by Matthew Chase

hashtagThe new year has only just started, and we’ve already come to see two new social justice campaigns on the Internet: #OscarsSoWhite and #WomenNotObjects. To give a brief background on both of these online social movements, and as their names suggest, #OscarsSoWhite and #WomenNotObjects emerged in response to racial and gender inequalities respectively.

#OscarsSoWhite in particular addresses the recent controversy over the Academy Awards nominations in which all nominees for acting awards were white and that films with black themes were not nominated for best picture. Films with leading black actors such as Straight Outta Compton and Creed instead received nominations for their white writers or supporting white actors. Considering this same controversy happened before with the 2015 Oscars, these nominations resulted in a backlash from prominent actors and celebrities to boycott the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag became a platform for celebrities and the public to weigh in on the Oscars diversity debate and the broader issue of unequal representation in the mass media industries.

The #WomenNotObjects campaign coincided with the #OscarsSoWhite conversation, but reintroduced another longstanding issue in media representation: the sexual objectification of women in advertising. Like the Oscars, this issue is not new as we look at Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Me Softly series and other works critically examining the hyper-sexualized representation of women. Advertising executive, Madonna Badger, started the #WomenNotObjects by releasing a video in early January of women critically addressing women’s bodies advertised as sexual objects for men’s pleasure; ad images over-retouched to reflect unrealistic beauty standards. At least 14 million people have taken to social media and participated in the #WomenNotObjects campaign.

Although these campaigns and conversations are not necessarily new in light of the decades and even centuries’ worth of activist movements, the way they are being conducted now in the Internet age can prove insightful and calls for closer examination. As I read through my social media feeds on these hashtag campaigns, it brought to mind my thesis research on the topic of social justice movements in digital spaces, specifically #BlackLivesMatter and #YesAllWomen. While these movements speak to other racial and gender issues respectively, they nonetheless touch on the core themes of #OscarsSoWhite and #WomenNotObjects. They also reflect many of the same advantages and challenges.

On the one hand, digital spaces provide these campaigns and their activists a unique opportunity to reach others at the national and perhaps even the international level, almost instantly to anyone with an Internet connection and a social media account. Theoretically, social media sites like Twitter and YouTube create platforms through which potentially millions of people can participate in a conversation that is not limited to a specific time or space. Even though they were created a few years, #BlackLivesMatter and #YesAllWomen are repeatedly reused and revived. I am now seeing them being tied in to support the #OscarsSoWhite and #WomenNotObjects.

At the same time, social media has always been beset with problems and challenges. Social justice campaigns are no different. As my research found with #BlackLivesMatter and #YesAllWomen, I saw how the #OscarsSoWhite and #WomenNotObjects conversations were often dominated by celebrities, prominent organizations and groups, and other notable figures. Given their influence in the media and in our lives, this is not particularly surprising to learn. Yet it does put a question mark to the premise of online activism being an equalizing space for the everyday person.

Harassment could also be seen in the conversations as people who opposed the campaigns would sometimes use name-racist/sexist language  to provoke campaign supporters and invalidate their perspectives. It is important to note that this harassment was not just limited to the opponents, as supporters would resort to similar tactics to defend themselves, resulting in a cycle of retaliation that diverted the conversations away from their original messages. One YouTuber provides a simplified, yet thoughtful video on the issues of Internet hate, which you can watch below:

It is not uncommon to hear online activism be described and often dismissed as “clicktavism,” referring to the idea of how with just a computer and a few clicks of the mouse, anyone can become an activist. As last year’s #WhiteGenocide campaign showed, not all activists and social movements work toward social justice, but rather to reinforcing the status quo. The idea of online activism goes much deeper, and its advantages and challenges are far more complex than we might realize. It is not necessarily a better kind of activism, nor is it worse. It remains instead a new, accessible way for people to engage in social justice and social movements. As with any form of activism, it is not without its flaws and challenges.

Even so, the digital spaces have proven to be a powerful tool for raising public awareness and access to social issues. Social justice cannot be won on social media alone, however. It is a struggle that spans across time and space, the offline and the virtual. As #OscarsSoWhite and #WomenNotObjects demonstrate, there are people who want to speak up. Now it’s a matter of inspiring their words into action in the offline world.

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