Hashtags Contra El Acoso: The dynamics of gender violence discourse on Twitter

Rhian Elizabeth Lewis (rhian.lewis@mail.mcgill.ca), McGill University, Canada

Introduction

The spring of 2016 has become known as the “Primavera Violeta” (“Purple Spring”), a period that saw the emergence of new digital activist networks tackling gendered and sexual violence in Latin America. Of the hashtags generated by these movements, few gained the public recognition and “celebrity status” of #MiPrimerAcoso (“My First Harassment” or “My First Abuse”), a hashtag that asked users to publically share their first experiences of sexual violence. On April 23, 2016, women in Mexico and across Latin America shared their stories via their personal Twitter accounts in response to a request tweeted by journalist Catalina Ruiz Navarro of the pop-feminism collective (e)stereotipas: “¿Cuándo y cómo fue tu primer acoso? Hoy a partir de las 2pmMX usando el hashtag #MiPrimerAcoso. Todas tenemos una historia, ¡levanta la voz!” (When and how did your first acoso happen? Today from 2pm on, use the hashtag #MiPrimerAcoso. We all have a story, raise your voice!)

Figure 1: A typical #MiPrimerAcoso tweet. In English: I was eleven years old and a man passed on a bicycle and grabbed my breast. A woman in the street blamed me for wearing that blouse.
Figure 1. Figure 1: A typical #MiPrimerAcoso tweet. In English: I was eleven years old and a man passed on a bicycle and grabbed my breast. A woman in the street blamed me for wearing that blouse.

After its initial launch, #MiPrimerAcoso spread rapidly throughout Mexico and quickly became a trending topic across Latin America. This analysis investigates the ways that Twitter users– activists, laypersons, public figures– use hashtags to talk about trauma, paying special attention to the ways that quantifiable modes of Twitter engagement point to more complex affective experiences.

Methods

This project undertakes both qualitative and quantitative analyses of tweets posted using #MiPrimerAcoso in order to examine the key actors, contexts, and conditions that emerged from the hashtag’s narrative premise. For the initial assessments, this analysis uses the #MiPrimerAcoso corpus collected and published by media company Lo Que Sigue. To provide a point of comparison, this project also analyzes a collection of tweets posted using another Primavera Violeta hashtag– #VivasNosQueremos (“We Want to Live”)– whose corpus was collected and published by Lo Que Sigue at the same time as the #MiPrimerAcoso corpus.

Affective (and Effective) Tweeting

Hashtag dialogues serve to construct and re-construct bridges between different streams of dialogue within movements, between movement collaborators and stakeholders, and between activists, political powers, and the general public. To illustrate some of the preliminary findings of this exploration, I evaluate the prevalence of retweets and multiple-hashtag use (or “co-tagging”) in the #MiPrimerAcoso corpus and another corpus published by #LoQueSigue of tweets posted using #VivasNosQueremos. Throughout this paper, I call upon Papacharissi’s (2015) work on the affective properties of Twitter dialogues to further illustrate the forms of personal and political affect that drove the trans-national trajectory of #MiPrimerAcoso.

Although #MiPrimerAcoso is entangled with other Twitter dialogues on gender violence, it “stands alone” more often than one of its closest peers, and is less frequently retweeted and co-tagged. Here, I find that these concrete metrics summarize diverse modes of engagement: retweeting another user’s personal story of violence is necessarily a different act than retweeting a popular news story about the hashtag. However, these metrics do demonstrate the ways in which use characteristics reflect the discursive mandate of a hashtag. Engagement with #MiPrimerAcoso might include reading, listening, creating original content, rebroadcasting, or responding to the content of other users within the affective public generated by the hashtag. This diverse set of practices allows Twitter users to “tune into an issue or a particular problem of the times but also to affectively attune with it, that is, to develop a sense for their own place within this particular structure of feeling” (Papacharissi 118). The Twitter users who tweeted their experiences of violence undertook a delegated task of content creation in response to the prompts posted by Ruíz Navarro. This guiding of the discussion allowed Twitter users to act and to feel using a pre-constructed response frame. By asking users to share the how and when of their first acoso, users tasked with personifying the political and making it about themselves. By focusing on a tweet structure that outlines an individually expressive personal action frame through the medium of shared experience, #MiPrimerAcoso allows its users to make "small and fitful contributions" (Bennett and Segerberg 2011) to a cause while feeling a profound sense of identification with the movement.

