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#WhenLeftToOurOwnDevices

Corrections from prev. version posted: Donegan was an associate editor with the New Republic and her departure from the organization was unrelated to the Shitty Media Men List.

We should not mourn the end of the creative lives of the men being outed as predators: we should contemplate the creative contributions we never had, will never know, because their creators were crushed or shut out. The losses due to misogyny and racism have been normalised forever. The task has been to de-normalise them and break the silence they impose. To make a society where everyone’s story gets told.

Rebecca Solnit

By examining the mobilization of the #MeToo movement to-date and the technology tools women now have at their disposal, I will show how, in the face of increasingly transparent hegemony (corporate, political, judicial) oppressing women, there is a likelihood/ greater probability that women will begin to take control into their own hands to bring about much needed institutional change.

By posting the words #MeToo on social media in the fall of 2017, women all over the world established a networked community, gave voice to previously silenced survivors, and gave birth to a social movement — the campaign to end sexual harassment and assault was largely centred on the workplace. While the term is cited as originating a decade earlier by social activist Tarana Burke, the term gained renewed momentum in Oct 2017 when several high-profile celebrities accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct (Hillstrom 3). After the hashtag was introduced on Twitter, it appeared in 2.3 million tweets in a few days and in 85 countries in a short few weeks. Over the following months, over 200 prominent men in various fields were facing sexual misconduct accusations. Several experienced ruined reputations and tanking careers, something never before seen on this scale (Hillstrom 1, 5). Throughout 2018, the movement continued to deepen across countries in Asia, Europe and Latin America as women (spanning the fields of media, business, academia, film and politics) recounted their ordeals. A continuous series of exposés in high-profile publications further illustrated how the predatory behaviour of prominent men had been normalized over the course of their (sometimes 30+ year) careers (Wildman 24).     

A quantitative study conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation (a NY-based think tank) in early 2018, entitled “What #MeToo Means for Corporate America,” revealed that 34% of women (13% of men) are victims of sexual misconduct in the workplace (relatively conservative numbers). The study compared rates of sexual misconduct across various industries: media (41% of women), tech & communications (37% of women), consulting/ mgmt (36%), healthcare (35%), architecture, engineering, aerospace (32%), scientific research & pharma (27%), finance & insurance (26%) and legal services (22%). Of the women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted, 72% said it was by someone more senior. Victims and those who became aware of others being victimized in their workplaces, cited feeling dissatisfied with their jobs and stalled in their careers, further illustrating the toxicity such behaviours create in work environments (Spangler). Few women cite reporting these incidents to authority figures; most made changes in their own lives (ie. quitting jobs, changing schools, moving residences, stopping an activity) (Hillstrom 2).

What is perhaps the key differentiator of #MeToo from prior movements was the use of tech tools to amplify its impact. “Supporters have used online platforms to share information, plan and organize protest actions, propagate political messages, and debate feminist ideas. Some activists have also sued social media to expose sexual harassment by individuals and within institutions” (Hillstrom 3). Digital technologies and social media solve a coordination problem, that would have been previously limited by the choke points of the pre-internet age. Arguably these have altered human experiences of time and space, shifting the entire societal ecology. Who is a gatekeeper? Who is visible? Who can connect? How does knowledge or falsehood travel? Within the #MeToo movement, the pervasive use of technology platforms resulted in the typical answers to all of these questions changing (Tufekci, Chapter 1, 5). As an example, a blog post written by Susan Fowler, a former software engineer at Uber, describing the culture of sexual harassment in Silicon Valley, went viral and snowballed into an internal investigation and the resignation of Uber’s founder. Fowler was only 26 years old at the time (Hillstrom 3).

The affordances and constraints of the various online platforms shape how people find and view each other, and afford the ability to connect. Each offers a different environment based on the underlying architectures, which determine how people navigate them (Tufekci, Chapter 1, 5). Additionally, the momentum, fueled by digital technology, and the tenuous organization that comes from bursting onto the scene at such a scale, according to Tufekci, are among the most significant defining features of networked movements, like #MeToo. A lack of institutionalization or consistent leadership are not happenstance or bi-products of the tech, but are deeply rooted choices that grow out of the horizontal nature of these movements (Chapter 3).  

An example of this is the “Shitty Media Men List.” A google spreadsheet was circulated through whisper networks — shared over emails, texts, etc — mainly within the New York publishing industry in Oct 2017. It was intended as a private space where women could share the names of men who had sexually harassed or assaulted them. The list went viral, crowdsourcing 70 names within 12 hours, before it was taken down. In that short span of time, 14 of the 70 names had been highlighted in red, to indicate men who had accusations of sexual assault against them by multiple women (Donegan).

