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Rethinking Online Feminist Action

To combat everyday sexism, we need to raise awareness and change social attitudes so behaviours become socially unacceptable and people are held accountable for their interactions online.

*Lauren Power [2015] is doing an MPhil in Multi-Disciplinary Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge, with the support of a Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

Last week, more than 1,200 women in a secret Facebook group launched an online campaign to name-and-shame men threatening to rape Australian feminist columnist Clementine Ford [pictured], a staunch opponent of cyber-harassment, after a man was fired for calling her a 'slut' online.

Within 15 minutes of the campaign's launch, thousands of tweets had been sent and #endviolenceagainstwomen was the top trending topic in Australia before spreading around the world. National television and international news media quickly joined the conversation.

Digital media and social networking have drastically transformed the way people engage in collective action. But, as with most world-changing developments, there has been endless controversy about whether or not this is a good thing.

Writers and academics, including Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov, have argued that easy, low-risk 'slacktivism' diverts people from taking real action to address social issues and doesn't create genuine change.

Meanwhile, listicles discuss powerful campaigns and online feminism is touted as a possible 'fourth wave' reinvigorating feminist movements.

How do we know which camp is right? Is this 'good' collective action or even collective action at all? Are all those tweets actually changing anything?

Assessing the impact of activism has always been notoriously hard. But as activism takes on new forms online, it may be that old frameworks and measures aren't even the right place to start.

Action online and off

Ideas about what individual political participation and collective action actually are are being challenged. Traditionally, acts of self-expression like Ford's tweets about the cyber-harassment she experiences would not have been considered political participation. Germaine Greer has claimed that 'simply coughing up outrage into a blog will get us nowhere'. But academics are now arguing that these previously 'non-political' acts can have far more impact than first thought.

As both Ford and campaign organiser Kerri Sackville show, activating your online social networks to mobilise your friends and followers can influence others to engage in political action and generate pressure for changes in society and behaviour.

The sharp division between the online and offline world is another idea that doesn't make much sense anymore.

Until recently, the main criteria used to judge whether an online campaign had been effective was whether it had clear impacts offline. But the idea that 'real' impacts only happen in the offline world is far out of touch with people's digitally networked lives.

The average Brit spends almost three hours online each day. Many people earn their income online. We shop online, date online, socialise online, read the news online. Our engagement online is a very real part of our lives.

As Ford, and many other women speaking up online have discovered, the Internet can be a pretty misogynistic place. So feminist activism shouldn't just aim to create change in the 'real' world, it needs fight for equality offline and on.

Everyday sexism

Ideas about what feminists should be campaigning about and how are also changing. Historically, major targets of feminist action have been legislative changes such as legalising abortion, and outlawing workplace discrimination and sexual harassment. Online feminist activity continues to support these important goals, but a key focus of online activism has been on 'everyday sexism'.

Hashtag campaigns #YesAllWomen, #YouOKSis and blogs such as The Everyday Sexism Project and Hollaback! allow women to share their experiences of everything from casual sexism at work, to street harassment, cyber-harassment and assault.

When thousands of women share their stories of being catcalled on the street or abused online, what was seen as 'just a bit of harmless fun' is problematised as a widespread practice that affects women's access to public spaces.

Most street harassment is unlikely to become a criminal offence and while we desperately need and can improve legal protections against cyber-harassment, neither problem will be solved with legal solutions.

To combat everyday sexism, we need to raise awareness and change social attitudes so behaviours become socially unacceptable and people are held accountable for their interactions online.

The #endviolenceagainstwomen campaign to name-and-shame misogynistic trolls made a clear statement that cyber-harassment is not socially acceptable and began the process of holding people accountable for what they say and do online and off. In doing so, it's recasting the way we think about the effectiveness of collective action online.

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