Misinformation on social media

We hear the word a lot – misinformation. We hear about its pervasiveness on social media even more. But what does misinformation mean? What are the implications of misinformation on social media platforms? Why does misinformation pose such a threat elsewhere?

I think I should start by saying that I HATE the euphemistic term misinformation. It’s misleading. It suggests it’s misinformed. That’s what the prefix mis- tends to preclude in English words. Some lack of intention or lesser harm. Far less insidious than, say, lies or deceit. But that’s exactly what misinformation is. It’s false data or information. I do wonder why those who coin the terms for these things might have settled for misinformation. As much as I hate to admit it, I find Fake News to be a more appropriate term – it at least highlights a problematic nature with the news that has been falsified; fake connoting some undesirable quality (think of how fake is used to deride or negatively frame, for example, people, tanning products, vegan meat substitutes). Like most things, I’m finding the need to use literal language to avoid minimising or trivialising the issue. As fun and creative as figurative language is, it often results in dampening the urgency or gravity of a situation. We need to call these instances of false information what they are, not only to highlight them as a problem but to consider why they are occurring with what appears to be exponential frequency and danger. In other words, where is this happening with the intention of lying and consequently causing harm?

On social media, misinformation largely refers to articles shared by users which are not factually accurate. An issue with social media information sharing is the platform’s inability to fact-check. You usually have to leave the platform to check out the facts. For several reasons, we have grown to take our social media information at face value, not going off-platform to research the claims of clickbaity headlines, Tumblr conversations or curiously images with blocks of text lacking any references. Despite the dubious nature of these items, we still feel compelled to believe them – because why would anyone lie?

We know, however, that this flaw in our social media use is absolutely used against us. Carole Cadwalladr presented evidence of the Brexit campaign’s misinformation use in Facebook ads which undoubtedly influenced many people’s decisions in the vote. American congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was recently applauded for her targeted questioning of Mark Zuckerberg in Facebook’s lack of fact-checking capabilities on political ads, despite evidence of political ads publishing blatant lies and doctored statistics to influence voting in the last election.

Facebook has recently implemented fact checking on some posts where the information is queried so users can be reassured or dissuaded from sharing posts. But Facebook is one platform – the issue goes much further.

Instagram in particular has become a hub for educational resources (I recently wrote about some of the issues I have with knowledge sharing on social media). Anyone can access Canva and create aesthetically pleasing images with text in funky fonts, make reasonably argued claims and publish them for the world to share and repost without any investigation. Without a large enough audience, it’s impossible to include Swipe Up links in Instagram Stories to direct people to further reading or resources. We all get a website URL we can use, but how many people actually click through? Part of the problem is the functionality of Instagram forces users to exit the app if they want to find more information on a topic – user psychology predicts that people would rather stay in-app and keep scrolling. That’s why Instagram created a web browser experience for Swipe Up links that doesn’t require you to jump to another app like Chrome; it happens within Instagram itself. We’ve been conditioned by these apps’ design to expect information to be brought to us, not for us to go out seeking it. And who would prefer to switch apps (a clunky user experience at the best of times) when they could take the easy route and keep scrolling to find other aesthetically pleasing grid pic with big statements in bold font.

Of course, there’s also the issue of referencing and sources for these educational content squares. While many educators and content creators do reference and acknowledge where information comes from, transparency is difficult to maintain on platforms like Instagram. Largely because they weren’t built for this use – although Insta HQ devs could definitely tackle this problem if the company’s owners (Facebook) cared enough.

WhatsApp is another platform – whether you consider it inherently *social media* or not – that we need to think about. Communities globally use WhatsApp in different ways, but group chats are a common feature across the world. And in these group chats, you often see viral content shared and repurposed. But WhatsApp has no feature for fact-checking or flagging misinformation before the content is forwarded to another chat. And with its perceived distance from the internet/Google Chrome, are we even less likely to leave the app and check out the claims of a meme or supposedly screenshotted image of advice from an unnamed doctor who advises drinking lots of water will dissolve COVID-19 and save our immune systems?

So what can we do to combat misinformation on social media?

Firstly, we can be more conscious of the information we’re consuming and think more critically about what it’s telling us. This isn’t really anything new – people have been sceptical of The Media (namely newspapers, more recently the BBC) and the biases or skewed perceptions they have portrayed of certain issues, especially as they relate to governments and powerful companies or individuals. We can definitely apply this scepticism (while avoiding falling down a full on conspiracy rabbit hole) to social media content, particularly paid ads or sponsored content. However that puts the onus on us as users, which, in my opinion, errs on the side of victim blaming; “It’s your responsibility to stay vigilant of your surroundings and whose content you consume” has echoes of “Don’t walk home by yourself to avoid being attacked” and other harmful rhetorics laid at the feet of victims of rape culture.

Instead, you can push content creators to include more transparency in sharing their sources. Gently remind your friends who keep sharing posts without any evidence to back up claims that they should be fact-checking before hitting the Share button. For ads or content that looks suspicious, report it to the platform; put the onus on them to improve their safety mechanisms. There are regularly petitions circulating to push the Government to regulate social media platforms (especially around political advertising) – sign those petitions.

