From Hashtag Activism to Investigative Journalism: The Power of #MeToo
What factors helped drive the social movement into a global phenomenon?
TRIGGER WARNING: This blog post contains mentions of sexual harassment and assault.
As a social movement still striving for social change today, #MeToo fights against sexual harassment and assault by encouraging people to speak up and publicise their experiences.
#MeToo started as a campaign on Myspace in 2006, founded by sexual assault survivor and activist Tarana Burke who wanted fellow survivors to know that they were heard and understood.
Over 10 years later in 2017, the campaign re-emerged and quickly transformed into a viral social movement online through the hashtag #MeToo. This came as a result of several sexual assault allegations made against American film producer Harvey Weinstein.
Since this reoccurrence of the social movement, several changes have been and continue to be made to help support survivors and reform systemic structures in society that allow sexual harassment and assault to continue.
Arguably, the biggest change that #MeToo has made is to public opinions surrounding sexual violence, not only creating a strong sense of community between survivors but also changing ideological thoughts about gender and power in civilisation.
But what were some of the driving forces behind achieving this?
The force of a single hashtag
In #HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice, hashtag activism is described as ‘repeated resistance’ — a means of political activism which in the case of #MeToo refuses to turn a blind eye to the frequent occurrence of sexual assault and harassment in society.
Between the 15th of October 2017 and the 30th of September 2018, the hashtag #MeToo had been used over 19 million times on Twitter in tweets such as the following:
I have discussed the power of hashtags in a previous blog post; the same points still stand. They are impressive communication tools within social issues like #MeToo, collating countless opinions, experiences, information, helplines, and so much more that can positively benefit people.
Although opinions on the movement can differ, and hashtags can be used to spread negativity, it’s the above kinds of tweets receiving the most engagement and prompting empowerment for their audiences.
The viral nature of the hashtag caused the social movement to go global, being used in different languages and also reinforcing the message that sexual violence does not discriminate.
The hashtag is still widely used today, currently collating the discourse surrounding the Johnny Depp Vs Amber Heard defamation trial. It’s not a social movement that has been and gone — yet, as Burke herself states, “what do you do after you put hashtag #MeToo?”
#MeToo and investigative journalism
According to David Leigh in Investigative Journalism: A Survival Guide, investigative journalism is “the daily supply of truths about the world that would otherwise be hidden”.
High profile cases of this form of journalism include the 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal which surrounded several MP’s misusing their expenses. The Daily Telegraph began publishing information about these expenses to alert the public to the corruption going on behind closed doors, ultimately leading to many MP’s stepping down or losing their jobs.
In regard to #MeToo, not only were the public supplying truths about the world, but journalists were also working hard to release stories that aimed to propel the power of the movement along with helping to achieve justice for survivors.
Trigger Warning: These articles contain detailed accounts of sexual violence.
In 2018, journalists Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, and Ronan Farrow were jointly awarded the Pulitzer Prize for public service after publishing articles detailing several of the sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein. Kantor and Twohey published a joint exposé in The New York Times, and Farrow took to The New Yorker in 2017.
Kantor and Twohey’s article prompted the firing of Weinstein, and 5 days later Farrow’s exposé was released, helping to push public activism and systemic action of the #MeToo movement even further. Let’s take a look at the latter…
Farrow wrote this exposé after a ten-month investigation into Weinstein. He also interviewed thirteen women who were able to share their experiences of sexual assault at the hands of the ex-film producer.
Yet, even before the written discussion of these accounts, Farrow lays the foundations for important conversations to be made about gender, positions of power, and the sometimes overshadowed nature of sexual violence.
Let’s have a look at the first two paragraphs of the article…
In An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method, James Paul Gee suggests that lexical meaning can be constructed and situated to create a broader socio-cultural context.
In the case of the above paragraphs, Farrow uses language to establish Weinstein’s prior success and high position of power — particularly by stating:
“he has been thanked more than almost anyone else in movie history, ranking just after Steven Spielberg and right before God.”
Farrow builds a picture of Weinstein’s power — yet, shortly after places this power within the context of abuse, causing us, the readers, to come to understand that this success and position of power he was hailed for is exactly what permitted such atrocities to happen. The meaning shifts, and activism takes its place.
The work of Farrow as well as Kantor and Twohey is precisely the type of journalism that can help spur positive social change. Without their investigations into Weinstein, justice and his ultimate conviction may have been more challenging to achieve.
Has it gone too far?
The #MeToo movement hasn’t come without backlash however, with it being argued that although the coverage of the movement has been sympathetic, it has somewhat failed to be empowering. Although, in the UK, newspapers were a vital part of spreading the movement's message.
Additionally, with the prominence of the Depp Vs Heard trial in the last 6 weeks, the #MeToo organisation themselves have condemned the use of the movement by the public in regard to the trial as a ‘mischaracterisation’ of what it actually tries to achieve.
So, is #MeToo at risk of being manipulated? I for one certainly hope not, as the empowerment and safe space it has created is something society has been in dire need of — we can’t take ten steps back now.
Thank you for reading! It would be great to hear your thoughts about the impact of journalism within the #MeToo movement, and where you think the movement is headed.