Twitter as a Platform for Female Journalists and Feminism [text and video]

(Rebecca Gibian/Twitter)

The world of journalism is in constant motion. The days of inky fingertips and lazy Sunday mornings reading the newspaper have been replaced with quick-updating apps and online profiles. Social media outlets have transformed newsrooms, speeding up news-gathering and enabling recourse to wider ranges of sources and material, according to The Conversation, an academic journal.

Twitter, created in 2006, has served as an avenue to stimulate discussion and facilitate global expansion of newsrooms. It has also served as an avenue to stimulate discussion and education on gender equality and social activism. Within the past year, trending hashtags have created online conversation about feminism and the state of gender equality in the world today. The hashtag #YesAllWomen, for example, began as a single tweet and started a gender rights revolution.

Kjerstin Thorson is an assistant professor in USC Annenberg’s School for Communication & Journalism. She has researched the effects of digital and social media on activism, persuasion and political engagement. Here she discusses the impact that Twitter has on different communities and the interesting uses of the hashtag. Video: Signe Larsen

Hashtag Frenzy

(Rebecca Gibian/Neon Tommy)

Over the past year, numerous viral hashtags have trended all around the world. They’ve been seen and retweeted by millions.

“I was actually initially very anti-hashtags when I first got on twitter because I didn’t really understand how they were being used,” said Kara Brown. Brown is a journalist for Jezebel, a website that focuses on feminist and women-centric issues. “Once I actually started getting more involved with Twitter, I understood better that hashtags are a tool and can be very useful for condensing conversations and information and streamlining, especially when you’re looking for something.”

Many recent viral hashtags have focused on gender equality and feminist issues. Some popular ones include #YesAllWomen, #WhyIStayed, #YouOkaySis, #SurvivorPrivilege and #INeedFeminism.

“Social media also helps gather wide-flung admiration and celebrity for some causes,” said Caroline D’Angelo, a social media expert and current Eco-Management Analyst at the U.S. Department of State. It has helped start discussions, and many female journalists have used social media and hashtags to further their stories.

Kara Brown works for the female-focused website Jezebel, the self-proclaimed “Home of Shiny Happy Ladies.” Before she worked for Jezebel, Brown was a blogger who frequently used Twitter to promote her work. In this video she discusses the multiple uses of Twitter and her original distrust of hashtags. Video: Belinda Cai

Providing Support

Some hashtags, like #SurvivorPrivilege, bring injustices to light and send encouragement to victims of sexual abuse. Washington Post writer George Will suggested there was no campus rape epidemic and said that women were lying about being victims of sexual violence.

Wagatwe Wanjuki was kicked out of school after being raped. After hearing Will’s statements, she started #SurvivorPrivilege as a way to fight back.

“[The hashtag] was from his language — he used the word ‘privilege’,” Wanjuki said, in a phone interview. “Being a survivor is anything but a privilege. I have a lot of privileges, but being raped on a college campus is not one of them.

Wanjuki says that she received support for #SurvivorPrivilege from Twitter, and didn’t receive any threatening messages or tweets on the internet. She believes that the wording of her hashtag was difficult to manipulate.”

I think the framing of the tweet was hard to hijack,” Wanjuki said. “I did do a TV piece on BET, and someone tweeted [negatively at me], but I didn’t track the entire hashtag. There weren’t any direct attacks.”

Wanjuki had praise for Twitter’s efficiency, which makes Twitter an ideal platform for activism. “I didn’t want to write a long blog post. Twitter is good for short, snarky, public quips… it’s a really good resource. You can find community really quickly,” Wanjuki said.

Starting Conversations About Breaking News

Some of these hashtags stem from breaking news events, such as #YesAllWomen, which was a response to Elliot Rodger shooting and killing six people in Isla Vista in May of 2014. He left behind a manifesto vowing to get revenge on women who had rejected him.

The hashtag’s purpose was to raise awareness about continuing issues of women’s equality and objectification; it is not unusual for a woman to get beaten or verbally abused for turning down a man, and it is not unusual for victims to be blamed for sexual assault or rape.

While some hashtags are popular for a few days, many go away once the buzz dies down. However, #YesAllWomen returned when Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia University student who was raped in her bed, began carrying her mattress around for her visual arts senior thesis project in protest of the university not adequately punishing her rapist. She will carry the mattress until Columbia expels him.