I realise that these are still actions you have to take, but they don’t focus on policing your own actions or force you to keep yourself safe, instead they bring others into the conversation to tackle this issue from a number of angles. This multi-angle approach is crucial if we’re going to see any real change for the better when it comes to tackling the deluge of false information spreading through social media.

Being aware and having your eyes wide open is really important here. It’s exhausting; it’s tedious; it’s infuriating when you realise just how flawed so many of these systems are. Those aren’t reasons to remain complacent. The information is there. The proof of lies being spread via social media is abundant. We have a duty as digital citizens and as app users to take ownership of our own media consumption, and by extension, our exposure to education and information gathering.

EDITED ON 13TH AUGUST TO ADD
The BBC published a news article on 12th August 2020:‘Hundreds dead’ because of Covid-19 misinformation.

At least 800 people died around the world because of coronavirus-related mininformation in the first three months of this year…about 5,800 people were admitted to hospital as a result of false information on social media. Many died from drinking methanol or alcohol-based cleaning products. They wrongly believed the products to be a cure for the virus.

Alistair Coleman, BBC News

So misinformation is not just dangerous politically, but potentially lethal. The findings of this research is surely enough to highlight the very real threat of embodied harm that misinformation poses, even if the purposefully false political advertising doesn’t strike you as wholly problematic.

Social media, accountability and audiences

Activism is weird. Like, you do things to change minds, policies, laws, lives. To do that, you need to raise awareness. Your own connections, circles and networks are some quick ways to reach people who are more likely to listen out of some social obligation or personal interest in knowing about your interests.

When activism becomes about personal audiences, though, it’s problematic.

My activism, by and large, permeates every aspect of my life. Work, uni, down time. I spend a lot of time thinking about injustices and ways to change current broken systems. I have posted on social media about many of these things a lot. But as I try to figure out what a healthy relationship with social media looks like (or, indeed, if such a thing is possible), I am inclined to step away from posting about activism so much.

It feels counter-intuitive at first, but a truth I’m trying to ingrain so I feel less pressured to *perform* for those who follow, or are friends/connections on my various social media platforms is that no one is entitled to any part of me. That includes my activism. The petitions I sign, the private conversations I have, the learning I’m doing – what I do does not automatically come with a broadcast notice. Even though such broadcasting does encourage change, action and thinking from others. It’s not my responsibility alone to share what’s happening in my life. That goes for all things, but I find with activism the boundary is much harder to identify because – perhaps down to anxiety or an over-inflated ego – I have been under the impression that people sometimes hold me to a higher account than others.

Accountability is really important for ensuring promises are kept, demands are met and laziness doesn’t creep in when it’s convenient or there’s a lull in louder conversations. Many lulls happen due to burn out after an initial all-out push and an unsustainable approach to long-term activism goals and systemic changes. Nothing happens overnight. Many conversations happen in more private spaces, so it’s harder to see action that’s occurring in the background. Sure, regular updates and proof of progress and commitment are a good option, but some of these conversations are slow going, depending on the players involved.

Social media becomes a hotbed of accountability, limited-context performativity and (mis)judgement. That’s true of any activity posted on social media – think about how many pals who’ve ignored or broken lockdown rules that you’ve raised an eyebrow at, despite not really knowing the full details.

I’m still learning that there is often far more to any given situation than meets the eye. It’s a lesson I’m trying so hard to internalise and naturalise in my initial reaction catalogue. It hasn’t happened yet, but we’re getting there. I’m practicing a more individualistic approach – pause, reflect and analyse with kindness. We have no real clue what’s going on in anyone’s lives, and we’re all painfully aware of the reality-adjacent filters that everyone projects to perform or portray themselves in a particular way (consciously, habitually or subconsciously).

Personally, I have been stepping back my activism posting. The last 2 weeks I’ve been on holiday so – as much as I could – I dialled down the active work and let my brain mull over some thoughts and ideas in the background. It has been an enlightening fortnight for many reasons, but I realised the pressure I felt to share the learning I was doing, the active protesting I was involved in through petitions and the people I’ve been in conversation with about various issues was STRONG. Sharing that information would make little difference at this point – I was performing to prove I could be held accountable for outcomes yet to be achieved. Performative allyship in activism is a tricky bugger to understand or spot in your own behaviour. Overcoming it relies on longevity in your commitment to a given cause you’ve engaged with and a deeper than surface level desire to see justice served – however that might be done.

In writing this blog post, I feel like in a way I’m doing what I wanted to on social media – explain my perceived inaction and justify my social media silence. But I also wanted to acknowledge that this is an ongoing process and learning curve for me. In my position of privilege and with my weird relationship with social media, it’s important I reflect on my actions – even when the action is the decision to not post. There’s no correct way to approach activism or how much you share of yourself online. I’m finding I want to share less at the moment and that will undoubtedly change at some point. The peaks and troughs in content and engagement with platforms will no doubt continue to shape my digital activism, work, research and socialising. I just hope I continue to hold myself accountable and rely less on how others might perceive my activity to judge or justify my posting to any social media, for any reason.

