Technological aids now play a more significant role in mobilizing popular movements. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have provided survivors with a virtual space to publicize their trauma-laden mental, physical, and sexual assault memories. These virtual spaces, therefore, provide a space for collective trauma, having the potential to ignite popular movements. The #MeToo movement, #YesAllWomen, and #BLM movement show that the traumatic chunks of memories possess the potential to uncover hidden patterns of suppression and sexual violence in public spaces ranging from films to MNCs to academia. Acknowledging the controversial nature of the consequent events of the #MeToo movement, in this paper, I intend to explore the role of social media in providing a space for memory mobilization in the #MeToo movement. Furthering the discussion in this direction, I also aim to conceptualize the role of Twitter in constructing an emancipatory debate for survivors of sexual assault.
Keywords: Memory, Trauma, Social Media, Twitter, Solidarity
Scholarship in memory studies in recent years has been curious about explicating the impact of technology on how memories are shaped, transitioned, and mobilized (Elwood & Mitchell, 2015; Naaz et al., 2018). In addition, it is also subject to scholarly scrutiny on how memories of trauma and violence are placed within the realm of technological innovations. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram are the archives of modern society (Sinn, 2012). They have records of our history and the virtual present neatly placed in the cloud system. Social media technologies enable high-speed communication, making new virtual memories and invoking previous memories through our timeline feeds. It has become a tool to form collective memory and collectivize the memories.
The 2017 #MeToo movement came forward as a movement that reflected the collectivizing potential of social media, having a worldwide reach. In reference to the movement, it became a collective opposition of women around the world against sexual harassment, more specifically workplace sexual harassment. In this background, the stories of the survivors acted as collective threads to weave the story of sexual harassment in the workplace. The movement started with a confessional undertone and took the vibrancy to hold the preparators accountable and uncover the gigantic magnitude of the problem (North 2019). It made the scholarship on #MeToo to explore how social media acts as a medium to garner support against sexual violence and harassment (Hosterman et al., 2018). These works revolve around the themes of social media, mobilization, and their limitations in achieving the goals of emancipation (Baer 2015). The key issue here is how individual memory in public spaces and our engagement in the virtual space proffers to mobilize popular sentiments. In this case, the confluence of memory and Twitter created virtual political allies (Rioja 2021).
The trauma of a single survivor not only brings out the violence against the individual but also affectually triggers the memories of others going through similar experiences. Scholarship on social media has shown a positive correlation between social media activism and political efficacy (Velasquez & LaRose, 2015). However, these claims are also limited in the sense that, most often, the viral hashtags do not create popular movements; most are short-lived – varying from a few hours to a maximum of a day (Ohlheiser 2018).
This paper attempts to conceptualize how social media technologies play a meaningful role in alleviating personal suffering and how the role of social media has been reconfigured by the #MeToo movement, not as a component in the making of new radical movements but essentially being the medium for it.
#MeToo movement and the instrumentality of social media
Social media platforms like Twitter in the last decade have created a niche for themselves. Through a structured review of literature, Aichner et al. analyze the variations in the definitions of the term ‘social media’. Using the most cited definitions of social media every year to track the pattern of change in how we perceive, use and engage with social media, they find that the nature and involvement of social media have changed from 1994 to 2019 (Aichner et al., 2021). The primary results indicate that social media is used as a communication network to connect with family and friends, a place for dating and making organizational and business connections. This quantitative analysis of the most popular definitions in the given period shows that the term ‘virtual communities’ has increased over the earlier emphasis on interpersonal communication.
The communication theories in their earlier description of social media defined it in terms of its uses for dating, communicating with family and friends, and organizational communications. Their high involvement in our personal and social lives has changed how they have been defined over the years. The #Metoo movement marked a break in how social media is used – creating mass protests in virtual spaces. With its ability to provide a worldwide audience to users with just one click, social media harnessed extreme potential for a diverse form of public engagement (Thomson, 2018). It enabled “new forms of group formation” (Thomson, 2018).
