BY DANGER RILEY
On October 6, 2018, Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused by at least four women of sexual assault or misconduct, was confirmed to a life-long position as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Not only were the protests and online engagement of those who objected to his appointment powerless to stop his appointment, but the women accusers were ridiculed and threatened for speaking out. The Kavanaugh case fits the #MeToo profile: the testimony of multiple women was disregarded and did not affect his appointment. This outcome should serve as a wake-up call to those feeling shocked and outraged: the perceived strength of #MeToo is based on an outdated premise that media coverage is synonymous with political power.
Unlike typical mass movements, #MeToo is a product of a unique partnership between social media and mass media. Certainly, there is nothing new about the media lending unity and coherency to a movement. Dutch media theorist Ruud Koopman (2004) observed that by determining what is newsworthy, the media has often inadvertently defined the tactics, talking points, and strategies of groups seeking media coverage. However, #MeToo is mechanistically different: now the roles have changed and the audience, through social media, determines what is newsworthy. The public’s perception of reality is still rooted in the old model that assumes news coverage reflects both social and political power and has not caught up with the new reality that today media coverage is a reflection of audience interest, not a demonstration of power. By adjusting to this new reality, the media has inadvertently perpetrated the illusion that #MeToo is a political movement and perpetuated the complementary idea that one could be an activist simply by participating in the conversation through consuming media and expressing oneself on social media.
Audiences Moved to Social Media—Mass Media Follows
Strategic communication theorist James P. Farwell presciently observed in 2012 that “social media such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are supplanting traditional media of newspapers, radio, and television by empowering individuals to shape the discourse over emerging events in unprecedented ways.” To maintain relevance, traditional media has begun to integrate social media capabilities. According to Dutch media theorists Jose van Dijck and Thomas Poell (2013), social media is founded on distinct principles which set it apart from traditional media in four key ways: programmability: the mutual abilities of both the platform and users to shape content through both choice and algorithm, popularity: the influence of content endorsement by groups of users, connectedness: the expectation of ongoing and potentially constant user access to both platform and by extension other users, and datafication: real-time data analytic tools that guide the entire social media experience. For traditional media to attract social media audiences they must gain access to social networks by providing content that is both interactive and personally relevant.
Much of the understanding of traditional media’s evolution towards social media is drawn from The New York Times’ 2017 internal business strategy document, The 2020 Report, which expressed plans to use real-time data analysis tools to become responsive to their audience by tracking social media network behavior. It is assumed that The New York Times is a leader and that other traditional media will follow it into this new terrain, or will become obsolete due to lack of readership. This evolution is viewed as a natural response to secure audience attention.
#MeToo is a multi-directional conversation between social media users and the mass media with both parties functioning as the preacher and the choir, in agreement with and fully responsive to one another. Most of the powerful political movements in the United States have been driven at least in part by groups who unify around a shared cause as a way to build support for promoting it to the world beyond. #MeToo, however, has never left the mediated echo chamber. Those involved in the #MeToo conversation largely appear to lack awareness that they must leave the mediated conversation in order to develop political power. The reliance on the echo chamber serves the media’s primary objective to captivate audience attention but the loop it creates limits the influence of #MeToo while falsely projecting a growing political power.
The media achieved their goal, but was the audience in some way duped? This is not a question of intention; there is ample evidence to suggest that there was genuine interest in promoting #MeToo dialogue—this is an issue of impact. The flurry of coverage and media attention gave people a synthetic experience of participating in a powerful social movement by consuming media and posting on social media. Even if establishment journals were careful with their language, over the past year there has been sustained media coverage on the impact of #MeToo and of the implied potency of this movement. Is this an example of dishonesty by omission?
The consequences of borrowing coherency and organization from the mass media is readily apparent when #MeToo is contrasted to #NeverAgain, the gun control advocacy group led by Florida’s Parkland High School students in February, 2018. This is an excellent example of how a classic movement might leverage the tools of the new media environment because high school students used social media to raise money, organize boycotts against the National Rifle Association and news pundits who attacked their cause and pass legislation. In that same year, less than two months after the group formed, #NeverAgain successfully pressured the ‘take your gun to work state’ to pass gun control legislation. This unprecedented success is the direct result of leadership, clear goals, and a willingness to use social media platforms to both rally supporters and challenge their opposition.
This is not to suggest that #MeToo has had no impact. Record numbers of women are running for office this November, new organizations have been founded, such as Time’s Up Now, a legal defense fund, and there is an increased awareness of the pervasive experience of sexual violence and misconduct. According to Vox.com (2018), 250 high-profile men (and a few women) have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct. There has also been a smattering of new federal and state level policies and training requirements. Yet, this list of accomplishments is painfully small considering that #MeToo has dominated the national conversation for nearly a year and is a cause that holds massive moral and legal legitimacy.
The media’s goal was to host an engaging conversation with their target audience, not to build coalitions or a political movement. Due to the new technology involved, we must consider the possibility that the audience was unaware they were being offered a simulated experience of what they craved most, namely political and social impact. Ironically, the core ethical issue for the media’s involvement in #MeToo is a lack of participant consent that instead of engaging in activism they were being entertained. I do not charge the media with malicious intent or even imagine they could have foreseen the implications of their involvement with #MeToo. However, their coverage did inadvertently create the impression of massive political power which bolstered a perception that compromise or incremental progress was unnecessary. The media has an ethical obligation to remind their audience that Kavanaugh’s placement does not reflect the inherently broken nature of the political system but rather is a clear reflection that #MeToo has not yet developed political power. Despite the real power of social media, effective activism still demands coherent goals, engaging the opposition and representation that can be held accountable.
252 Celebrities, Politicians, CEOS, and Others Who Have Been Accused of Sexual Misconduct Since April 2017. Updated: October, 08, 2018. https://www.vox.com/a/sexual-harassment-assault-allegations-list.
Baquet, Dean,and Joe Kahn. “Journalism That Stands Apart; The Report of The 2020 Group.” New York Times. January 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/projects/2020-report/index.html.
Farwell, James P. The Art of Strategic Communication. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2012.
“Florida Gov. Rick Scott Signs Gun Bill” CNN, March 09, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/09/us/florida-gov-scott-gun-bill/index.html/.
Koopman, Ruud. “Movement and Media: Selection Processes and Evolutionary Dynamics in the Public Sphere.” Theory and Society 33 (2004): 367-91.
van Dijck, Jose,and Poell, Thomas. “Understanding Social Media Logic.” Media and Communication, no.1 (2013): 1-14. https://www.cogitatiopress.com/mediaandcommunication/article/view/70/60/.