The Appropriation of African American Vernacular English

What is African American Vernacular English (AAVE)?
AAVE is an English dialect used by African Americans. Many words like salty, bae, woke and the habitual be verb construction come from AAVE; it’s a dialect that bares a wealth of linguistic gold. It’s often represented in African American artists’ music, particularly hip-hop, but is increasingly appearing in non-Black people’s vernacular as they continue appropriating it. This is incredibly problematic. As Nathan Metivier put it in an article he published in January 2020:

While the widespread use of AAVE by white speakers may appear to reflect an appreciation of African American culture or a bridge across racial tensions, the lack of recognition for the origins of culturally embedded AAVE terms and the attitudes of the white speech community — who flippantly overuse and eventually dismiss appropriated AAVE terms as “outdated” or “no longer cool” — ultimately reflect a lack of appreciation for the African American speech community’s language, culture, and art forms by the cultural hegemony.

Nathan Metivier, ‘Linguistic Appropriation: AAVE, Hip-Hop and Digital Culture’

What is linguistic appropriation?
Much like other kinds of appropriation, linguistic appropriation is the uptake of a language, dialect (often specific features) by the non-native speakers without understanding the cultural significance. These non-native speakers’ use often undermines the subversive nature of the language. In the case of AAVE, non-Black speakers do not stop to consider the implications of using, judging and misusing linguistic features that they come into contact with primarily through music and other popular media. This lack of empathy and informed use results in native AAVE speakers being further marginalised, especially when racial tensions are as high as they currently are amid the Black Lives Matter revolution.

Why can’t I use AAVE?
One of the first arguments refuting the idea that AAVE should be reserved for native African American speakers is something along the lines of ‘culture is for everyone’ and ‘it’s racist to not allow people to appreciate culture’. Culture can be appreciated without being appropriated. Unfortunately, it’s not appreciation non-Black people are exhibiting when they use AAVE, it’s a blatant disregard for cultural significance, and the historic and current oppression Black communities by white people.

There is a difference between sharing and taking. At present, our society is incredibly imbalanced in favour of white people. White supremacy rules and influences the majority of decisions, policies and practices in Western society. As a result, where African Americans are criticised and refused opportunities for using AAVE in job interviews or public spaces more generally, white people are not. This is racism in action. The rules are different based on a history of racism and white supremacy which disadvantages African Americans at every turn and that is NOT okay. White people cannot engage in activities and language which profits us – makes us look ‘cool’ (ew) or ‘different’ (double ew) or ‘exotic’ (a term so racist it’s actually vile) – while it puts African Americans at risk financially, legally or otherwise.

Much of linguistic change is controlled by the dominant group in an area. English was shaped by those who were in power, which is why there are remnants of French, Norse and other languages and dialects mixed into our modern vocabulary. Dominant languages determined much of language change. And sometimes, it did that by encouraging the non-dominant language to adapt and change in subversive ways. With the white supremacist dominant structuring of much of Western society, AAVE – the language of African American communities – is not a dominant language.

At best, this form of appropriation is disrespectful to AAVE’s native speech community, regardless of how innocent the intentions of the white speech community are. At worst, appropriating AAVE is actively destructive to the culture it comes from because it trivializes a rich language form that is embedded in a cultural history of oppression as nothing more than “silly youth slang.”

Nathan Metivier, ‘Linguistic Appropriation: AAVE, Hip-Hop, and Digital Culture’

English is an incredibly expressive language. We can turn just about any word into a euphemism for drunk. We have a bountiful vocabulary to work with. We really don’t need to appropriate AAVE to become more expressive. Especially when doing so is racially insensitive and, quite frankly, oppressive.

You might be copying characters from films or high profile individuals on reality TV. You’re also able to actively engage with the language and habits you’re picking up and purposefully choose to correct yourself aloud when you slip into AAVE and replace it with a non-appropriative alternative. Training yourself to think more carefully and approach language more pointedly will help to ensure you communicate as you fully intend to as well.

TLDR: if you’re not Black, African American Vernacular English is not for you.

Antiracism and Your Online Presence

A bit of background
Researching violence on social media, I look at language, memes, GIFs, emojis, the weight of violence in a retweet, and a whole range of other instances of violence as they occur on the internet. This is a topic I have been interested in for years and now it is the focus of my PhD. It’s a sprawling topic, much like the World Wide Web itself.

In light of the Black Lives Matter revolution gaining more traction and attention than ever before, antiracism is an understandably amplified topic both online and off. Of course, much of the current conversation is performative – that’s what happens when you haven’t done the work up til now. It’s not like people haven’t been talking about racism around the world for hundreds of years. People have just chosen to listen, to actively silence and place their own comfort above the safety of those affected by white supremacy. However, with more people joining these conversations, there are some patterns emerging that are a continuation of racism in digital spaces.

