How #MeToo Illustrates the Pros and Cons of Social Media Discourse

Social media is the great equalizer: if you have an email address, an internet connection, and an opinion, then you can communicate that opinion with the world. For the first time, people whose voices never made it into traditional media are able to share their perspectives and opinions with as many people who follow them (or even those who follow their followers). When a thought resonates, it has the capacity to go viral and reach a truly diverse and even global audience.

MeToo movement

At the same time, internet culture is increasingly criticized both by those who are very active online and those who have a Facebook solely to look at pictures of dogs. The online experience today seems to produce 500 absurd, rude, or downright threatening posts for every thoughtful one. While there’s no way to explain this as a part of internet culture (there is no one internet culture), it’s clear that social media discourse isn’t the balm that shareholders claim. What’s more, the events of the internet are increasingly creating more real-life consequences for people of all types, and disproportionately for women, the LGBTQIA+ community, and men of color.

With 19 million Tweets and counting, the #MeToo movement highlights the pros and cons of social media discourse in a way that urges society to sincerely ask: is it worth it?

The Internet and Empowerment: A Match Made in Memes

Social media’s role has been to serve as a platform for the millions of voices whose names won’t make it into the New Yorker or the Hollywood Reporter. It’s a place for people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities to share their stories in a forum that doesn’t demand anything else from them beyond their truth. In this way, social media isn’t only empowering, it’s freeing.

Sexual harassment and assault is a global issue, and social media is a global platform. They should be a match made in heaven. So why does it leave so many people feeling disillusioned?

Are the People Really in Control of the Conversation?

There’s no doubt that #MeToo was a long-awaited movement that only needed the right combination of factors to explode into public consciousness. Without social media, there would be no #MeToo, and that would be devastating. At the same time, it’s important to look critically at these platforms. Social media platforms are changing public discourse. But we don’t necessarily understand how — and that’s what makes them potentially dangerous.

As Alex Abdo reported in a 2018 article in The Guardian, part of the problem lies with the platforms themselves. By platform, we don’t mean the broader, more enigmatic ideas surrounding human behavior. Rather, we mean the corporate entities designing and powering social media sites. Behind every code, there’s a human developer and a company strategy. What’s more, Facebook and Twitter have not let researchers in to better understand their motivations or how those motivations play out in code. The understanding of social media is largely limited to user experience and interviews with employees or experts, but with no large-scale testing from the behind the scenes — and very little has changed going into 2020.

The problem is significant because while #MeToo is a people-powered movement, every story is at the mercy of the algorithm and its ethics. And the issues don’t end here.

Hashtag Activism Is Oversimplified

There’s no doubt that the accessibility and amplification of important voices is one of the most incredible promises of the internet. Nor is there a doubt that in many ways, that promise has been delivered. At the same time, there are points of criticism because #MeToo perfectly represents a phenomenon best known as hashtag activism.

Me too movement hashtags – Hashtag activism didn’t begin and won’t end with #MeToo. Other prominent hashtags include #kony2012 and #bringbackourgirls and #yesallwomen. Like #MeToo, all began with good intentions, but as with #MeToo, all ultimately resulted in the same question: what did it accomplish? Have we ultimately oversimplified a complex issue in favor of the reach offered by digestible formats like hashtags?

But the issue with hashtag activism, according to researcher Sara Ahmed, is that while it draws attention to the cause (as evidenced above), it also obscures essential details, like the socio-political context of the issue. Even the origin of #MeToo is too often obscured and repurposed into a concept led by white feminism and wealthy Hollywood actresses rather than a way to promote empowerment through empathy among women of color. (Cultural critics like Ahmed note that it’s common for hashtags that critique gender and racial inequalities to be quickly co-opted.)

What Has #MeToo Accomplished?

In the almost three years since #MeToo hit global public consciousness, it’s unclear whether incidences of sexual harassment have fallen. In all fairness, this is because it’s unclear whether sexual harassment is still occurring at the same rate or whether more people are empowered to speak up about the same number of cases. Some evidence says that cases could be on the decline and that women report feeling more empowered than they did before 2017.

And again, in fairness, it’s still somewhat early to determine whether #MeToo has had a meaningful impact on actual cases of harassment. Huge victories, like the conviction of Harvey Weinstein, suggest that even without data, we’re headed in the right direction.

At the same time, there’s been no change in federal law. There’s still no safety net for survivors. And the limited data that exists (such as that cited above) tends to target women who were already engaged with the subject prior to #MeToo.

In other words, #MeToo has existed for several years and is now cemented in common parlance even among those who are decidedly ‘offline.’ And its persistence in itself is a triumph for women and men, and for defining consent itself. But #MeToo ultimately highlights the pros and cons of social media because while it’s raised the profile of an impossibly important issue, it’s also demonstrated that it takes more than hashtag activism to create real nuanced, change.

We all know about #MeToo, but what are we going to do next?

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Article Author Details

Charlie Fletcher

Charlie Fletcher is a freelance writer living in the pacific northwest who has a variety of interests including sociology, politics, business, education, health, and more.