Nowadays, there is no escaping plunging deep into the world of social media, all the more if you’re an activist. Create a blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter handle and you can be assured your message will transcend borders and reach feminists worldwide at the speed of light (ok, maybe not if you’re in Lebanon like me where Ontornet has replaced the Internet), but anyway, quickly enough. Social media has helped create linkages between feminist networks and individuals that were not as easily done before, thus enabling increased solidarity and collaboration. Sharing has become caring and the virality of a message can be measured in terms of Facebook Likes, Twitter Retweets and Tumblr Reblogs while blogs and Facebook pages and groups are now competing with online forums as places where activists and sympathizers share experiences, exchange ideas and draft campaigns.
Because they are cost effective, user friendly and interactive social media have become paramount to the feminist struggle, not only because they provide platforms for activists to mobilize and organize themselves as well as enabling users to create online safe spaces but also because they allow activists to challenge mainstream media and ideologies: women can tell their version of their stories at last without being dependents on editors or worrying about getting access to more traditional media, something that is very difficult to achieve indeed, especially if a person doesn’t have the right connections. Opinions and analysis can now be written on a blog, shared through social networks and commented on with no external interference, or specific guidelines. Besides, video social media like Youtube offer an alternative to viewers from State-owned and privately owned television: with an increased use of smartphones, citizens have been able to share images many public powers would have rather kept secret.
However not all is rosy in the fantastic world of social media. First and foremost, the problem remains that one never knows who is behind their computer: the Amina hoax (the case of the supposed Syrian women gay blogger who was supposedly arrested by Syrian security forces who later turned out to be a British man), which hindered more than anything else the Syrian revolutionary struggle is just one example of the absence of safety that might reign in the online world. Even darker realities of sexual exploitation, prostitution and pedophilia can happen behind a computer post: the need to be and stay safe online has now become a growing concern, especially for young women. Online abuse can take the form of spamming, stalking, verbal abuse in the form of rude and offensive comments: for example, many Facebook groups are created to bully people or are based on racist, misogynistic or homophobic arguments. The Take Back the Tech Campaign (www.takebackthetech.net) is a collaborative campaign that aims at empowering young women to reclaim their space online and to use technology to act against violence against women. The campaign takes place from the 25th of November to the 10th of December during the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence: all activists worldwide can start a chapter locally using the resources available on the website, which also gives tips and strategies for users to be safe online and report abuse. The campaign thus represents a good and useful tool to use technology smartly.
Another major drawback of social media is that people tend to confuse online activism with real life activism: this was not helped by mainstream media rapidly dubbing Arab revolutions “Social Media Revolutions”. True, social media has helped getting messages to demonstrators: however, they were far from being the main drive behind the mass mobilizations. Truth is, social media is nothing without the actual on the ground action where activists go and actually mobilize people and talk and listen to them. This is easily verifiable: next time you receive an invitation for a demonstration or a conference on Facebook, check how many people reply “Attending” and how many actually come.
While social media are a great tool in many ways, let us not forget that they’re still tools owned by rather privileged people, conditioned by access to technology, internet speed, computer literacy and state censorship and that virtual worlds will never replace the actual exchange between two physical human beings.
So next time you hit share on an interesting article or conference, don’t forget to actually talk about it to the people close to you.
*Paola Salwan Daher is a feminist and BDS activist currently living in Beirut. You can find some of her writings under www.cafethawra.blogspot.com and www.myrrhandmint.tumblr.com. Her favourite people are the Nasawiyas, please check them out at www.nasawiya.org and www.sawtalniswa.com