Back it up a bit
We’re living in the age of the internet. Many of the conversations we have about racism, antiracism and white supremacy are happening online. In theory, this is a great thing. Accessibility is hugely important, as are inclusion and diversity. The digital age should allow us to give space to educators, activists, those with lived experience and let us learn from a range of people across the world. However, the way we use much of the internet – especially social media – doesn’t often allow for this in practice. One of the reasons for this is the fact that poverty overwhelmingly affects Black, Indigenous and People of Colour. Access is not a simple issue and intersecting barriers like racism, poverty and problems faced by those with other marginalised identities compound the inaccessible nature of social media for many of the important conversations where these people’s voices are most needed.

Another problem is that Black, Indigenous and People of Colour are routinely silenced on social media platforms. The algorithms are biased and do not amplify marginalised users where they should. Platform safety policies rarely do enough to protect users, but often are used against marginalised users to silence them when they speak out about the racism they’re experiencing on the platforms and in wider society. Then there’s the racist platform users who leave comments, share content and post their own content with the intent to harm; creating hostile environments for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour on the platforms. Coordinated attacks routinely see the deplatforming of Black, Indigenous and Poeple of Colour whose powerful voices condemn racism, white supremacy and a number of related social issues (e.g. whorephobia, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, poverty, class systems, misogyny).

Effective communication online
Another problem is that nuance can be difficult to communicate online. When you rely on images and text (especially with character limits), you often lose tone, facial expression, and context for starters. Videos often have a time limit. Posts can be taken out of context. Intention is hard to discern online and perception can be nearly impossible to predict (this is all stuff I’m picking apart in my thesis and to date I have no real answer for rectifying this issue). We have come to view certain actions as agreement, even when there’s no accompanying text to contextualise sharing or liking a post. We are seeing that platform users are finding ways around implicit messaging attached to actions like shares and likes. On Twitter, for example, we see people screenshotting tweets and images for resharing to minimise amplification of content (which at times is done to minimise harm, other times to capture ‘receipts’ or proof that the content did exist, should it be deleted). However, the fact remains that fully understanding someone’s point of view can be very difficult with the limited context and content provided by social media – particularly where there’s a lack of audiovisual components.

Internet communication is endlessly complex. Tackling complex issues on platforms where intention can be misunderstood does not bode well for positive exchange, civil discussion or learning. Every user has a unique relationship with the technology they use and a unique approach to their engagement with the platforms they use. Those relationships will depend on a number of things, not least their prior experience with the internet, their understanding of their own identity, their understanding of how identity construction online, their relationships with the people they interact with on the platform and their understanding of how others view them on that platform. Like I said, it’s complex stuff. Much of this work is subconscious, largely because our education on internet existence, identity building and online safety was (and continues to be) sorely lacking so those of us who grew up in the age of the internet have had to figure things out as we determined the ways in which apps and platforms would work for us and navigating the interface and content changes forced on us by the platform owners (think about Instagram’s proposed removal of the Likes count display and Tumblr’s banning of sexual content as two recent examples).

Unfortunately, since more and more people rely on social media for communication, education and entertainment, these conversations need to occur in places where more people are likely to see and engage in them. So, complex messages have to be distilled down to fit with platform formats. And, because we’re human and we like repetitive formats, we tend to consume information in the ‘easiest’, most condensed option available. Oftentimes, this results in us losing much of the nuance in conversations. It can also result in well-meaning conversations doing more harm tham good.

Taking the racism out of your internet use
Now, let’s consider your own online presence and how you might work antiracism into your internet use. First of all, look at who you’re following. How many educators, activists, researchers, artists, writers, musicians are Black, Indigenous and People of Colour? Now is the time to curate your feed in a way that promotes a diverse range of thinking, lived experience and action. Maybe you should unfollow people you know are refusing to learn and do the work to be antiracist. Maybe try and engage with people you know who are continuing to be racist and do the work so your pals from marginalised communities don’t have to.

One thing you should absolutely do is research the content you’re engaging with. Look into the arguments and the people sharing them – are they the OP (original poster), or are the reposting other people’s content without credit? Are these people experts, are they new to the conversation? Are there others you can learn more from and who share more nuanced takes on big issues? We’re all so quick to hit Share, but we don’t spend nearly enough time researching to ensure we’re promoting informed individuals who actively work to minimise harm and work in antiracist ways. A quick internet search of “[name] controversy” or “[name] harm” will give you an overview, but search Twitter and Instagram too. Whisper networks often work by not tagging but still using harmful users’ names (or swapping letters for an asterisk to avoid pile-ons or other violence). And be ready to be wrong.

One of the biggest things you can do is be open to being corrected or challenged. We’re human. We won’t get it right all the time. Getting it wrong isn’t the end of the world – it’s an opportunity to learn and expand our understanding of an incredibly complex issue. Share your learning – if you weren’t aware, the likelihood is some of your social media followers won’t have known either. Openness and accountability are good practices to engage with in your internet use.

There’s not only one strategy for weaving antiracism into your online presence, but there are lots of steps you can take in decolonising your social media use that will help.

