A Sociological Critique of the Relationship Between Social Media and Activism in the Repeal Movement
On the 25th of May 2018, a referendum was held on the question of whether or not to repeal the 8th amendment to the Irish constitution which instituted a total ban on abortion in the country. The referendum passed with a majority of 66.4%. This referendum had a profound impact on me. During the marriage equality referendum in 2015, friends had told me that they felt as though they were being discussed on every lamppost, every TV and radio station and every person’s social media the country over. I thought that I understood what they meant but I didn’t, not by half. Not until the campaigns to repeal the 8th, or indeed keep it, started. I have since wondered how social media, a relatively new phenomenon, effects political campaigns and the lives of those involved in different ways to traditional one sided media. As the referendum was in full swing so was the final term of my sociology degree so naturally I approached this question from a sociological perspective. The role of the sociology of emotion, shame in particular, was at the forefront of my curiosity. According to Manuel Castells the information technology revolution in recent decades has led to the ‘material transformation of our social fabric’ (Castells, 2000:693). However, technology should be understood as a ‘socially embedded process not as an exogeneous factor affecting society’ (ibid). Hence, although this technological revolution has changed how society works, it is a part of our societies that is built and shaped by social forces, rather than an external force that imposes new ways of being and of being active onto it.
The ‘digitization of communication, computer networking, advanced software, [and] the diffusion of enhanced broadband transmission capacity’ (Castells, 2013:56) have propelled the technological revolution. With the widespread use of the internet and Web 2.0-enabled mobile internet capabilities, a new form of ‘mass self-communication’ capable of reaching a world-wide audience has emerged (Castells, 2013). In 2003, the birth of ‘Web 2.0’ enabled greater interactivity and collaborative efforts through web-based applications, and the invention of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. It allowed easier web-access from mobile devices, and importantly for the ‘Repeal’ Movement, it provided new possibilities for online-offline activism and information sharing in creative ways (ibid). An example of mass self-communication in the Repeal Movement is a spoken word poem called ‘Heartbreak’ aimed at raising awareness of the movement and economic issues facing young women in Ireland today. This was a collaboration between actor and writer Emmet Kirwan and filmmakers and was self-published on YouTube (davetynan, 2017).
Historically, societal communication had the potential to be ‘diffused to society at large’ (Castells, 2013:54), via traditionally one-sided forms of ‘mass communication’ such as books, newspapers and television with limited potential for interactivity (ibid). When ‘elite groups’ from the political, media, academic, and corporate spheres have significant control over, and preferential access to, major forms of public communication (van Dijk, 1993:179) social inequality and dominance can be maintained and reproduced. However, Paolo Gerbaudo (2012) notes that media has always been a channel through which social movements communicate and organise, (2012:4). One-sided technologies have always been used by elites to communicate to the Irish people. Things were different in Ireland, however, with the emergence of the campaign in favour of (and of course against) removing the constitutional definition of marriage as between a man and a woman and subsequently, the ‘Repeal movement’. Through the use of mass self-communication, the voices of marginalised populations were lifted above the parapet in the marriage equality referendum and were met with resounding agreement from Ireland’s electorate. The voices of women which have traditionally been absent from public discourse regarding abortion rights in Ireland (Rossiter, 2009), became central to shaping contemporary discourse on abortion in the country in the lead up to the most recent, and for me personally, most important referendum of a generation.
The internet has allowed offline campaigns to be run online and for developments in movements and offline activism to be communicated to wider audiences. The use of social media aids in spreading awareness and communicates events offline like protest, marches and information evenings, while ‘hashtag activism’ allows users to contribute to multiuser conversations. Contemporary literature on the role of social media in social movements (Gerbaudo, 2012; Mora, 2014) argues that the most important activism tool enabled by online technologies is its ability to provide channels for building relationships and connections through which information can flow, thus enabling, rather than causing mass collectivisation. In 2015, 50 percent of Irish adults used Facebook daily and 25 percent used Twitter making it an obvious choice for the dissemination of information and planning Repeal Movement events. In March 2018 the ‘Strike 4 Repeal’ demonstration, for example, brought Dublin city centre to a standstill for an afternoon and was organised solely online, predominantly through social media.
Societal communication is multimodal (Castells, 2012), and this was reflected in the Repeal movement. This multimodality can be seen in the use of art during the Repeal movement. In 2016, a Dublin graffiti artist named Maser painted a mural on the wall of Dublin’s Project Arts Centre. It was removed after less than two months following complaints from groups opposing the legalising of abortion. The mural was replaced and again removed in April 2018, but this time, in the presence of hundreds of protesters. This artwork was subsequently developed as an online tool. An Irish Twitter user created a ‘Twibbon’ (a small image superimposed onto Twitter or Facebook profile pictures to support a cause) of the piece and Irish Twitter and Facebook users began to use it to show solidarity with Maser and the Repeal movement. Thus, the Repeal mural occupied both on and offline space and countered ‘the spatial dispersion of contemporary societies. Facebook messages and activist tweets have contributed in the construction of a new sense of social centrality, focused around ‘occupied squares’, which are thereby transformed into trending places, or venues of magnetic gatherings, with a great power of emotional attraction’ (Gerbaudo, 2012:13). In the aftermath of the removal of the mural the portion left uncovered by its second layer of paint became a symbol of silence and secrecy for Repeal movement activists. The curator of the centre echoed Masers words regarding this, ‘You can paint over a mural, but you can’t paint over a movement’.
