The influence of social media in today’s society is undeniable, and the number of people who can access it is increasingly changing the forms of traditional activism, which have moved, to a large extent, from public spaces to digital platforms. As a form of activism, feminism can also benefit from social media, as it is a very powerful tool in the hands of women and, in general, of vulnerable people to express their view, make their voices heard, share experiences or desires, and mobilize public opinion. In the Arab world, and more specifically in the case of Lebanon, the use of social media has helped many women to grow, talk about the violence inflicted on them, and denounce their aggressors, as well as legislators and political leaders. Although much remains to be done to achieve gender equality, new technologies have emerged as a decisive tool in this struggle. Therefore, more and better strategies should be designed so that women can take advantage of the potential of media in a positive way.
Social Media at the Heart of Digital Transformation
Social media is one manifestation that has produced many modern platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, and many other informative and interactive platforms. These platforms have allowed the people behind the screens, with various accounts on social media, to become channels, and sometimes branded channels, conveying their values, missions and visions through their content. These accounts interact with the diverse audience on their channels, engaging with their content through commenting, sharing and liking (or disliking on some occasions on some platforms).
As digital gaps amongst societies have been shrinking with time, especially in the Middle East, these platforms have become accessible to almost every household, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic, which made digital media literacy urgent. However, there are many studies that look deeply into the issue of the digital gap, and the knowledge gap it has created; nevertheless, mobile phones and internet connection have become available to almost all socioeconomic classes. With the mass availability of mobile phones, social media has become accessible to almost anyone, regard less of their social, economic, educational or linguistic background.
By definition, social media is an internet-based vehicle that allows the exchange of information amongst a network of people who are communicating and interacting with it. It comprises several platforms that create, communicate, share, discuss and exchange information, thoughts, ideas, experiences and perspectives in a timely manner to different users. What is unique about these platforms is that all senders, receivers and channels are categorized as users, and that these platforms amplified the interactivity among them with their quick and instant communication and feedback.
Social Media and Digital Advocacy
Despite the disadvantages of social media, which has been saturating libraries, lectures, movies, series and awareness sessions with its negative influence on mental health, social well-being and safety, it has become de facto in our lives in this century, especially since the pandemic, where we are obliged to use it or be isolated from our community. Therefore, learning how to use social media efficiently, effectively and positively, and, most importantly, acquiring digital media literacy, would be an added value for us, as individuals and as communities, in various areas of our lives.
On many occasions, social media has empowered marginalized users and given them a voice in a world where legacy media is mainly controlled by gatekeepers who are mobilized by the priming and framing and other agendasetting techniques. Social media not only allows users to find their place in the world and voice their opinions but also allows them to be more aware of global issues. It also helps support advocacy efforts by potentially reaching more people in more places, faster than ever.
Digital advocacy is the use of digital technology to contact, inform and mobilize a group of concerned people around an issue or cause for the purpose of stimulating supporters to act towards a specific social issue.
As the number of users and platforms keeps growing, advocating for the different human rights causes is gradually shifting from the streets and the policy-makers’ chambers to the digital sphere of social media platforms with critical masses creating movements driven by hashtags and generating “digital advocacy”. Several definitions of the critical mass by social scientists and media experts define it as the term of a group of people who make a drastic change, altering behaviors, opinions or actions.
Many active individuals have been using media to educate users, develop content that tackles world problems, advocate for policy change, and transform social norms. Thanks to the popularity of the social media platforms and the timely information they provide, they were able to reach many users faster than legacy media, as platforms are decentralized compared to legacy media, which has centralized decision-making.
Learning how to use social media efficiently, effectively and positively, and, most importantly, acquiring digital media literacy, would be an added value for us, as individuals and as communities, in various areas of our lives
Decades ago, activists seeking to achieve gender equality had few means of doing so quickly and conveniently, whereas recently they began to utilize social media as a powerful tool for increasing the attention to gender equality and women’s causes, galvanizing action worldwide, and calling for effective and efficient policy-making.
Research on online behavior shows that the impersonal nature of online transactions reduces social frictions in online activities, as users are less shy about being honest on a screen. This lack of social oversight can lead to indulging in irresponsible and embarrassing behaviors, on the one hand, and allows them to express themselves with no filters, on the other. Therefore, digital media literacy may help users to substitute irrational behaviors with vivid expressions about values and ideas that can lead to social evolvement.
These social media tools encourage solidarity between people who have shared experiences and have redefined activism as a whole, making it more inclusive to anyone with the desire to spread awareness and engage in activism
Unlike demonstrations that happen in certain geographic areas, social media can be used and seen by almost anyone with a mobile device and an accessible internet connection; thus, social media is shifting the public sphere of activism from streets and of policy-makers’ chambers into platforms with a higher reach in order to mobilize people towards lobbying policy-makers publicly. By overcoming obstacles such as distance and geography, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have created a platform for awareness of local issues to become global concerns, and local activists to become connected with global citizens.
These social media tools encourage solidarity between people who have shared experiences and have redefined activism as a whole, making it more inclusive to anyone with the desire to spread awareness and engage in activism by any means of their choice. Fortunately, social media activism not only raises awareness for a multitude of causes but has generated tangible results, too.