Digital Blackface and cultural appropriation online
Think about where your internet use includes appropriation. Do you use African American Vernacular English outside of contexts where you are quoting somebody? What words do you search for in the Giphy library, and how many of those GIFs are stereotyped behaviours of Black people? Digital blackface is an issue I have been exploring for a few years. It’s real and it’s incredibly problematic. Teen Vogue published an article about Blackface in GIFs a few years back and I highly recommend you read it. Giphy hired a Cultural Editor, Jasmyn Lawson to address the imbalance of representation in GIFs. She was interviewed by i-D in 2018 on making GIFs more Black and the interview really stuck with me.

“I want to have GIFS that represent all types of black women: light-skinned, dark-skinned, heavy set, different sexual orientations, trans. And really make sure all the different sects of a certain minority group is being represented well in the media.”

Jasmyn Lawson, in an interview for i-D

That this was such a revolutionary step in 2018 really frustrated and upset me. But I was so inspired by Jasmyn’s work. It got me thinking about how I present myself online. Do I resort to racist caricatures? I certainly did. I take a lot more time in choosing GIFs and sharing memes now, considering what implicit messages they carry and whether they fall foul of racial stereotyping or appropriation.

There are multiple ways non-Black people have been appropriating Black culture, history, pain and joy. A recent example is the Breonna Taylor memes. The memeification of her murder, “Anyway arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor”, is a stark reminder that the ways we engage with content on the internet removes an element of humanity from the topics we’re discussing. An excellent article from Huffington Post explores the need for greater recognition by non-Black people of Black humour, joy, grief, pain and culture.

But the popularity of this one call for action has also highlighted the ways in which this current cultural moment is being commodified, trivialized and used as fodder for performative allyship. 

Zeba Blay, Huffington Post

Removing racism from your social media use
We need to bring our internet interaction back to a place of intention and reflection. If we’re going to post online, we have to take away the mindless scroll and actively participate. That means stopping to think about why we’re consuming the content we are, what potential impact this could be having on others, and how we want to engage with other people. In many cases, our use won’t change. But you might consider not retweeting harmful tweets – retweeting tells the algorithm to amplify the post and will potentially put more people at risk of harm. You might add a contextual message to the Instagram post you share to your Story. Maybe instead of a Story, you record a video to give you more space to communicate effectively and save it to your highlights so you can reflect on it later and have it accessible beyond the 24 hour mark.

Social media, but make it antiracist
How you present yourself online is how people will likely remember you, especially during times where in-person meetings are limited and more of our communication is occuring through screens (with or without video and microphones enabled). Actively working antiracism into your internet use, particularly your social media, is a crucial step in decolonising your online presence. The internet doesn’t start or end with social media, but as it continues to play a huge part of our lives in how we curate our digital existence, portray our lives, consume content, learn, engage in activism and so much more, it’s certainly a great place to start building antiracism into your daily life.

This is a huge topic. Technically it’s a combination of multiple huge topics, which makes it even bigger. Such a mammoth needs more than one 2,000 blog post/essay/thought piece/brain dump to investigate it. I have lots of thoughts and feelings about lots of things that are happening online. I’ll publish new blog posts when I have the energy and the words to verbalise the abstract ideas that are bouncing around my brain. As you can probably tell from this ridiculously long blog post, I’m incredibly passionate about these topics. Not least from a research perspective, but as a human who works, researches, learns, connects and emotes a lot online it’s important to me that I reflect regularly on what I’m seeing and doing. I hope this post has given you some food for thought too.

2020 – A Year of Revolution

A long-overdue life update and an even longer overdue commitment to active anti-racism work for 2020 and beyond

It’s been a few years since I visited this website. I fell out of love with blogging. Other things took priority. My motivations for it were all wrong. I was chasing views when I should have been exploring real issues. So I stepped away and with distance I gained perspective.

Since I last uploaded in 2018, I’ve had several new jobs and completed a leadership programme run by YWCA Scotland and the Scottish Parliament Community Outreach Team. In March 2019, I returned to uni, excited to begin my postgraduate journey at Edinburgh Napier University. In September 2019, I changed track from a Masters of Research to a PhD programme. So, long story short, I’m studying part-time and working part-time as YWCA Scotland’s Digital Officer.

Activism has long been a part of my life. I’m a vocal feminist, keen to further educate myself in ways the patriarchy continues to oppress people – especially marginalised communities. Predominantly through writing articles for various online magazines, posting on my personal social media and in-person conversations, I have advocated for LGBTQ+ rights, more comprehensive sex education, and more recently have engaged in campaigning to end period poverty in Scotland (which I had previously written about for the now defunct Femini Magazine).

My postgraduate research is absolutely an extension of my activism. I am exploring the nature of online violence, specifically as it pertains to Twitter. Through discourse analysis, my current aim (I’m in my first year, this will likely evolve as PhD research has a tendency to do) is to build a framework that can be used to accurately pinpoint how violence is created, maintained and replicated on Twitter. We all know Twitter as a hellhole, but we don’t often engage with the Whys and Hows. I’m diving into the murky waters in the hopes of figuring that out. This has already been an emotional, shocking, exhausting experience as an observer. So far the content has not connected with my lived experience and while I know it will, many of my privileges (my whiteness, my cisness, my hetero relationship, for starters) have shielded me from the brunt of the violences unleashed on others through Twitter (and other digital or offline means).