If we want to understand what it is people want from digital activism, #MiPrimerAcoso offers captivating insights regarding our need to see ourselves within online political movements. The secret of #MiPrimerAcoso’s handling of collective and individual resonance lies in its personalization and generalizability: although the hashtag calls on a specific category of experience, it is sufficiently broad that many interpretations of acoso fit the bill, and many users were able to affiliate with the hashtag without necessarily sharing a personal story of sexual violence. As Papacharissi (2015) notes, the use of hashtags as “open” signifiers allows various publics to affiliate with a movement and “fill in” the open hashtag with their own desired meanings. Women were able to link their own experiences of sexual violence to the individual narratives that had already been shared using the hashtag #MiPrimerAcoso. What, then, of those who did not contribute their original narratives to the library of primer acosos, but instead chose to respond or rebroadcast existing #MiPrimerAcoso content? In responding to a tweet, users may amplify, stifle, or otherwise alter the public life of the digital acoso. Although Papacharissi and others have linked the act of retweeting to the expression of solidarity with a movement, this conclusion may prove reductive in the context of #MiPrimerAcoso. However, solidarity does not adequately summarize the act of rebroadcasting another person’s acoso: it is an expansion of the tweet’s intangible audience of ethical witnesses to the tweeted acoso, a “re-telling” of scene of violence. Like any other hashtag, #MiPrimerAcoso needed to meet specific communicative and technical (in the case of Twitter) requirements in order to maximize its “reach” and extend beyond the core audience of (e)stereotipas. Referring to the act of retweeting, Papacharissi argues that refrains reinforce affect (Papacharissi 2015). By posting tweets tagged #MiPrimerAcoso, users spread the affective and contextual implications of the hashtag to their own Twitter audiences: those in digital “earshot” of their tweets. Similarly, the authors of original #MiPrimerAcoso tweets were also invited to act as amplifiers of the larger movement by adding their story to a collaborative, polyvocal narrative of lived violence.

Conclusions

In our study of digital movements, the use of the hashtag is the tip of the iceberg in comparison to the forms of knowledge, feeling, and understanding that emerge from these affective discourses. The results of this research have also suggested that conventional Twitter analysis methods may not adequately assess the affective clout of digital dialogues. For this reason, this analysis has strived to use the concrete metrics of the #MiPrimerAcoso data as guide to direct a “closer” reading of the narrative attributes of the tweets. When examining Twitter data, we must strive to expand the possibilities behind a simple, quantifiable act such as a retweet, and understand the hashtag as a point of contact between the user and digito-phenomenological processes of which we are largely unaware. Of course, there are key characteristics of the hashtag itself that are crucial to our understanding: its connectivity, for example, or its capacity to understand individual content as part of a larger dialogue. The hashtag is a departure point: an entity that gives rise to visible manifestations of trauma, digital acts of vulnerability and moments of personal catharsis, responses of support, condemnation, or indifference.

We should consider the tweet, then, as the execution of a series of digital actions, but also as the manifestation of a confluence of contacts between the ontological and phenomenological worlds of Twitter. To better assess these intangible qualities of Twitter data, we can listen to the testimonies of #MiPrimerAcoso authors, and pay attention to the strategies they employ to construct the acoso in relation to their present selves, the ways in which they reflect on the act of tweeting the acoso in front of an intangible digital audience. Here, I want to emphasize the diversity of experiences that users bring to the discursive space of Twitter, and the need to pay attention to the varied motivations that drive Twitter users to participate in social campaigns. These experiences do not easily reduce themselves to quantitative metrics, but we can search for their traces in the textual manifestations of our digital activity: the stories we tell, the words we use, the affective investments that we make as observers and participants.


Appendix A

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