Women across the country brought #YesAllWomen back to discuss Sulkowicz’s journey and how to help her.


The hashtag returned again in September of 2014 when a video of a NFL football player Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée surfaced. People took up #YesAllWomen to discuss how women are portrayed in abusive relationships.


Do They Work?

What do hashtags actually help female journalists do?

“I think [Twitter] mobilizes some people,” said Brown. “With Ferguson [for example], I think that really showed that a hashtag or a conversation being had on social media could have real-life implications.”

She says this applies to gender equality issues addressed by hashtags. Twitter provides a platform for people who may not speak their mind otherwise.

“Media in particular make a lot more room for new voices,” said Thorson. “That doesn’t mean those voices are always listened to, but that there are times when collection of actors who don’t usually get to speak their mind, when they all speak together or speak on the same topic, can actually attract a lot more attention.”

Twitter activism forces people to think outside of their normal realm of thought.

“My hope at least is that a lot of these sort of crossover events like the #WhyIStayed are a great example of something becoming political out of [something not political in nature],” said Thorson. “Sports is not usually about politics, but when people pay attention to sports, we may attract attention from people who are not ‘into’ politics or say they don’t care about particular issues, but they might be drawn to those issues because that conversation becomes so important. So I would hope just a few of those people would stay around and be ready to act on the next issue as it arises.”

On the other hand, while some journalists find hashtags helpful, they also understand that “Twitter activism” may not have a far reach.

D’Angelo sees the benefit of Twitter for female journalists and gender movements, but asks, “Does #YesAllWomen actually get to the people who need the message the most, or does it stay in liberal, female-friendly circles?” She believes that the best parts of social media are messages that make people think about various issues.

“It may give people the tools to combat violence when they see it,” said D’Angelo. “And for gender issues, it may help introduce people to LGBT issues that ‘never’ would have met someone in person — they see something on Twitter, on social media, and it socializes them to the concept… one hopes at least.”

Violence and Twitter

While Twitter does stimulate conversation and provide a platform for discussion, it also provides an easy way to anonymously threaten people. And who is threatened most on social media? Women.

A study by the Think Tank Demos looked at millions of Twitter messages. And while many famous men received more threats than their counterparts, there was one category that received the most of all: female journalists.

The study says that “more than 5 percent of all Twitter messages sent to female journalists are unfavorable.”

Women journalists face rape threats, bomb threats and more.

“I think that social media puts female journalists at risk of more criticism, violent threats and sexism than male journalists have — I’m sure these horrible thoughts and abuses have gone on for time eternal, but social media gives them a large, global stage on which to do it, and law enforcement is still struggling to get its act together to prosecute it,” said D’Angelo via an email interview.

The International Women’s Media Foundation did a global study of violence against women journalists. They asked their respondents whether they had experienced ‘intimidation, threats or abuse’ in relation to their work. Sixty-four percent said yes.

Meanwhile, 22% said they had experienced physical violence in relation to their work. 13% said they had experienced sexual violence in relation to their work. And 46% said they had experienced sexual harassment.

On top of violent threats, respondents had also experienced harassment on the basis of sexual orientation, religion, political or trade membership or on the basis of a disability.

“However, there’s also been amazing awareness campaigns — violence against female journalists has been publicized and talked about through twitter and social media,” said D’Angelo. “‘Women’s’ magazines like Self, Cosmo, etc. are getting in on the game too, encouraging women to use hashtags and report what happens to them.”

Despite all of these dichotomies, social media is not going away and will continue to grow. There will be a new trending hashtag tomorrow and no one knows where the Internet will go, especially when it comes to Twitter and social media.

“I don’t think we know yet what the effect is gonna be long-term. In each of these cases you see awareness being raised, right?” said Thorson. “[You see] the Facebook Ice Bucket Challenge and suddenly everyone is talking about ALS, or in the more recent case of spousal abuse, you see people talking about stories that don’t normally get heard in the mainstream news media. Over the long-term, though, will that change something for a particular organization? I think that is a lot harder to say.”

Click here for the Storify on feminist hashtags.

Originally written for Neon Tommy: CLICK HERE FOR THE STORY.

This multimedia story was produced in collaboration with the 2014-2015 M.S. Graduate Program at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism. I produced this along with Diana Crandall, Rebecca Gibian and Signe Larsen.

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