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Wednesday, Feb 9, 2011, 1:44 pm

Direct Hashtag Action

By Joe Macaré

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It was with a certain degree of perverse relish that I posted a link on Facebook last week to an article entitled Friend Your Day Away – The Anti-Social Network. Ostensibly a review of The Social Network, the piece by Michael Atkinson from our February issue picks up an argument started by Malcolm Gladwell last fall.

Gladwell has been at it again recently – letting the world know what he presumably considers to be the most notable aspect of the uprisings in Egypt: that they did not rely on Facebook or Twitter. Who needs solidarity when you have points to score? Interestingly, the Prime Minister of Tunisia said otherwise, telling CNN that “Facebook and Twitter were the levers” of Tunisia's revolution. One wonders what Gladwell makes of that assertion and whether he has heard of Khaled Said or Wael Ghonim.

But to my mind another major news story in progressive circles last week gave an even clearer example of how social networking tools can be used as part of an activist campaign – with measurable results. In this case, it cannot be argued that Twitter was just an arbitrary tool and that any other would have sufficed, because in this case social networks were used not just to organize, but to actually protest.

Created by Sady Doyle of feminist website Tiger Beatdown, the #DearJohn campaign – named after John Boehner and addressed in part towards him – is a response to the extreme ‘No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion’ bill, HR3, and specifically the reference to “forcible rape” (misogynistic on its face, it would be absurd if it wasn't terrifying). In Doyle's own words:

Within a week, that rape clause was gone*. But the bill, dubbed a “top priority” for Congress by Speaker John Boehner continues on apace – it is in the Ways and Means Committee, there will be a hearing for it on February 8 – and a new and more aggressive anti-choice bill, HR358 (the “Protect Life Act,” which has one of the more darkly funny names in bill history) is picking up steam.

Doyle is continuing to fight for (amongst other things) "a united front on choice, which includes rejecting and condemning Democrats who cross party lines to create or pass legislation that violently harms pregnant people." But what she's accomplished in the past week and a half indicates something about the value of a mere hashtag.

If you're wondering what a hashtag is, look no further. Deanna Zandt, whose book Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking was excerpted in In These Times , created a guide to joining this campaign and Twitter campaigns in general – the assumption being that there will be more of them. And indeed, this is the second such campaign for which Sady Doyle has been partly responsible.

The first one had even more tangible results, although it was also more divisive among progressives. After Michael Moore was interviewed by Keith Olbermann and the two dismissed the sexual assault allegations against Julian Assange as "a bunch of hooey", Doyle took to addressing Moore directly on Twitter via the hastag #mooreandme (inspired by Moore's Roger and Me), and encouraged anyone else who believed rape allegations should be taken seriously to do the same. For all that their work may be commendable, Moore and Olbermann have never been on the cutting edge of issues of gender and sexual politics. But here they had blundered in a way that went beyond a simple case of foot in mouth.

And Sady Doyle had opened a real can of worms. #Mooreandme was not only aimed at supposed allies, it also took exception to the idea of Julian Assange as an automatically unassailable hero: tricky ground when many were painting him as a villain for the release of classified information. Doyle correctly observed that, whatever the benefits of the information Assange had released, far too many supposed progressives (primarily men) were far too quick to assume Assange's innocence, to smear his alleged victims, even to shrug off his alleged sexual assault - or some combination of all three.

It would be easy to characterize this dispute as pointless internecine strife. No doubt some felt this way. But something unexpected happened: a relatively happy turn of events, if not an ending. Michael Moore went on The Rachel Maddow Show and said this:

"Every woman who claims to have been sexually assaulted or raped has to be, must be, taken seriously. Those charges have to be investigated to the fullest extent possible. For too long, and too many women have been abused in our society, because they were not listened to, and they just got shoved aside… The older people here remember how it used to be. It’s not that much better now, it got a little better, because the women’s movement made that happen."

What happened, then, was a moment in which the different demands and concerns of people with distinct political priorities who could still be broadly grouped as progressives clashed – but were to some extent resolved, with an admission by one side that they had learned from the experience. In both cases, while the struggles continue, Doyle's campaigns extracted clear concessions: not by following the Obama playbook and making concessions first, but by sticking fiercely to feminist principles and not budging an inch.

This can only be good for progressive alliances. And it would not have been possible without social networks.

*UPDATE: According to The New York Times: "the staff of Representative Jerrold Nadler... said that language remained intact as of Tuesday." It remains to be seen whether the bill's backers will honor their claim and remove the "forcible rape" terminology.

Joe Macaré is a writer, editor and development and communications professional, originally hailing from the UK and now residing in Chicago. His writing has appeared at In These Times, TruthOut, AlterNet, Dazed and Confused, The Times, Plan B and Stylus. He has appeared on WBEZ radio and Chicago Newsroom to discuss his extensive coverage of the Occupy Chicago movement.

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