Both Gerbaudo and Castells argue that emotion is a key motivation for individuals to become involved in social movements. Gerbaudo places greater emphasis on the role of emotion than technology in this regard. He argues that forms of mass communication are not just mediums used to ‘convey abstract opinions, but also to give a shape to the way in which people come together and act together’ (Gerbaudo, 2012:4). Mass self-communication does not constitute a new form of social movement but rather it is predominantly used for the ‘choreography of assembly’ which ‘is understood as the process of symbolic construction of public space, which involves an emotional scene-setting’ (2012:12). Here, Gerbaudo draws upon Durkheim’s notion of ‘collective effervescence’, where the mere fact of collectivising is an emotional stimulant (2012:39). Emotion was the Repeal movement’s driving force in my opinion. We were angry, furious even, at the treatment we had experienced for generations. As the fury bubbled over it was no longer containable. We had been silenced, vilified, shamed, criminalised, institutionalised, and some of us had died.
Castells states, ‘social movements are emotional movements’ (2015:13). The big bang of social movements starts with the transformation of emotion into action offline (Castells, 2015). For Castells ‘the emotions that are most relevant to social mobilization and political behaviour are fear and enthusiasm’ (2015:14). I would argue that anger and outrage are just as relevant in feminist social movements. Following the 2012 death of Savita Halapanavar having been repeatedly denied a termination despite suffering from a miscarriage taking place over seven days, there was an escalated sense of collective outrage which further fuelled the already established, but relatively new, ‘pro-choice’ social movement. Our outrage and fury enabled us to use our shame and shirk silence in favour of joining a grassroots movement along with others who had been affected by the same experiences. We shared a deepest darkest secret.
Thomas Scheff identifies shame as the ‘premier social emotion’ (2000) partly because it is deeply hidden. Jill Locke’s understanding of shame is useful here. ‘Shame’ involves the concealment of an aspect of life that a person would prefer others not know (Locke, 2007). Shame ‘lingers much longer’ than ‘guilt’, is highly traumatic to the individual and becomes the ‘totalizing judgement of the self’ (Williams, 1993; in Locke, 2007:149). Clara Fischer has argued that the shaming of women has been a core feature of Irish history and that postcolonial Irish national identity was built upon a mobilising of shame instituted through the problematising and legislation of women’s bodies (Fischer, 2016).
For Scheff, an individual’s public acknowledgement of shame ‘could be the glue that holds relationships and societies together, and unacknowledged shame the force that tears them apart’ (Scheff, 2000:98). Castells argues that social media platforms allow individuals to find spaces of autonomy through mass self-communication and feelings of togetherness allow people to escape fear and take action (2015). In a study of feminist politics and social media responses to rape culture, Rentschler (2014) argued that social media provides an online space where ‘response-ability’ enables the development of a ‘politics of care’ among women through mutual support, sharing of experiences, and witnessing. The online sharing of personal experiences of the affect and effect of the 8th amendment in Facebook pages such as ‘In Her Shoes; Women of the Eighth’ and a Tumblr blog called ‘Share Your Abortion Story’ has allowed for autonomous sharing, the beginnings of healing, and the development of a sense of togetherness with the therapeutic potential of Rentschler’s ‘politics of care’.
Scheff’s perspective of shame as the ‘premier social emotion’, suggests that shame plays a different motivational role in regard to social movements and activism. If shame involves the deep concealment of things a person would wish others not to know, and its public acknowledgement could mitigate social alienation, then the relationship between social media and the Repeal Movement has a potentially personal therapeutic dimension as well as the political potential highlighted by Castells and Gerbaudo. Rentschler identifies this as a ‘politics of care’ and the personal accounts published on the ‘In Her Shoes’ Facebook page and in other places, in my view, indicate the potential for such a therapeutic politics based on the public acknowledgement of shame. By nurturing this ‘politics of care’ it could be that the Repeal Movement embarked upon a mode of feminist liberation harnessing the lessons learned and communities built both on and offline. I believe the potential for this to be realised was enhanced by the creative and focused use of social media by Repeal Movement activists. We, as women of the 8th and our allies across the world, should work to nurture our ‘politics of care’ and develop an online ‘community of care’ through the continued sharing of long hidden shame, by long silenced voices. Through the sharing of shame, we can continue to find togetherness and ‘response-ability’ in online space and a reprieve from this harmful totalising judgement of ourselves.
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davetynan., 2017. Heartbreak. [video online] Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uv9oax2N160&t=1s>. (Last Accessed: 6th May 2018)Fischer, C., 2016. ‘Gender, Nation, and the Politics of Shame: Magdalen Laundries and the Institutionalization of Feminine Transgression in Modern Ireland’. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 41(4):821-843.
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