The Downward Spiral

The response to last week's episode of The Campfire Project has been incredible. We covered a lot of ground over the hour-long conversation Chris and I had with Brianna Wu of Giant Spacekat, from fighting misogyny to the troubles with Transformers 4. And from the feedback we have received from listeners, the show was a step in the right direction, nudging people into thinking a little deeper about the problems that encircle us as we go about our lives. It was, however, just a single step in the ongoing journey toward gender equality. And increasingly, it is becoming more difficult to distinguish the allies of a cause from potential saboteurs.

Take, for instance, the #YesAllWomen movement which was discussed in some detail during Episode 16. Here was an online community of strangers who gravitated toward one other spontaneously in response to a gunman's self-professed motivations for staging a violent attack on the public on the streets of a California town. As tweets and blogs and Facebook stories from women recounting their personal dealings with hate reverberated across the web, the hashtag became exceptionally popular, topping over a million tweets in just days, and successfully pivoting the conversation away from the shooting itself and toward the social ill many perceived to be the root cause for such violence. The conversation continues today.

However, while the successful distribution of these stories across multiple networks may do well to raise awareness for the cause, pushing it into the mainstream conversation, the weak ties that loosely hold the individuals involved together are left open to infiltration and attack by those who wish to derail the conversation and demolish the larger objective.  

Such was the case with conversations that surfaced in the wake of #YesAllWomen. While discussions continued on the social web between friends, allies, and strangers on the topics of feminism and inequality, other hashtags from seemingly reputable sources began to bubble up that, while more controversial, to the casual observer on Twitter may appear to have been logical and earnest extensions of the same movement. The most prominent examples of this being #WhitesCantBeRaped and #EndFathersDay, which, while ultimately proven to be illegitimate campaigns perpetrated by users of 4chan, were still successful in garnering valuable attention both online and in mainstream outlets that could have been better focused elsewhere. The damage had been done, at least, temporarily.

Hashtag activism is inherently dependent on the virality of online content, which could be described as a piece of content's potential for exponential growth as it moves through the network over time as opposed to the exponential decay of most posts. By design, then, these movements are susceptible to stories that are emotionally manipulative, as highly charged content spreads faster than messages that are more academic or require critical analysis prior to a user's choosing to amplify them. Importantly, a majority of users of a social network will only look for the most basic of cues to determine a source's authenticity or authority on a given subject. Things like checking for a proper bio or avatar, and browsing an account's most recent posts may be the only verification a user needs to share content. This makes hashtag activism vulnerable to attack from within, and indeed, as Ryan Broderick noted on Buzzfeed, the campaigns above may in fact be part of a larger countermovement dubbed Operation: Lollipop. Those involved in Lollipop are purported to infiltrate and highjack online protests in hopes of either radicalizing the cause or create so much infighting as to destroy it before the hashtag (or group, rally-point, etc.) can reach critical mass.

If there is hope for hashtag activism as a legitimate means for protest and change, it lies with the determined and authentic users. These individuals have the passion for the cause and the cultural savvy to root out these potential saboteurs before a cause can be fully co-opted. This occurred in response to the #EndFathersDay tag, wherein social justice advocates on Twitter began publicly outing these fake accounts under the new hashtag #YourSlipIsShowing in an effort to reclaim the gains made on the social web. However, this leads into a secondary problem: while the outrage gets pushed into the wider web and mainstream outlets, the corrections may stay confined to niche communities online, never completely undoing the damage that was brought about by the initial campaign.   

While social media communities can be strong when closely aligned, their very nature leaves them vulnerable. A single story, if calibrated correctly, can send the entire movement spinning off course and into the dark. The #YesAllWomen hashtag continues to shed a light on discrimination around the world, but it is another front in war that rages both online and off. While these communities continue to fend off attacks, we must hope that the real stories of pain, fear and hope shine through. It is through sharing these stories that the social web will bring social change.