The More Things Change (the More They Stay the Same)
This year marks the 30th birthday of the internet—an invention that has come to characterize a generation of googlers, selfie-takers and tweeters. Social media, still a relatively young phenomenon (Facebook became available to the public in 2004 and Twitter in 2006) has had an inordinate amount of influence on our lives. People under the age of 25 are now far more likely to instant message their friends than they are to call, to check Instagram instead of reading newspapers and to plan parties on Facebook instead of handing out invites.
However, there are those of us who can remember what life was like before this current age of social media. And when it comes to pro-choice campaigning, the last 10 or 13 years of social-media use has nothing on the decades of work that some have put in knocking on doors, handing out leaflets and shouting through megaphones. Or does it? Has social media revolutionized the world of abortion activism beyond recognition? Can a viral tweet really rival the experience of marching with thousands?
Targeted adverts, algorithms and the panic around fake news have led many to believe that social media degrades the level of educational and educated debate about a topic, rather than helping it.
You don’t need a PhD in media studies to know that social media has been a boon to the pro-choice cause. A cursory look at the kind of engagement certain campaigns have received is proof that if you want your message heard in the 21st century, you’ve got to be online. Together for Yes, the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution that prohibited abortion, reached thousands of people on social media—peaking at an average of 699,000 people every day towards the end of the campaign. On the day of the vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment, more than two million Irish people saw something from Together for Yes in their newsfeed.
Most people are aware of the #MeToo viral sensation that social-media users engaged with after the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Following the abortion bill in Alabama earlier this month, the hashtag #YouKnowMe was used by thousands of women to share their abortion stories—copying previous viral campaigns like #ShoutYourAbortion and #EverydaySexism. The British pregnancy advisory service (bpas) is something of an expert in social-media use. Its campaign #BackOff, calling for members of the public to write to MPs to protect so-called “buffer zones” around abortion clinics, encouraged hundreds of thousands of people to sign a petition that pressured government to implement their demands. Likewise, bpas’ video Just Say Non!, which exposed the extortionate pricing of emergency contraception in Britain, went viral, was reported on in newspapers and resulted in a major high-street chain promising to cut its prices.
The problem is, social media can be a bit of a bubble, as Ailbhe Smyth, cofounder of Together for Yes, told me. “Twitter is very good for speaking to your base—for people who are already on side or willing to be on side,” she said. It’s also good for setting a media narrative. A round-up of the Irish campaign’s usage of social media showed how online Twitter campaigns like #Men4Yes and #Doctors4Yes shared content that would then be picked up by the national media. But Smyth told me that, by and large, you’re really preaching to the converted—“the broad mass of society is probably not on Twitter.”
In fact, what Smyth stressed to me was that social media was not a “blob,” but that it was important to see each platform as a different kind of tool to be utilized for a prochoice message. “I like Facebook—in Ireland, it appeals to a wider demographic in terms of age but also social class and geographic distribution,” she told me. Accepted wisdom claims that journalists, politicos and the metropolitan elite are on Twitter, whereas everyone else communicates through Facebook. And there is enough truth to it that most campaign groups tailor their social-media strategies to fit each platform. While celebrity endorsements might go down well on Twitter, sharing articles and information is better suited to Facebook.
Sharing information is an obvious way social media can benefit a campaign—rather than having to print off and post leaflets, or risk arrest posting flyers in town centers, you can reach millions of people with your message within seconds. This was something that Krystyna Kacpura, executive director of Poland’s Federation for Women and Family Planning, emphasized to me. “Between 2015 and 2016, there were aggressive abortion laws proposed in the Polish parliament, involving a total ban on abortion. We used social media to make public the content of the text—because most people weren’t going to read the entirety of the draft bill. It used legal language, it was too long—who would bother? So we provided a 10-point summary, and gave a link to the bill.” What Kacpura was stressing was the democratizing advantage of social media. Thanks to the instantaneous nature of online platforms, the minute a policy document hits the desk of a politician, it can be made public and accessible within seconds.