In the context of 2020 and the #BlackLivesMatter revolution (one which, to my mind has taken too long to hold the sustained interest of white people globally), my research has taken on a new dimension. Racism and hate speech were two aspects of violence I was keen to explore in my research case studies for understanding what makes language a source of violence.

I jumped on the #BlackoutTuesday bandwagon without really considering the implications. For someone who has worked in, theorised, examined and interacted daily with social media, I sure missed the wider implications of that one. It was a wake-up call I needed. The anti-racism workshop I attended through work was the start of my active anti-racism journey where before it had been an implicit, underlying consideration.

Explicit anti-racism work will be a part of my job, research, activism and daily life going forward. This will undoubtedly involve sitting with incredibly uncomfortable realisations about my beliefs and behaviours, both past and present, while figuring out how to make appropriate changes or outputs. And, it’s important to note that my discomfort is a drop compared to the ocean of racism, pain, generational trauma and violence faced by the Black community around the world. There is so much work to be done and I’m ready to commit.

I’ve returned to this blog, in part, to track my anti-racism journey. Instead of resharing resources on the reg, I’ll be unpacking my privilege, unlearning white supremacy and exploring ways I can be an active ally.

The number of resources currently available are plentiful. The anti-racism courses, podcasts, books are abundant. Documentaries examining the historic and ongoing racism of the UK, the USA and further afield are easy to find. So, now I’m reaching for them where I hadn’t been with any consistent commitment or active participation before. I’m ashamed it has taken until this newest wave of anti-racism discourse to engage more fully with the cause and educate myself in a meaningful, present, connected way. It’s inexcusable. The onus is on me to do better; as a white woman, as an intersectional feminist, as a human.

A Day to Celebrate All Women

Want to know why we need an International Women’s Day? Look no further than Mhairi Black MP’s speech.

Misogyny is rife in our society. Women are belittled, threatened, victimised, assaulted and overlooked in all areas of society. Every. Single. Day.

This video is one example why, in my opinion, feminism is still relevant as a political movement. It highlights the very real situation countless women are in currently – subjected to violence and degradation simply for being female.

Violence against women is not in decline. If anything, with technological advances, women are faced with evolving dangers and laws that lack adequate protections. For example, the non-consensual sharing of intimate images, known colloquially as Revenge Porn, is on the rise and only recently did Scottish law catch up to it.

The UK Government’s latest Violence Against Women and Girls Digest found that “violence against adolescent girls is understudied, with most research looking only at the impact on one form of violence”.  Child marriage is a huge issue worldwide, and tens of millions of adolescent girls are subjected to sexual violence every year.

Around the world, girls are being denied education. Or unable to attend school because of period poverty. Female Genital Mutilation is a widespread problem – some 24,000 girls are at risk of undergoing FGM in the UK alone.

Findings from the Wave 10 post-campaign evaluation of the Domestic Abuse Campaign 2006/07 found that “[a] domestic violence incident is recorded every 10 minutes in Scotland”.

Penny Mordaunt highlighted a number of other issues faced by women and girls worldwide. That list is anything but exhaustive, but it does light a fire in my belly.

This International Women’s Day, I’m going to be thinking about the women who don’t get a platform.

The abused women.

The exploited women.

The trafficked women.

The sex workers.

The immigrants.

The overworked.

The unemployed.

The disabled.

The homeless.

The victims.

The survivors.

The trans-women.

The lesbians.

The queer.

The Scottish women.

The women around the world.

The women of colour.

The activists.

The grieving.

The strong.

The loud.

The silenced.

The few.

The many.

Une publication partagée par Femislay (@femislay) le

On Women Saying No

I’m signed up to GirlBoss’s newsletter and my weekly email from Sophia Amoruso dropped in my inbox like clockwork. I like Sophia. She is bolschy, driven and badass. Her latest email, though, left me torn.

The power of no

In her email, Sophia talks about the power of saying no. In the context of the email, she’s talking about finding better focus and the rejecting the daily distractions that make procrastination easy and getting shit done all the harder.

Learning the power of “no.” Sure, saying yes can open doors for us, but once we’re focused on what we want to achieve, often “no” is much more powerful…It can help to start saying “I don’t do that” rather than “I can’t do that” when responding to requests from people, so they know that as a rule, you aren’t interested in a particular type of engagement. It can be liberating to go home at the end of the day and not do something. I’ve found that not drinking on weekdays can make me much more apt to decline social events that could distract me from my focus.

In self-care terms, I think Sophia is right. Learning to say no, to prioritise your own needs over others’ is a great skill and one we find difficult to master as a general rule. However, “just saying no” doesn’t always work.

