The role of social media in women empowerment

This text was delivered as a speech on Tuesday, May 16, at the #SheForShe forum of the French Embassy in the Philippines during the "Women Empowerment through the Media" section. The forum highlights different initiatives of women supporting other women in various fields, and explores the current situation of women in the Philippines.

A few years ago, when I started breaking a series of exclusive corruption-related stories on some male senators, a rumor quickly spread among Senate staff. Who was I sleeping with, they said, that I was getting these stories? 

In 2013, when I reported about Janet Napoles’ daughter’s lavish lifestyle, and questioned where she got the money to fund the Hollywood high-rise apartment, sports cars, designer bags and clothes, and extravagant parties, Napoles filed a libel suit against me. The libel suit accused me of being envious of Napoles’ daughter, which was allegedly my motive to spread false and malicious lies. 

And just last year, when I decried the slut-shaming of the president himself towards Senator Leila de Lima, I was attacked online on social media, and called various sexually-laden names, threatened rape and murder, and was accused of sleeping with former president Benigno Aquino III. 

Stereotypes of women within the media industry still very much exist. Very early on in my career, I realized this harsh truth: when female journalists are successful, and doing their job well, it is hard to believe they got there by sheer hard work. It must’ve been because they slept with somebody on the way up. Or their articles are critical, because they’re jealous of another woman or whoever is in power. It cannot be that she just is intelligent, or competent, or fearless. 

And when she is fearless, she will get attacked. One of the most extreme cases of female journalists paying the price for their excellent work, is the case of Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist from Azerbaijan. Khadijah exposed the president’s corruption. When she refused to stop reporting despite anonymous threats, a sex video of her and her boyfriend was anonymously posted online, and went viral. Her own investigation revealed that the government bugged her apartment with hidden cameras, and was responsible for the sex video. She also served time in jail on retaliatory charges. 

In the Philippines, women journalists are relatively more fortunate than their counterparts across the world. Women can succeed here in journalism, and do enjoy representation. They head major networks, run newsrooms, and report from the field. But we don’t need to look far to realize that this is far from reality in other places. 

For two years, I served as the Bureau Chief of Rappler Indonesia, our very first international bureau. I was one of a handful of Bureau Chiefs that were women. Most top editors in Indonesia are still men. As a woman journalist, Indonesian government officials often commented on my looks, asked about my marital status, and were often uncomfortably touchy. In Indonesia, a women’s march was mocked and laughed at. 

But just because women journalists are slightly better off in the Philippines, and we occupy positions of power in the industry, it does not mean the battle is over. All one has to do is look at social media to realize how far we yet have to go.  

I could talk about the importance of having good representation of women in the news, to shape discussions around current events, and to cover a wide variety of topics related to women and their struggles. I could talk about the importance of fighting stereotypes in media, of having women journalists who are strong and fearless and critical, rather than just well-dressed and beautiful. But today, I want to talk about social media and its role in women empowerment. My whole journalism career has been focused on the digital space. This is what I know.

Rappler is the top online only news website in the Philippines. We call ourselves a social news network. Our bloodline is digital. We thrive on social media, disseminate news and report on social media, create conversations and engage through social media. I do not have to tell you how powerful social media is. It has toppled dictators and have helped shape elections. We all know this. 

And in the feminism movement, it has also become indispensable.  

Feminism on social media

Social media has swiftly, and widely spread feminism ideologies. Social media, specifically hashtags and online campaigns, have given women around the world a voice. It has shed light on women’s issues that were not previously discussed and enhances conversations around topics not covered by mainstream media. It triggers participation for real-life campaigns. And in many cases, these seemingly simple hashtags have instigated change.

In 2014, Victoria’s Secret faced widespread social media backlash for their campaign “The Perfect Body.” An online petition on Change.org quickly racked up 30,000 signatures in a few hours. Victoria’s Secret listened to public outrage, and opted for the less damaging “A Body for Every Body,” which is a healthier, more inclusive message to send to young women. 

We also saw the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls after Boko Haram abducted schoolgirls in Nigeria. The hashtag aimed to pressure their release. Some of the girls were eventually released after years, and while it cannot be simply attributed to this hashtag, the global movement did raise awareness about the struggles of women in West Africa and pressured Nigerian authorities. After lengthy negotiations, the government struck a deal with Boko Haram, and issued a statement which read, “The president has repeatedly expressed his total commitment towards ensuring the safe return of the #ChibokGirls,” referring to one of the social media campaigns initiated for the girls. 

Even Rappler’s own #SaveMaryJane, helped shed light to yet another women’s issue. The hashtag’s main aim was to spare the life of Mary Jane, a Filipina on death row in Indonesia for allegedly smuggling heroin into the country. It worked. It pressured then president Aquino to personally appeal to Indonesia President Joko Widodo, who ordered that Mary Jane be pulled from the line just minutes before her execution. But the hashtag also raised awareness on women as victims of drug trafficking.

And of course here, just recently, social media was unforgiving to Senator Tito Sotto for shaming a single mother – although it remains to be seen whether that has made any impact on his future behavior. One would hope some men, seeing the backlash, would at least rethink misogynistic comments and opinions like his.

Downside

Social media, through its pace of dissemination, and its reach, has become a massive tool for women empowerment. It has also helped share encouragement between women, the ultimate #SheForShe instigator. The like button, which has served as a virtual hug to each other, are some ways women are able to empathize with those who share their personal experience online. Pantsuit Nation, which was first started to rally camaraderie among Hillary Clinton supporters in 2016, is a secret Facebook page which has seen thousands of women share their own stories and offer support to one another. It is now almost 4 million members strong.

But as we all know, social media has also been used to silence the voices of women, through online abuse. Women in power and women journalists are especially targeted in these attacks. Studies have consistently shown that the threat and attacks against women online are distinctly different from men’s. While both genders receive physical threats, those against women are sexually-related, meant to assert dominance, silence and intimidate. Social media has been used to spread misogyny and have encouraged some sexists to come out of the woodwork, when they see that hateful comments receive many likes. 

Additionally, the term “slacktivism” has also been used to describe digital activism, since liking and sharing online makes people feel good, even when the online campaign has no real concrete political or social impact. We must be cautious about falling into this trap. 

What is certain is social media is here to stay, and it will continue to play a role in women empowerment and the advancement of feminism. What matters is how well and responsibly we use it. – Rappler.com