Networks of Support and Activism
Platforms, although ethically complicated in their entanglements with social inequalities, labor, and material infrastructures, also prove to be incredibly valuable for their facilitation of community organizing and activist work. Both standard and subversive uses of platforms can provide pathways for counter-hegemonic spaces to emerge, ones that provide networks of support and activism to populations who need them the most. A technofeminist approach to examining these support and activist networks on platforms, then, is attuned to the ways in which such networks shape public discourse, cultural moments, and social change. Avoiding seeing platforms as wholly optimistic or pessimistic, we should challenge ourselves to move beyond critique into a place where we seek to change that which perpetuates marginalization and oppression.
We contend that the creation and sustainment of activist and support movements have proven to be effective means of (re)ascribing value to identities and discursive practices that, historically, aren’t always welcomed in dominant publics. Therefore, and as represented across all of the approaches we discuss, a technofeminist approach to platform rhetorics should understand how the conditions of platforms are created and maintained through policy, whether policies defined by the platform itself or policies defined by our federal government. For example, the Federal Communications Commission’s vote on December 14, 2017, to repeal net neutrality protections is predicted to have significant consequences for how activists and those seeking support access such networks. Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn cast the only votes to protect net neutrality, and, in her dissent, Commissioner Clyburn noted why access to platforms is critical, particularly for communities of color, to build networks of support and activism. She wrote,
Particularly damning is what today’s repeal will mean for marginalized groups, like communities of color, that rely on platforms like the internet to communicate, because traditional outlets do not consider their issues or concerns, worthy of any coverage. It was through social media that the world first heard about Ferguson, Missouri, because legacy news outlets did not consider it important until the hashtag started trending. It has been through online video services, that targeted entertainment has thrived, where stories are finally being told because those same programming were repeatedly rejected by mainstream distribution and media outlets. And it has been through secure messaging platforms, where activists have communicated and organized for justice without gatekeepers with differing opinions blocking them. (qtd. in Lecher, 2017)
In other words, platforms can be used to fill the holes left by mainstream culture that often favors hegemonic perspectives and identities. This, in our view, is one of the key reasons why a technofeminist approach to platform rhetorics is so important—it helps us amplify networks of support and activism and identify the forces that work to prevent this necessary work. The instances Clyburn cited in her dissent point not just to how intersectional networks of support and activism can rise and sustain on platforms, but also to the frequency with which marginalized groups turn to these platforms when they aren’t being heard elsewhere.
A more recent example is that of the women and men who used platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to share their personal stories of sexual harassment and assault. For many, this occurred through the use of the tag #MeToo. As a slogan, “me too” originated in the early 2000s with Tarana Burke, who used the phrase in her activist work to draw attention to issues of abuse that Black girls and women face. The tag #MeToo went viral in October 2017 when, in response to sexual assault allegations made against producer Harvey Weinstein, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet” (Milano, 2017). Although the tag was tweeted in excess of 1.7 million times in its first week of use (Park, 2017), many were quick to point out that Milano, a white woman, failed to attribute the phrase to Burke, a woman of color, in her original tweet.
The day after posting her original tweet, Milano tweeted, “I was just made aware of an earlier #MeToo movement, and the origin story is equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring,” along with a link to Burke’s organization, Just Be (Milano, 2017). In an interview with Glamour magazine, Burke said, “I have to admit that when [Milano] first tweeted #MeToo, my initial reaction was panic. What if this becomes a popular hashtag, I thought, but it’s not related to the groundwork I laid out?” (qtd. in Leach, 2017). Burke’s concern demonstrates the far-reaching impacts of the rhetorical work of platforms: #MeToo doesn’t just represent a one-dimensional hashtag, but instead it represents an intricately complex event with multiple stakeholders, goals, and purposes. In defining networks of support and activism as a key tenet of technofeminist work on platform rhetorics, we intend to demonstrate both how valuable and infinitely complicated these networks are. Burke decided to participate in the network of support by posting a video “about how empathy can help survivors of sexual assault.” She said, “It went viral in a way that was like, ‘We won’t let this Black woman be erased from her work’” (qtd. in Leach, 2017). For Burke, the powerful network of support created on and with platforms “has been amazing at drawing the kind of attention we’ve never seen to sexual violence” (qtd. in Leach, 2017).
The rhetorical work of the networks of support and activism on platforms gives way to larger conversations and action that has had material affect on social circumstances. The events in Ferguson and ensuing documentation on platforms by everyday users referenced by Commissioner Clyburn drew greater attention to police brutality and racial injustices in the United States. The influx in sexual harassment and assault survivors’ disclosures, as well as their use of #MeToo, has been part of inspiring a cultural moment where sexual harassment and assault are now a part of daily conversation, leading to more accountability for perpetrators. These networks not only serve as sites of community-building, but as archives of lived experiences as well. In the next section, we discuss the importance of lived experience in technofeminist research and describe how pieces of our own stories have shaped our work in platform rhetorics.