Broken records

While the sentiment of this email initially comes across as empowering and encouraging, it’s kind of missing the point. Women have been saying no for years. We’ve been saying no to telesales calls and street marketers trying to sell us broadband. We’ve been saying no to men who won’t take no for an answer. No isn’t enough. And to tell us to “just say no” is patronising with a touch of victim blaming.

This fantastic article from Jessica Eaton highlights the problems with telling women to “just say no” and I can’t recommend enough that you read it. It’s wholly relatable to women who have been accosted and analyses the reactions we have.

There is no weight behind a woman’s initial No. In fact, most women won’t actually say No in the first instance because we have to weigh up the potential consequences of telling a man no. I’m sick to the back teeth of that. I don’t want to have to put another human’s feelings before my own safety, but many times I do.

rejection

Softening for protection

Clothing. Words. Facial expressions. Reactions. The routes I walk home. The time. My company. The number of strangers.

These are some of the considerations I make to minimise the chance that I encounter some form of harassment, or worse, on a regular basis. I don’t walk home alone late at night if I can help it. I consider how provocative I look. Whether my actions could be misconstrued. How I present myself to friends and strangers alike.

I soften my rejections of unwanted attention online too, to save myself from a potential, real danger. I’m angry that I have to weigh the pros and cons of telling someone to leave me the hell alone. That, in doing so, I may be putting myself at further risk – not unlike in the physical world.

I shouldn’t be worrying about the consequences of my actions in these cases. I’m furious that, out of fear, I must extinguish the rage. I must hold my tongue, stop myself from flying into a fit of keyboard-smashing fury, and sharing exactly how I feel about these unwanted and unnecessary messages or comments.

It’s not cute. It’s not flattering. It’s not even pathetic or worthy of sympathy. It’s just wrong.

furious baboon

There are so many potential dangers I think about when I reject someone in person. When interacting online, there are always communication barriers and issues in recognising tone, intent and a dozen other cues usually read through body language, vocal pitch and facial expression. However, when you’ve been given your seventh polite No Thanks – on or offline – take the hint.

What you may or may not realise is that through all the polite declines, your conversation has likely put the other participant through the emotional wringer. She may have been flattered at first in your interest. That flattery will soon turn to boredom, then disdain, and then anger. Anger at the fact that she cannot tell you to Fuck Off because you have the power to hurt her, even through a screen.

The threat you potentially pose is not enough for me to relent. You will not wear me down until I say yes. You will exhaust me, though, and force me into the position where I feel I have no choice but to put myself in jeopardy. The pain, anguish and fear such a decision creates as I tell you where to go is on you.

Your intentions may be pure, but your characterisation of those intentions is hugely intimidating. Take a step back and assess the conversation. If I’ve never shown interest before, why would I now? What you’re doing is trying to manipulate me. I won’t ever agree to that.

Take the rejection well, learn from it and promise yourself that you’ll not pursue your next target so relentlessly.

We’re all vulnerable and we’ll all make mistakes, especially by misinterpreting others. Reflecting, assessing and learning from our pasts gives us the opportunity to do it right next time.

Just Say No

Like Jessica Eaton pointed out – telling people to Just Say No is victim-blamey and uncomfortable. It suggests women aren’t pained, emotionally drained, and often physically hurt by saying No. No has become irrelevant. Consent has lost its weight. The conversation needs to change. Why aren’t we asking men why they still keep asking? Why aren’t we questioning men about their shameless pawing and relentless badgering of women? Why aren’t we shaming men for not respecting women’s decisions?

This tired, misogynistic stereotype of the Woman Chaser is so overcooked by Hollywood it’s nothing but ash. It’s not romantic to be chased. It’s not flattering to be harassed. It’s not a sign of love that you won’t give up – it’s uncomfortable. Wearing a woman down until she says yes is not enthusiastic. It’s barely consent.

unamused owl

We need to get rid of this hurtful narrative – it’s teaching women to want to be chased, and promoting harassment as love to men. We all deserve better. We deserve to be treated with respect. We deserve to be listened to in the first instance. We deserve respect as women and as humans, not as someone else’s girlfriend/wife/property.

Learning to say no, for ourselves, is one thing. Learning to listen and respect a woman’s No is vital. Both are valuable lessons and both are necessary steps forward if women are to share space with men as equals.

Profiting From Beauty

The Grid Girls

A few weeks ago, there was a rather noisy controversy around Formula 1’s decision to scrap the Grid Girls. This left many women jobless and caused quite the stir among Formula 1 fans, feminists and many others.

On the one hand, many were exultant because they saw this as progress towards a society free from sexism and oppression – of which the existence of Grid Girls was a symptom. By this reckoning, the Grid Girls were considered to be existing in a male-dominated community. The Girls’ freedoms were devalued because their jobs made them vulnerable to men, and therefore inferior; thanks to the patriarchy.

Others were furious about the decision and accused F1 of pandering to over-the-top pressures from militant feminists and others who are pushing for a puritan ideology to take hold in our progressive, increasingly liberal society. This side of the debate argued that these women were not forced into the jobs they were hired for and that their dismissal was a puritan persecution of those who refuse to accept that humans can profit from their bodies, appearances, and – most importantly – beauty. The slippery slope argument (that if Grid Girls are acceptable then it sets a precedent for misogyny elsewhere) is exactly that; slippery.

