Feminist activism in the 21st century begins with a post

The largest protest march in America’s history began with a Facebook post.

This may seem an extraordinary feat—and it was. But for Alison Dahl Crossley, PhD, who has examined the mobilizing capacity of Facebook over the past decade, the nearly five million women and their allies who gathered in Washington D.C. and at sister marches around the world on January 21, 2017, is a testament to how the “Internet promotes feminist mobilization.”

In her article “Facebook Feminism: Social Media, Blogs, and New Technologies of Contemporary U.S. Feminism,” Crossley distills years of research she conducted at colleges across America to show how Facebook became the platform for feminist activism that it is today. “Facebook is a unique infrastructure for mobilization and recruitment,” Crossley writes, “in that respondents had large and diverse friendship networks that were used to spread feminism and raise feminist consciousness.” It is the digital platform itself, abetted by advancements in technology that have rapidly facilitated the “communication patterns and information flow” that have made Facebook the preeminent tool for social justice activism in the twenty-first century. 

Alison Crossley

Facebook was never imagined to be the premiere platform for feminism activism, Crossley observes, noting that many, including investors, conceived of it as a “marketing tool.” But the social network has not only streamlined and facilitated feminist bonding and discussions of gender issues online, Crossley contends, it has fundamentally changed our very understanding of what feminist activism looks like, both strategically and tactically—and literally, thanks to the plethora of “diverse friendship networks” that have broadened people’s social circles overnight.

In her research, Crossley analyzes how Facebook has made feminist activism more dynamic and more intersectional, as well as more readily available to people who live in remote areas. “In contrast to previous forms of feminism,” Crossley notes, “the Internet allows for interaction with other activists and adversaries at an unparalleled speed and frequency.” And also ease and efficiency. Taking her queries about new forms of feminist mobilization to college campuses, Crossley discovered that “[f]eminist student organizations used their Facebook networks as a free organizational resource and as a tactic to expand the reach of their offline campaigns.” 

The dozens of student interviews she conducted across three different college campuses support her findings: “‘I feel like Facebook is very powerful as far as social change,’ Elizabeth, a white bisexual Smith [College] student active in off-campus social justice organizing,” said to Crossley. And, “‘I think it’s important to recognize that Facebook can be one of the best feminist resources in the world,’” UCSB student Camille, “a heterosexual Armenian woman active in a number of organizations,” said in her interview.

Undergraduate students at Stanford University agree that Facebook has transformed their activism and student-organizing experience. For example, Madeleine Lippy (’18), a Clayman Institute Research Assistant and the director of the Fearless Conference, said in an email statement to Gender News that “social media and activism have become inextricably intertwined; it’s how we reach masses [of people], how we communicate information, [and] how we share our stories and opinions." Noting how she used Facebook to launch the NO MORE Campaign in order to raise awareness and initiate conversation about rape culture on campus, she believes that “[s]ocial media, in some ways, has become activism, especially for my generation.”

And this new digital landscape that has enabled feminism to flourish is also responsible for feminism’s diversification of interests and centering of intersectionality. Crossley’s critical insight produced by her research crystalizes around Facebook’s network that is built upon the notion of “friendship.” Crossley explains, “strong friendship ties cultivate community and organizations, and weak ties created opportunities for activists to expand recruitment bases and reach a wide number of individuals with whom they would not come into contact in their offline lives.” She further clarifies how these varying types of Facebook friendships create manifold avenues for feminism activism: "More than simply providing information within their netowrks, activists taught feminism and spread feminist ideology, drawing in individuals who would not typically engage in feminist discussion."

Make no mistake: this type of online feminist mobilization, Crossley suggests, “is similar to previous conceptions of feminism, in that friendship networks and communities are critical to the sustenance and advancement of the movement.” The critical difference is that these new networks are online, “not the offline women’s clubs or consciousness-raising groups of the past.”

Facebook provides a dynamic virtual environment for geographically-disparate people to share ideas, have discussions, and recruit participants for activist causes. Today, a march or protest is not a private, geographically-isolated event; rather, because of Facebook—the world’s most popular social media platform with an estimated 1.86 billion users—local activism is immediately made global. With a single “post.” And, arguably, it is only because of social media that countless disparate interest groups could converge on the Capitol under the umbrella cause of the Women’s March.

During her March address, Gloria Steinem observed that “sometimes we must put our bodies where our beliefs are” when it comes to mobilized political action “IRL”—or, in real life. Steinem continued, “Sometimes pressing send is not enough.”

While, indeed, pressing send, or “post,” is not enough to create sustained social and political change, it is undoubtedly a start. “While some people may wonder where feminists have gone, it is clear that many feminists are online, fueling the feminist movement,” Crossley concludes in her article. In fact, in the digital age, mobilizing online to create visibility, raise awareness, and foster feminist conversation, is the first step in creating this change. It is critical to keep this in mind when we feel helpless: the tools for resistance lay at our very fingertips.