Feminism is one form of activism that has benefited from the media, but its benefits from social media precede the benefits gained from legacy media and its several channels. Women are still underrepresented in the channels of legacy media – television, cinema, radio and news –, while social media has been unlocking its potential to close this gap. Thus, feminism has been utilizing social media platforms as a sphere of activism, reaching several segments of society and stakeholders of a community, including men, policy-makers and women, and putting predators, offenders and deal breakers under the spotlight.
Despite the countless numbers of cases violating women’s right on social media, such as body shaming, harassment, bullying, objectification and other safety issues, there are many examples around the globe that, through social media, shed light on stories about women who mobilized masses, formulated a public opinion and brought about the change to which they aspire. The following are examples from the Middle East, where several issues in feminism were publicly exposed, and activated stakeholders towards making the cases a national cause.
Digital Feminist Activism Stories from Lebanon
While there is still no officially acclaimed digital activism framework in Lebanon, activists, civil society and feminist actors have long benefited from digitalization as they have been using the internet as their crucial tool for expanding the reach of their campaigns and enhancing awareness of their issues. With the help of digital human rights activists, issues such as domestic violence, early marriage, custody, divorce, and sex education have received more attention in the media. Unfortunately, Lebanon is still governed politically and socially by deep-seated sectarian divisions that are entrenched in every aspect of society, where sectarianism is safeguarded through a communitarian political power shared between different religious groups, hindering gender equality in many areas, especially those that are under the authority of religions.
Mariam Yaghi is currently utilizing her social media platforms to seek justice and to expose her ex-husband’s violation of her right to be reunited with her daughter
However, social media has started to have an impact on the feminist movement in recent years. It has helped women grow and evolve, giving them the courage to speak openly and reveal offenders. It has become the refuge for many women who can now directly address the misogynist ideology and make their voices heard. Women started to change history by exposing predators, protectors and policy-makers who are all individually and collectively responsible for breaches in laws that call for gender equality. Many stories are tangible proof of the impact of social media on feminist movements. We share a few below.
Social Media Impact on the Lives of Women
Her status on Facebook led her into exposing her ex-husband in the custody case, where he abducted her child and changed his name, so she used Facebook to write her story and created a group on FB as well (How to be a Mother) where she had several women to support each other, and these women encouraged her to write her story. The community she created was the critical mass that mobilized others to follow, as these women created a strategy of high reach and engagement where they were sharing her story widely, spreading comments, and tagging others so that her status reached the maximum number of people. Her story did reach a huge number of people, and then a local feminist website, Sharika Wa Laken (Arabic for A Partner, But Not Yet Equal), shed light on her case attracting influencers and social media programs with high reach, such as Jaafar Talk (1 million+ followers). Soha hopes that crystallizing public opinion around her case and such issues would help in her case against her ex-husband in courts.
Another story that mobilized public opinion is that of Mariam Yaghi, a Lebanese journalist who is the ex-wife of Montathar Al Zaidi, the infamous Iraqi journalist who attacked expresident George W. Bush with his shoes during a press conference. For two years, Mariam has been trying, through law, mediations and diplomacy with several parties to bring back her daughter from her ex-husband who blackmailed her with many videos of her daughter who was obliged to state words against her mother under threat. Mariam Yaghi is currently utilizing her social media platforms with the hashtag # يتنب_يدب , (I want my daughter) to seek justice and to expose her exhusband’s violation of her right to be reunited with her daughter.
Mauj, an Arab Platform for Sexual Education for Women
Mauj was created by a group of Arab women who were tired of the misinformation, shame and stigma surrounding the female body. They offer a new way to learn about your body, menstrual cycle, self and sex that is culturally empathetic, generationally relevant, and created just for you. Mauj’s advisors include activists, gynecologists, sexologists, relationship therapists, and other medical professionals.
A series called Hakawatiya was published on the platform, where stories of women were told by other women who are influential. I personally told two stories, one about rape and another about abortion, and how the community perceives women who go through these experiences. The stories were presented in a digital storytelling mode, in colloquial Arabic to ensure that they reach women in the Arab world with different dialectics.
Many are skeptical about the power of social media and online/digital campaigns to drive change in the world, but the truth is that no one can deny the impact that it has on raising awareness about different matters. Especially when it comes to feminism, social media has the potential to create a critical mass that would mobilize women and societies towards fighting for gender equality by motivating all segments of society to participate in demonstrations and rallies, and thus create a lobbying force on policy-makers and stakeholders. And, through time, social media has proven potential for mobilizing attention and accountability to women’s rights and challenging discrimination and stereotypes.
When it comes to feminism, social media has the potential to create a critical mass that would mobilize women and societies towards fighting for gender equality
Despite the many challenges that remain in achieving gender equality through policy change and through shifting social norms and reshuffling collective values, social media can be a powerful tool in the hands of women and the most vulnerable and marginalized of all ages to amplify their voices and attract awareness, formulate a public opinion, and mobilize the society towards rightful social issues. Furthermore, some strategies are required to enhance the social media’s potential for women’s empowerment, such as facilitating their access to digital technology and enhancing their media literacy in addition to educating societies on women’s rights and laws. Therefore, instead of investing in criticizing social media and its bad influence, we should focus more on optimizing its positive impact on our lives and in society.