The apathy of the organizational structures and institutions across industries in addressing the problem of sexual violence got accentuated and became part of the public discourse. The outrage poured on social media against the complacency of the legal and political system, which denied women their voices for speaking up against injustices to themselves and others in the name of non-disclosure agreements in some cases. It was also a moment of solidarity among those who had traumatic memories of sexual violence and longing for justice. It was a time when women saw themselves not as co-workers or wounded isolated selves but as a collective community of survivors. Their memories were no longer hidden and silent but engaged in creating a better world against the injustices of hierarchical power structures among genders.
The material efficacy of the movement
In the case of #MeToo, the magnitude of the problem was vast and ever-increasing. This aggregated the problem further over how these claims, some of them even anonyms, could be verified. Women who came out with stories of survival were refuted and even denigrated. There were backlashes against the entire corpus of feminism and its activism. Within feminism, the movement reignites the debates of individual capacity building and the space for social action. The individualist and socialist schools have argued over the possibilities of creating a more just system or more enduring individuals within the repressive structure. The north and the south divide also confronted the movement, where the perceived elite character of the movement was criticised for demanding small changes in the systems while women in the global south do not even have basic means of living.
The general tone of anti-feminist rhetoric was driven by the bizarre essentialist claims that women are too sentimental – to understand a friendly conversation, a pat on the back, or a tap on the shoulder – to understand sexual harassment. At the same time, men were too naive and did not understand which act constituted sexual harassment (Bower 2019). #MeToo was seen as a revenge movement where everyone was eager to avoid accountability.
While identifying the impact of #MeToo, two things have to be made clear: first, what it intended to do, and second what it did not. #MeToo was not designed by women taking revenge against men. It was an attempt to build solidarity among survivors of sexual harassment (North 2019), which were primarily women.
The incidents of sexual violence create long-standing trauma. The psychological response to assault often impairs the reasoning of the survivor. Due to the nature of social structure and debates around sexual assault, fear and shame are the primary emotions that survivors experience. The memories get triggered by any small details related to the incident (Yadav, 2018). These traumatic memories of assault and harassment often lead to isolation and stagnation in the lives of the survivors. The big and small community groups where people open up about their trauma exist at smaller levels. They provide survivors with a sense of community. Social media offers more than just a mere communication group; it holds the potential for the emancipation of the survivors and challenging the abusive structures. In #MeToo, it forced the legal and political systems to bring change. As a result of the popular uprising, in the United States, few states banned non-disclosure agreements which include clauses of sexual harassment. At the same time, others have also widened the net of protection to contractual workers and house-aids. The University of Michigan has set up the biggest-ever fund for the survivors of sexual abuse by their team doctor Larry Nasser (North 2019).
These discourses of harassment in the workplace did bring out legislative changes, but more importantly, they uncovered the imbalance of power. It allowed the people to connect to the issue more closely when they saw the magnitude of the problem covering their close relatives and friends. Social media platforms provide survivors with psychological and emotional support through online groups and communities.
#MeToo and memories of violence
The emotional memories acquire the social dimension spanning through intergenerational conversations. The ritualistic practices and customary revisions year by year both engrain and solidify the memory into the social domain. Thus, personal memory trespasses the private domain and acquires a social dimension. Memories of violence play an essential role in forging collective identities. When societies remember collectively, personal memories become “collective autobiographies” (White, 2017). An act of remembrance, based on the encoded identities of the survivors, is told in a story. Memories are produced and reproduced by various forms of interaction. Social interaction with bodies in violent and traumatic settings even has the potential to travel through generations. For example, in the case of holocaust memories, they pass from one generation to another and create a collective consciousness. The second-generation memories still possess the potential for mobilization of social life and collective polity in the state (Ofer, 2009).
Personal is Public
An important feat that the movement achieved was to provide a collective voice to the violated individuals. The women needed their voices to be public, to be heard. This helped in mitigating the trauma of the abusive incident. In constant reference to the memories of trauma, it provided a comprehensive aspect of the pervasiveness of the problem of sexual harassment. Consequently, helping the survivors to change their perception of themselves and how they view their bodies after those incidences. Studies have proven that incidences of sexual harassment affect the survivor’s mental and physical health and can cause anxiety, depression, PTSD, etc (Houle et al., 2011). The bodies of the survivors become the evidential sites of the trauma. In emphasizing the centrality of the body, it is observed that a linkage emerges between the female body in the real world and its virtual representation (Baer 2015).
