectionality.

The #MeToo movement has also been accused of ‘whitewashing’ rights. Given that the movement did not rise to prominence until Milano—a powerful white woman—Tweeted the hashtag in 2017, without acknowledging that its origin was in a decade of work by a woman of colour, the timeline of #MeToo highlights the relationship between whiteness, visibility and Eurocentric models of power. This power asymmetry has hindered the accessibility of #MeToo as not all women begin on an equal socio-political level playing-field from which to access the #MeToo movement.

This disparity in social power and access is reflected in Twitter’s data from the first few weeks of the #MeToo social media movement. In the initial outpouring of #MeToo via social media, the most Tweets came from ‘Western’ countries (the top four were the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Canada). Indeed, around the world, many women were immediately excluded from participating in the movement simply due to access. It is estimated that 4 billion people worldwide do not have access to the internet, and that women are 50 per cent less likely to be using the internet than men.

Indian women, for instance, despite composing the country with the fifth most #MeToo Tweets in the initial cascade of global Tweeting, grappled with the divide between educated, middle class women, and Dalit caste, uneducated, working women in attempts to make the #MeToo movement resonate at the local level. Activists have accused the movement of ignoring Dalit women, including those abused by higher-caste men. Meanwhile, in China, students used the ‘naming and shaming’ method to oust a University professor accused of several counts of sexual misconduct against students. But the victory in China did not last long, with the Communist Party censoring online discussion around sexual harassment.

#MeToo as a social language might find its value in culture creation, as human rights language is first translated to a global voice, and then again in a way more suited to unique, grassroots environments.

Optimistically, there have been attempts to decolonise the movement. For example, in Australia, the Alice Springs Women’s Shelter, representing Aboriginal women, adopted #MeToo in order to draw attention to the complexity of issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. The shelter’s #MeToo movement highlighted the fact that for Aboriginal women, sexual harassment was more than the workplace harassment focused on by the #MeToo movement in the United States, bringing a local understanding of sexual abuse to make the movement relevant closer to home. Di Gipney, the shelter’s CEO, noted, ‘It’s incredibly important that people understand that for so long we have lost voices within the Aboriginal women’s sector’.

During Sydney’s #MeToo protest, the momentum of the movement was similarly used to draw attention to a wide range of interconnected issues, including Indigenous rights. Speaker Norma Ingram, chairperson of the Wyanga Aboriginal Aged Care Program, told the crowd, ‘if we are talking about violence, this country was founded on violence… It was founded by denying a race of people a humanity’. In her protest speech, she did not mention sexual harassment once, despite speaking under the banner of #MeToo. Indeed, in Australia, #MeToo has been used to bolster conversation around issues already pressing on the common consciousness, using the spirit of the movement to promote the local agenda. The Sydney protest also encompassed women’s health, immigrant rights, and the impact of patriarchal society more broadly. In this sense, #MeToo as a social language might find its value in culture creation, as human rights language is first translated to a global voice, and then again in a way more suited to unique, grassroots environments.

Equipping individuals to engage with human rights issues on a direct and personal level, #MeToo ultimately gives autonomy to victims in building a framework of meaning on a complex human rights issue. As a new conversation is being shaped by a rising global community, the #MeToo movement is a watershed moment for human rights advocacy. The movement has given victims, activists, and communities a language for pursuing human rights justice without subscribing to complicated human rights legalese. Indeed, if #MeToo proves to be a continuing phenomenon, it may lead us to examine who and what is the most effective way to promote social change and human rights in the 21st century.

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