Off Twitter and onto the streets

Lizzie Reed, a PhD student at the University of Sussex,  is researching how queer parents experience media representations of queer families, and Hel Gurney, a recent graduate from the Sexual Dissidence MA programme, works at the intersection of writing, activism, and performance. This week, in a joint guest contribution, they explore how an outcry on Twitter translated to action on the streets.

‘Twitterstorm’ has recently become something of a buzzword, a convenient way to describe the way outrage spreads on Twitter when a news story goes viral, or a public figure tweets something ill-advised.  This outrage, like the proverbial storm in a teacup, stereotypically dies down as quickly as it appears. But not all Twitterstorms are so brief.  In the events we discuss here, a Twitter tempest transformed into a multimedia tsunami.

When popular feminist writer Suzanne Moore was challenged on her use of the term ‘a Brazilian transsexual’ to illustrate an ‘ideal’ body shape, it began as an ordinary Twitter argument – only exploding across the national press when Julie Burchill leapt to Moore’s defence in an article overflowing with transphobic slurs and misconceptions. Trans Media Action provides a considerably more detailed timeline of events; our focus here is not on re-telling this story but to look at how social justice activism leapt out from the internet and onto the streets, and what this might mean for future activist practice.

Twitterstorms are not, in and of themselves, agents of radical change. While they may be excellent consciousness-raising tools for social issues, it is rare that they are reported more widely online, outside of the social media spaces in which they began.  It is even rarer that the arguments of a Twitterstorm make their way into ‘meatspace’, so a key limitation of today’s Twitter activism is that it primarily reaches only those who are already engaged with online communities.

This particular Twitterstorm was unusual in its relationship with ‘old media’.  From its inception it was entangled with mainstream print media, and in direct communication with national journalists; the ensuing back-and-forth between newspaper articles and new media responses served to escalate both the scale and the intensity of the debate. Because of Twitter’s highly public nature and unique interface (namely the ability to ‘tag’ any other user), in many cases to be spoken about is also to be spoken to. The privileged mainstream platform enjoyed by Moore and Burchill was stripped away through the democratising communication offered by Twitter. Because every reader could respond in person to the writers, they were forced to confront their detractors.

Twitter’s 140-character limit encourages users to make short statements: tweets must be as direct and clear as a protest chant, or risk being stretched cumbersomely over several sections and being replied to piecemeal. Despite this limitation, Twitter also serves to facilitate more detailed analysis by serving as a nexus of links to blog entries and articles – sent viral through retweets, hashtags, and keywords. As anger and outrage spread in response to Burchill’s article, Twitter users linked to everything from Dean Burnett on how the Just World Hypothesis facilitates transphobia to Dru Marland’s wry infographic about ‘numpties on the internet’, and Harry Giles’ philosophically-grounded argument to Jezebel’s sarcastic gif-filled recap. Unlike a traditional-street protest where flyers are offered to passers-by in the hope that they’ll go home and read them and return to engage with the protest, Twitter protests (or ‘storms’) offer the opportunity to thrash out the theory, the background, the ideology and the best course of action, collaboratively and quickly.

Strikingly, in this case, social media users decided to step onto the streets in a protest at the office of the Guardian. Calls to action spread from Twitter across other social media sites; there were Facebook events, an open letter at The Petition Site, a press release at LGBT media outlet Pink News, and new website Protest-Transphobia.org. This movement from online activism to ‘real life’ activism is not unprecedented for the trans community – the free conference Trans Education and Determination, the protest against Julie Bindel’s accolade from the Stonewall Awards, and most recently the successful asylum plea for trans activist Fernanda Milan all had their inception online, receiving minimal media attention (primarily in online LGBT news outlets). But in the context of this ‘multimedia tsunami’, it was another rallying point for the subsequent widespread media engagement with trans issues.

The open letter accompanying the protest (above) drew attention to another major trans issue reverberating through Twitter; a mass outpouring of the quotidian discrimination, neglect, and abuse faced by trans patients seeking medical assistance collected under the hashtag #TransDocFail.  This association led the stories of #TransDocFail to gain more attention from the mainstream press, as well as raising the profile of a survey designed to collect the experiences recounted in #TransDocFail for a joint complaint to the General Medical Council – which aims to make concrete improvements in the experiences of trans* people with the medical establishment.

Could such a diverse outcome and significant mainstream impact have been achieved had social media users not taken to the streets? When a protest is organised, reported by, and enacted on Twitter alone, its impact usually does not go beyond the social media users who choose to engage with it. In this case, the public nature of the interaction of Twitter, blogs, and radical media with the mainstream media made this emblematic street protest visible on a national level – and helped force influential newspapers to publicly revise their policy, strategy and content. Twitter may offer many opportunities and methods for expression, but the cultural imaginary is still powerfully connected to the idea of street protest. The protests on the doorstep of the Guardian/Observer, and later Telegraph offices (who reprinted Burchill’s original article once the Observer took it down) provided an immediately recognisable image of discontent for the newspapers to report.  Those readers who were unfamiliar with the shape and form of online protest had a touchstone of intelligibility; these people were angry, and they demanded a change.

Online activism is a valuable tool, but it is only one front in the war against prejudice. We believe there are lessons here for activism and activist practices on the importance of maintaining dialogue with the mainstream and forcing online dialogue onto the streets where it can shout, stamp its feet, and be heard.

Photograph: Protest Transphobia @ The Telegraph.

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