Social media technologies are also part of the larger ‘politics of anticipation’ (Kinsley 2010). It hangs between visions of the future and visions of the present. At the same time, bodies carry the mark of the past to their present (Ciacek 2020). The present engagements and remembering with the technologies change how survivors visualize the past and engage in alternative visions of the future.
Body memories and the traces of violence
Bodies carrying the marks of the violence may alter the linear time progression for the survivors (Ruiz, 2012). When engaging with the survivors, the body memories recur in the form of physiological responses of tears, sweat, and spasms. Borrowing from Casey’s analysis of “body remembering,” the body carries the memories of sexual violence as body memories. These are the essential basis on which memories are built. The incidents of sexual violence create a stagnant temporal and restrictive spatial loop, which casts a shadow on the creation of new memories (Ciacek 2020); in some instances, it has been seen that the survivors of rape and sexual violence find it difficult to engage in and enjoy sexual activities (Maina, n.d.).
When survivors engage with the memories, they travel to the past, having two different imprints: one experiencing the past and the second reliving the affective experience of the memories. In addition, the affective experience also shows the power imbalance between the survivor and the preparators. In these cases, the individual’s personal sufferings are linked to the larger socio-political structures of power. Any solution to suffering requires restructuring power imbalances (Ciacek 2020). The organizational structures within the office spaces and the institutions of justice collectively fail the survivors in addressing this issue. Thus, in the absence of public outlets for traumatic memories, affect becomes a medium to provide a space in a personal capacity.
Recalling the trauma is not only an act of recalling the facts. In the context in which the stories are told, the “mental filters” acquired over the years by the survivors influence how the memories are revised and told (Zerubavel 2003). Reliving is both mental and physical; it often leads to survivors’ aversion to their bodies, which they perceive as a site of pain and disgust. Incidentally, social media breaks the cycle of revision of trauma. It breaks the stagnant temporalities constructed by the survivors around the incident.
Twitter becomes a space to make personal trauma a social trauma through mobilizing collective memories. It becomes a collective effort to repair the torn bodies and the broken institutions of justice. In these cases, thus a memory mutation takes place. The congested social structures that allow perpetrators to occupy public spaces are rebelled against in a virtual space of memorial construction. The spatial dimension becomes more pertinent when the interlinkages of social, economic, and legal structures work in opposition to women in public spaces.
Social media offers a relatively safe space for survivors of sexual assault to anonymity to break their silence. Even with limitations, Twitter through the #MeToo movement became a simple virtual tool to represent the self to connect with others, on a more sentimental level. Communication technologies make it easier for people to create widespread public resonance and a space to be heard. It raises social awareness among people, and it has achieved unprecedented results. It creates trans-local and trans-national articulation, connecting them to body politics (Baer, 2015) – as it shows that gender hierarchies can be altered and challenged by technological aids. However, the #MeToo movement remains exclusive and marginalized the women with no access to technology, or technical education, who are more vulnerable to sexual violence. These inequalities are embedded in the social and economic categories, such as caste, class, and race structure. Assessing or examining the claims’ validity becomes difficult when we look at the subsequent controversies that clouded the #MeToo movement in the latter period. However, social media also continues to be a misogynistic space making it hard to make it a sympathetic space for the survivor. Data is not benign or neutral, but algorithms appropriate to our daily trends (Noble 2018). They reflect the patterned biases and provide newer ways to dominate caste, gender, and race. To devise a more inclusive strategy, it is necessary to assess these technological developments through an intersectional lens (Yin & Sun 2020). Women without access to technology and technological education are more vulnerable and marginal. An intersectional lens is more suitable for protruding the widespread gendered and racial notions of supremacy (Leung & Williams, 2019).
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Kanchan Panday is a research candidate at the Centre for West Asian Studies, JNU. Her research looks at the question of how trauma memories influence the foreign policy of a state. Her research interests are Memory Studies, Narrative Studies, Critical Theory, Peace and Conflict, Israel, Palestine, and Intersectional Feminism. She can be contacted at email: firstname.lastname@example.org.