But it’s here that social media has also been criticized. When it comes to educating a public on something like abortion law, social media has often been accused of allowing misinformation to spread. Targeted adverts, algorithms and the panic around fake news have led many to believe that social media degrades the level of educational and educated debate about a topic, rather than helping it. During the Irish referendum on the Eighth Amendment, there was some concern that foreign-funded adverts were damaging the fair play of a referendum campaign. Data collected from the Transparent Referendum Initiative found that less than a quarter of antichoice tweets analyzed came from suspected bots (accounts with numerical names or anonymous accounts). Despite the panic—both Google and Facebook responded to pressure by shutting down any foreign-funded adverts during the referendum campaign—it’s clear that any danger of online misinformation did not play out. The Together For Yes campaign convinced an impressive 66.4 percent of the population to repeal one of the world’s strictest abortion laws.
Then there’s the problem of trolling. It’s one thing to approach a stall or join a march and heckle the people taking part—that takes a lot of effort and chutzpah. It’s far easier to take to social media to attack a campaign. Claudia Dides, a sociologist and sexual and reproductive rights advocate in Chile, told me that while antichoice violence on the street was still there, social media added a whole new level of difficulties for prochoice campaigners. “Today, we live connected to each moment—everyone has access to your information. And the problem is that some antichoice groups use social-media networks to slander and lie.” Did this stop her from working? “In my experience as a spokesperson, I have had many attacks on social-media networks, but also many people defending me. Violence is part of activism, because you face many powerful groups that influence the decisions of a country.” For Dides, the answer of how to overcome the challenges of social-media trolling is simple: “Have a positive attitude towards a nefarious plot.” Protest and marches are important in Latin American countries, Dides argues, “because we have changed agendas and governments.” But this is where social media can be used most efficiently—to celebrate and prolong the effect of direct action. Rather than lasting five hours, if videos and images of a protest are shared online, their impact can last weeks, months—even years. Sharing stories, pictures and placards is a way to demonstrate that the prochoice message is something to celebrate.
But there is perhaps the crucial point to make—that despite the benefits a social-media campaign can bring to prochoice activism, there’s really nothing to rival the impact of face-to-face discussion. This was the experience of Joe Loughnane, an organizer for Galway Pro Choice in Ireland, who told me about the importance of the old methods in the campaign—especially street stalls. “It gave us the reason to talk to people. It became a way for older women who had never been able to speak about the fact that they were able to have an abortion to talk to someone. They were able to come up to our stall as they were passing, whisper to us what had happened to them and then move on.” Loughnane even recalled a time when an antichoice activist attacked a stall, and three older women stepped up to defend the prochoice activists. “I initially had judged them from a distance to be antichoice, but when they came up to us and helped us, I realized that was the type of thing that you’d never experience online. That told me that I should take an extra step to hand a leaflet and have a conversation with an older person—because it wasn’t just young people that were prochoice.”
For all the fuss surrounding social media—whether it’s a corrupting force on social discourse or the new frontier for prochoice activism—the truth is rather less exciting. As Smyth put it, social media should simply become “part of your panoply of tools and weapons” in any prochoice movement. But tread carefully. Have you ever organized a meeting on Facebook with 100-plus pledged to attend, only to turn up to a hall with 60 seats empty? As Dides told me: “Social media is important because it has the wonderful potential of immediacy. But immediacy without content or political strategy leads to a diluted effect.” Prochoice activism is not just about getting clicks or trending tweets, it’s about convincing a populace that women should have bodily autonomy, and then campaigning for a government to reflect that popular belief in law. Living in 2019 might mean that writing messages or creating online content is far easier—but the challenge of winning the fight for women’s freedom remains the same. Earlier this year, I marched with other Irish women in the London St. Patrick’s Day Parade to argue for abortion rights in Northern Ireland. The buzz and electricity of our group reverberated throughout the crowds, who chanted our slogans back at us. I’m not sure a tweet or a “like” will ever be able to rival that feeling.