New Media and Fourth-Wave Feminism

April 25, 2018

By Shlomit Lir

Almost 10 years ago, I initiated a conference at Bar Ilan University, "The Internet as a Platform for a Feminist Social Revolution," where I brought forth a view of new media's potential for initiating a great feminist change. At the time, this view was not uncommon among women activists who specialized in internet technologies and were aware of the power of the net to disseminate ideas to the public. I had been writing at that time about the internet as a tool for the fourth wave of feminism, and as a way of overcoming the traditional gatekeepers which excluded women and their ideas from the social discourse. I was fascinated by the ability to have a public arena for the voices of women and for forming support groups in private digital forums that allow the sharing of stories, experiences and feelings.

Looking back, I am much less optimistic. It is not that I think that the vision manifested in the conference's title was completely erroneous, or that the net is not an initiator of a new feminist wave, but I recognize the power of the backlash. I am more aware that it is possible to use the net to mislead the masses and reproduce oppressive mechanisms and that feminists turning to the internet as a means for change need to be prepared.

In 2011, in Israel, the internet played a major role in what came to be known as the "Camps Protest" — a mass demonstration which brought, at one point, a half a million people to the streets in a march against the high cost of housing. The protest was inspiring not only because it was the first mass Israeli protest organized on Facebook but also because it was instigated and mainly led by women.

The vision of a feminist social revolution that was referred to in the 2009 conference's name did not come true that summer in Israel. However, the Camps Protest did bring about a greater awareness of social justice. At the same time, it demonstrated how women can gain public power and leadership positions through online and offline activism, but also how they can lose this power once the issues they are promoting are no longer in the public eye. Daphni Leef, who was the lead organizer of a tent camp in central Tel Aviv, moved to the background of public events once the protests where over, while Stav Shaffir, another protest leader, preserved her public influence by moving from grassroots to the establishment and becoming a member of Knesset.

The power of the internet as an engine for social change was also apparent in the Arab Spring — a grassroots protest where women played major roles in planning, promoting and participating in demonstrations. In addition to mass events, smaller protests led by women in the Arab world gained recognition through the net. In Saudi Arabia, women filmed themselves driving, despite the official prohibition, and posted the video clips to Twitter. In Iran, women are bravely removing their hijabs in public, and online platforms are being used to spread the photos of their protest around the world.

Again, the lesson is not only the ways women can use the internet to promote social change. The events show how, instead of talking in terms of a revolution which brings about social change, it is often more accurate to talk in terms of a long process — with many setbacks. After more more than 10 years, Saudi women gained a promise that they would be allowed to drive by June 2018. In Iran, no change has been perceived — yet. After great hardships, the Arab Spring paved, in some countries, new paths allowing more liberation. In others, the change is yet to come.

While some of the women activists, such as Yemeni journalist Tawakkol Karman, gained worldwide recognition for promoting change, others, like the women who led the demonstrations in Egypt, returned to what is considered their traditional roles once the protests ended.

The reality of a long and arduous process of change, in which the net is one of many factors, is also apparent in the #metoo movement. This movement, which was originally initiated in 2006 by the social activist Tarana Burke on Myspace, has leapt into worldwide consciousness in 2017.

The power of the #metoo movement is not in question. It is a milestone in feminist history, showing how it is possible to advance feminist and social progress through digital grapevines, where the voice of one woman who shares her experiences inspires others to do the same, thus, creating a critical mass that cannot be ignored — at least for some time.

The ability to create universal change in regards to sexual harassment, social justice, and welfare policies demonstrates how a discourse that was previously limited to a relatively small group of activists has the potential to become an inseparable part of the public agenda with the help of digital means.

It is undeniable that social media plays an important role in assisting women in finding a voice, becoming socially active and more publicly involved. It allows an open platform for the voices of oppressed and marginalized groups, who are often silenced by male dominance in the traditional media.

With open and accessible communication channels, women of all walks of life can share their worldview without the obstacles of geography and time. They can create interactive and immediate contact with activists from around the world in a manner which helps feminist ideas to turn viral. There is no doubt that Facebook pages, groups and blogs have become focal points for discussion and influence among feminists. Online campaigns against sexist commercials create online protest actions that bring different voices to center stage and often get immediate results. Traditional media, which does not want to lag behind, reports on the events that take place on social media, enabling feminist concepts to gain a place in the larger public conscious.

However, the greater the progress, the greater the backlash. Aside from the ability to create some of the ideal conditions for an alternative public sphere, to manage a public democratic discourse, and be a source of social change that challenges patriarchal social forms, the internet often reproduces women’s and minorities' oppression and sometimes magnifies it.

Just as we struggled many years ago with print encyclopedias that often excluded important female voices, data shows that we continue to struggle online as the same dynamic is repeated on Wikipedia. Again, as research demonstrates, human knowledge often becomes equated with male knowledge through covert mechanisms of exclusion.

Parallel to advertising that demeans women, the internet allows free unrestricted consumption of pornography. It is all too easy to put out a false narrative that will be shared virally as if it were true, causing grave harm. And, it too easy for fake users to create identities devoted to cyberbullying and sexual harassment online. In the wrong hands, the internet becomes a tool of ruling the masses through simplistic tweets that are designed to create an impression and heat up the crowds instead of enabling serious discussion and thought.

The Way Forward

In order to lead the new wave of feminism, there is a need to initiate procedures for promoting the visibility and voices of women in cyberspace. My research shows that digital literacy which seems easy and obvious to many, poses an obstacle for women who did not overcome the digital divide or who feel left behind by a world that had advanced without them. There are many voices that are still not heard and which can be lost to her-story simply because of technological gaps and discomfort. We must make these voices heard by teaching more women digital literacy and encouraging them to participate and share their stories.

It is in our power to change the discourse, not to surrender to the reproduction of old power structures, to pornography, to exclusion, and to weakening representations of women. It is in our power to be prepared for backlashes. The act of creating a new world of representations of active, powerful, thinking women — that reflects the billions of women who make the world a better place — lies on our shoulders. It is upon us to write, to show our strengths, and to produce a new visual language. The sooner we embrace technology as a tool for voice in workshops for programing and for writing online so women gain fluency and comfort in this medium, the greater the influence can be.

Technology waits for no one. As in offline reality, those who go in first make the rules. We need to make sure women are on board.

Shlomit Lir, a visiting scholar at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis, is a gender and digital media researcher. Her PhD, "Gendering Digital Identity: The Establishment of Voice Among Female Activists in New Media Platforms," is based on research examining the processes of establishing the public self as an aspect of women's entrance into the digital sphere. Lir is the initiator and CEO of Women Activists Online, an initiative designed to promote women leadership by the use of social media. Among the books she has edited are "In Visible Ink" (Hebrew, 2015) and "To My Sister: Mizrahi Feminist Identity" (Hebrew, 2007).