How Twitter provided a place for the #MeToo movement to grow

The year is 2017. One woman sends out a tweet asking all her followers to reply with ‘me too’ if they’re victims of sexual assault. Her goal was to highlight the seriousness of the sexual assault. Not only did her followers share their experiences, that one tweet becomes the catalyst for the movement we know as #MeToo.

Photo by Flickr user GGAADD, under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

The #MeToo hashtag was first created in 2006 by Tarana Burke, a civil rights activist attempting to help victims of sexual assault. Burke spent most of her years taking care of her community and leading campaigns against racial injustices. In the official Me Too website, Burke recalls a time when a young girl, Heaven, reveals that she’s been sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend. Burke, unable to provide the support Heaven needed, directs her to another female counselor. Burke writes that she will never forget the look of rejection on Heaven’s face that day. She ends her anecdote with the following quote:

I just watched her walk away from me, visibly struggling to recapture those secrets and tuck them back into their hiding place. I watched her put her “mask” back on her face and return to the world. And as I stood there, I couldn’t even bring myself to whisper the words circling my mind and soul: “me too”.

Alyssa Milano, an actress and political activist, would use “me too” in a tweet to her big fan base eleven years later, causing many other victims to speak out on their experiences and offer support. Milano has always tried to use her platform to create change, and this tweet was no different. When asked for her thoughts in an interview with The Guardian, Milano says:

Not only is this a horrible thing that happens in my industry, but it’s something that happens in every industry. It’s really inspiring to think this might continue and things might change.

Because of Milano’s tweet, #MeToo ended up on Twitter’s Trending page, reaching people across the world. Since that initial explosion, the hashtag has been used around 19 million times from 2017 to 2018 and is still used today.

Milano’s tweet would eventually make #MeToo trend on Twitter.

How Things Trend on Twitter

To understand why #MeToo was considered a trending topic by Twitter, we should look at how social media platforms deem topics as trending, or popular. Twitter’s trending algorithm considers a topic to be trending when there is a large number of tweets surrounding a topic in a very short amount of time.

Topics usually land themselves a spot on the trending page after an event occurs. #MeToo began trending shortly after Milano used the hashtag in a tweet in response to several accusations of sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein. After other victims had seen people sharing their sexual assault stories, they felt empowered, seeing it as a chance to speak their truth and support others who are doing the same.

A graph showiing the number of times the me too hashtag has been used on Twitter from October 2017 to September 2018.
Graph from the Pew Research Center showing the number of times the hashtag has been used on Twitter from 2017 to 2018.

As seen in the image above, use of the hashtag also surged after events like Time magazine naming #MeToo activists as their persons of the year and Leslie Moonves resigning from CBS after rumors of sexual misconduct came to light. Whenever an event relating to sexual harassment occurs, people look to the hashtag to express their anger, share their grief, and offer support.

It was important for #MeToo to be a trending topic because it gave the movement more exposure. Had Milano not used her platform to speak up about this issue, #MeToo might have stayed within Burke’s community.

More exposure means more potential supporters, which is vital to sparking change. Trending also means that many people are talking about the movement, proving Milano’s point that victims are everywhere and can be anyone. While topics can’t trend forever, the movement was able to gain enough momentum to cause some states, like New York, to change their laws regarding sexual assault.

Activism Through Social Media

Photo from the DWC Hearing: Honoring the Me Too Silence Breakers, taken from Jackie Speier’s Twitter.

#MeToo’s sudden rise to the Trending page sparked conversations regarding sexual assault and called lawmakers to create better laws to protect victims and punish offenders. One recent change is New York modifying its laws to increase the protection against sexual misconduct. More specifically, New York lowered the threshold for proof of harassment and expanded the protections to cover more groups in the workforce.

Social media’s ability to begin conversations with people around the world is an important part of growing a social movement. From one perspective, calling for social justice can be easier online. On the internet, people are more susceptible to others’ influence, under the assumption that they have control of who they follow. For example, if a celebrity speaks out on #MeToo, their followers are more likely to follow suit or at least support the same movement.

Another way to look at it is understanding that information is more easily spread through social media. #MeToo was created in 2006 but didn’t become popular until 2017. While Burke played a major role in creating the movement, she would not have reached as many people as Milano after posting her tweet. Milano, a celebrity, reached out to all her followers, prompting some to speak up and spread the message to their own peers.

For #MeToo, social media became a place for victims to muster up the courage to share their stories. It isn’t uncommon for most victims to be assaulted by close family or friends. As a result, there is a lot of fear surrounding opening up to their families. There is the risk of not being trusted, being victim-blamed, and even revenge from their offenders. Social media was a place they could express themselves without necessarily telling those close to them. Victims could finally feel that they were not alone.

Women’s March in Washington, DC, 2019; Photo by WikiMedia user SLOWKING under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

While most of us aren’t celebrities with big followings, it’s important to understand the power the internet has in creating change. Due to the rise of social media platforms, we are encouraged to use our voice. Burke started MeToo with hopes of raising awareness of sexual assault. With the help of Milano and countless other people who have spoken up, Burke was able to accomplish her goal and continue striving for more. This movement has also given rise to resources for victims of sexual assault. If you or anyone needs help, please look to the Resource Library on the official Me Too website.

You are not alone.

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