“Women began to anonymously add their stories of sexual assault; many of the accounts posted there were violent, detailed, and difficult to read. Women recounted being beaten, drugged, and raped. Women recounted being followed into bathrooms or threatened with weapons. Many, many women recounted being groped at work, or shown a colleague’s penis” (Donegan).  

Many think pieces, much speculation and criticism ensued over the next few months. A few of the men listed on the spreadsheet lost their jobs when their employers subsequently launched investigations into their conduct.

In an essay published in New York Magazine’s “The Cut” (Jan 2018), Moira Donegan, a (then) assistant editor with the New Republic, came forward as the creator of the spreadsheet, to preempt an article in Harper’s which elicited concerns of doxing. In Oct 2018, Donegan was sued by someone named on the list. The lawsuit is widely seen as a scare tactic (a weapon), to instill fear and to silence women. In addition to monetary damages, the plaintiff’s claim demanded the release of the identities of the women who contributed to the spreadsheet, which Google has (so far) refused to provide (Donegan; Spencer).

Sexual misconduct is becoming an area where women feel employers are not held accountable for employees’ crimes. The priorities of HR departments centre on shielding the company from liability, and in the face of a sexual misconduct accusation, victims are told they must choose from a handful of gauntlets to run, often while they attempt to put their lives back together. The article, “Non-Disclosure Agreements in the #MeToo Era,” describes the typical litigation duration in a sexual misconduct case (in a US employment context) as ranging from 2 ½ to 3 years; a process that is highly retraumatizing and comes with highly uncertain outcomes. In instances of sexual misconduct settlements, victims must sign non-disclosure agreements (the rule, rather than the exception), which disproportionately favours the abuser and the employer. Violating them means the victim will likely face an avalanche of legal and financial repercussions. Meanwhile the abuser and the company are both allowed to return to the status quo (Donegan; Gibbs).   

Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Jennifer Egan, wrote a twitter story (“Black Box”), later published in the New Yorker, about a spy whose body was outfitted for surveillance. Embedded into the protagonist’s eyes, ears and forehead are still and video cameras, audio recorders and amplifiers. In a space between her toes is a dataport to upload files from other devices. All the data from her espionage missions are stored in her body, recoverable in the event of mission failure (Egan). This sci-fi story has begun to point to a future reality, that not all of us realize is available in the present. Everyone now carries a suite of surveillance tools in their pocket, which can be used to hold people accountable — to gather evidence, to threaten, to inspire fear, to silence. Similar to data obtained spy missions, data can now be collected and weaponized by almost anybody.

Some have characterized #MeToo activists as extremists, denying due process in their zeal to destroy men. Yet Susan Fowler’s blog post was a mere coping mechanism, and a desperate attempt to be heard. Moira Donegan cites the intention behind her spreadsheet as creating a safe space for women — a tool for impartiality, specifically not to inflict consequence — despite it being viewed as a weapon once it became public. Arguably, if Donegan had been interested in weaponizing the spreadsheet, she wouldn’t have taken it down after only a few hours (Hillstrom 3, 5; Donegan).

#MeToo, more than anything was about catharsis, for women to finally have their voices heard. Yet, when women are (increasingly) being victimized, institutions are concerned with protecting their own interests at the expense of female employees, and the political and judicial systems are being populated by Trump and Kavanagh types, it isn’t difficult to see how women may begin to take power into their own hands. Unlike 20 years ago, women now carry all the right tools in their purse.

Related Reading: The New Authoritarians are Waging War on Women, The Atlantic

WORKS CITED

Donegan, Moira. “I Started the Media Men List. My Name is Moira Donegan.” The Cut. New York Magazine. Jan 10, 2018.

Egan, Jennifer. “The Black Box.” The New Yorker. Jun 4 & 11, 2012 Issues. Web. Mar 9, 2019.

Gibbs, Evan. “Non-disclosure Agreements in the #MeToo Era.” Above The Law. Feb 20, 2018. Blog. Mar 19, 2019.

Hillstrom, Laurie Collier. “The #MeToo Movement.” ABC-CLIO. p1-7. 2019. eBook. Mar 11, 2019

Spangler, Todd. “Media Industry Has Highest Incidence of Sexual Harassment Among White-Collar Workers, Survey Finds.” Variety. Jul 25, 2018. Web. Mar 9, 2019.

Spencer, Ruth. “Robbie Kaplan Sees Right Through Stephen Elliot’s Lawsuit.” The Cut. New York Magazine. Oct 19, 2018. Web. Mar 19, 2019.

Tufekci, Zeynep. “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest.” Yale University Press. 2017. Chapters 1, 3, 5. Ebook. Mar 9, 2019

Wildman, Sarah. “The #MeToo Movement Goes Global.” Foreign Policy. p24. Jan 2019. Magazine.  

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