Source: Getty Images

Society is heavily divided in arguments like these; consider the divisiveness around conversations about sex work. For some, legalising sex work gives those who sell sex legal protections from harm, while others believe that the patriarchy has conditioned us into believing that sex work is a job we should encourage when it is not. I’m aware that this barely scratches the surface of the sex work debates, but I’m going to save the intricacies of that for a future blog post. To delve into it now would likely result in this being 5,000 words long and I’d still have more to say! Back to Grid Girls…

Here’s a difference between sex workers and the Grid Girls, though: the Grid Girls are capitalising on their beauty. There’s also the fact that Grid Girls were not, to our knowledge, ever trafficked or forced into working against their will. Grid Girls did not face potential prosecution as they earned their wages. Grid Girls did not deal with nearly the same stigma or potential danger that sex workers do.

For me, one of the most important points made in the Grid Girls debate was made by Sara Pascoe during her performance for The Guilty Feminist podcast’s Suffragette Centenary Special – Part 1. The perfect-star-alignment of this conversation is not lost on me: we are still debating what women can and cannot do, whether it be voting, sex work (or any work), or breastfeeding in public.

pin up girls spray paint

Sara made a brilliantly eloquent point about 24 minutes in which I’ve done my best to transcribe accurately:

…feminism is this huge thing and some of us are running in different directions…I think that what happened with the Grid Girls is really shocking and I don’t want feminism attached to that kind of thing…I feel like sometimes there are these massive misunderstandings, like, beautiful people of any gender are allowed to make money from that. The difference between the Grid Girls and the Presidents Club where people were being harassed at work – they’re entirely different things. It isn’t about outfits, and I feel like I don’t want to be part of something where some women get to decide who women are based on the bodies that they’re born in. And I feel like something like this is so huge that sometimes in a group we get kind of pulled along – we have to remember that it isn’t…it’s interesting that it’s women in their 30s with money who got the vote first. Quite often in feminism, and I speak as one of them, we are the people who also have a voice.

I bloody love Sara Pascoe. The example she gave comparing the Grid Girls to the women at the Presidents Club is perfect. The Presidents Club dinner in January deserved the media attention. Those men deserved to be outed for the sexist, chauvinistic pigs they were. They were harassing women who were there to do a job. Those women didn’t ask to be grabbed, leered on, or assaulted. They were there to do a job, collect their wages and carry on with their lives.

Beauty as a commodity

I also loved Pascoe’s highlighting of a maddenly uncomfortable truth – people don’t like other people profiting from their beauty or looks. Models have such a bad rep as being vacant or uneducated and that they have no prospects outside their looks. It’s completely unfair, widely inaccurate and drilled into us from a very young age.

I remember a friend of mine at primary school, a beautiful girl with blonde hair, fabulous cheekbones and legs a mile long at age 10 being so upset when others suggested she become a model. She asked if that’s all we thought she was good for, if they didn’t think she was clever enough to expect more in her life. Looking back, that breaks my heart. Why can’t such a young girl have both? Why can’t she want to be a model and be intelligent, conscientious and successful?

Pascoe’s point about profiting from beauty is thought-provoking. Beauty as a commodity makes it valuable, tradable and, most importantly, valuable. It is not vain to admit to being beautiful – it is important for us to recognise and accept ourselves for who we are and what we have. While what we consider beautiful is highly subjective and in the eye of the beholder, when others recognise that beauty, do we not have the right to capitalise it like we would our musical ability or aptitude for maths? What makes beauty so different from the ability to compose or design or build or create? While the questions don’t sit entirely comfortably with me, I’m asking myself whether that discomfort is with the idea of beauty being an acceptable trading token, or whether there’s a deeper issue I’ve yet to articulate.

girls

Grid Girls weren’t scrapped as a concept because the women dealt with workplace harassment, misogyny and potential harm. They were removed from the F1 to give off the impression that the F1 bosses are woke and tuned in to world politics. They were removed under some illusion that sexism can’t exist if the women aren’t there. That the problem is only surface deep, and not in fact ingrained so heavily in society it’s painful when we do exorcise those demons.

Whether you think the Grid Girls were outdated and misogynistic or not should not be the sole focus of this debate. In fact, we may well find that we settle on an answer when we delve a little deeper into the other problem – whether women are capable of making such employment decisions for themselves.

We need to highlight that women do have the capacity to make decisions for themselves – we need to remind ourselves that maintaining women’s agency is vital. Women who have agency have the right to decide for themselves what is acceptable and feasible employment and what is not. To start arguing that these women were misinformed or fell victim to the patriarchy or misogynists or whoever else is an insult to women worldwide.

We’ve seen through the patriarchy’s bullshit long enough now – we know our own minds and our own bodies. We should be able to decide for ourselves what we do with them. Isn’t that what feminism is truly about: having the right to choose for ourselves and escaping the patriarchy’s cold, unwavering grip?

solidarity sisters