‘Me too:’ How viral campaigns and structured activism work together

"me too" activism dandelion
Jessica Doojphibulpol/Staff

The recent viral campaign #MeToo took off when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted a screen shot that said: “Me too. Suggested by a friend: ‘if all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too.” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.’ ” Within 24 hours, the powerful but simple phrase was ablaze across social media, with millions of comments and posts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Less popularized than the sharing of those two words was their origin. Before it found its way to a verified Twitter handle, activist Tarana Burke began the movement more than 10 years ago through her nonprofit Just Be Inc., with the intention of bringing awareness and empathy to what she considered to be an epidemic. She was inspired to start her organization after hearing the story of a girl’s experience with sexual abuse.

When the first “Me too” — encompassing the viral campaign as well as Burke’s movement — with no context appeared on my Facebook newsfeed, I brushed it off without even looking it up, assuming it was just another trendy post that would dwindle without requiring my acknowledgement. But it didn’t take long for it to capture my attention, because it took on an unfamiliar character: It reverberated in not just one but all of the online spheres I interact with. My aunt in Texas posted “Me too” the same day as one of my closest college friends, before my high school soccer coach.

It’s hard to ignore the spread of such a wildfire, and I wanted to know who had struck the match. The first search results revealed much about Milano. When I finally came across a video interview with Burke, there was something about the time “Me too” took to reach larger levels of acknowledgement that left me unsettled.

“It’s hard to ignore the spread of such a wildfire, and I wanted to know who had struck the match.”

What helped calm my disquiet was looking into the mechanism’s awareness and activism use to build off of each other. In the case of “Me too,” a social media trend with a large audience and organizations with less reach but more consistent dedication are equally worthy of recognition.

Many shared my initial feelings of unease, but for different reasons. Some of the concerns that arose surrounding the “Me too” campaign focused on the nature of “Me too” as initially appearing as something that women have to prove or admit in order to be heard, making them feel pressured to share their stories. Other concerns came from feeling that the movement transferred responsibility from the perpetrator to the victim, lumping together sexual assault and harassment, all while excluding those who don’t identify as women. Some even took issue with its viral nature.

Addressing the concerns raised around “Me too” provides a framework to explore the spread of sexual assault awareness that comes in the forms of both a viral campaign and organizational activism here on campus.

Sharon Inkelas holds a position that she described as “the first of its kind in the UC system”: special faculty advisor to the chancellor on sexual violence/sexual harassment (SVSH). With a background in linguistics, Inkelas acknowledged that communication and transparency around policies and procedures are crucial to a healthy, safe climate. Her mission is to spread the information of campus support and adjudication procedures because she feels that “the better the people can understand the process we follow, the more likely they are to believe in it and to engage in it.”

“Me too” established a space of mutual belief, which bonded participants through either engagement or quiet solidarity. To those who found fault, however — interpreting “Me too” as something women had to prove in order to be believed, thus shifting the responsibility from the perpetrator to the victim — these concepts of belief and engagement came across differently. Belief is a word that is rightfully backed into a corner when it comes to sexual assault because it can so easily be manipulated to regress to a mindset of victim-blaming.

Michelle Sou, education coordinator for Bears That C.A.R.E. — an organization that aims to make campus feel safer by a creating a culture of active bystanders — is aware of the dangers of discourse surrounding belief. While she acknowledged that it can be frustrating for some survivors of sexual assault to constantly feel as though they have to not only talk about but also prove their experiences, she believes that if it’s something that helps empower others, everyone should be allowed to cope differently because “sexual assault has a lot of layers.”

Inkelas shares this sentiment. She explained that everyone processes differently, with some preferring to share their experiences, and that it’s not our place to judge each person’s unique coping mechanisms.

At the same time, Inkelas finds it necessary to remember people who prefer to keep their experiences private.

“People who don’t speak up may have stories that are just as compelling or more compelling than the people who do feel empowered to speak up. So the invisible population is important to keep in mind,” Inkelas said.

Regardless of how a survivor of sexual assault chooses to move forward, Sou says there is “power (in) resources.” “Me too” can be seen as a resource in that it is a platform for voices — a decision to use or not use that platform is as valid as a choice to use or not use the PATH to Care Center, UC Berkeley’s confidential resource center. Both can provide comfort simply by existing, because they give survivors a choice. Choice is the backbone of control, and any system restoring control to those from whom it was taken away has a capacity to act as a healing agent.

“So the invisible population is important to keep in mind.”

— Sharon Inkelas

Along with stressing the importance of choice in her clapback to criticism of the “Me too” movement, Inkelas believes in the power of solidarity.

“There are a lot of allies out there, people who, regardless of whether or not they had their own personal experiences, want to be part of the solution. It’s really important to have room for them to contribute (as well),” Inkelas explained.

On a level more immediately connected to UC Berkeley organizations, this room to contribute is explored beyond the online world. Encouraging student involvement in the Bears That C.A.R.E. active bystander model builds off of this desire to participate in change.

Sou argued that being an active bystander and doing something when you feel consent isn’t present is no different in concept than telling someone they have spinach stuck in their teeth.

“It’s not something that’s new for a lot of people … but what we really try to do is put words to those actions and make people feel validated that those little things matter,” Sou said.

Putting words to actions helps increase awareness, awareness encourages action, and it cycles back to actions inspiring words. This circular effect runs smoothly until we get tripped up on the specifics of words. Other words beyond “belief” that became sources of contention during this wave of “Me too” awareness were the terms “sexual harassment” as opposed to “sexual assault.” Because of the initial tweet that lumped these into one surge of awareness, some took issue with their presentation as interchangeable.

To a certain degree, this is how I initially felt. There is no harm in a movement that raises awareness of both sexual harassment and sexual assault, but I felt that my that my personal experiences with sexual harassment weren’t valid enough to share in the context of a movement that also included sexual assault. I felt that even the instance of sexual harassment that lingers most in my mind — being catcalled, grabbed by the arm and subsequently followed home when I yanked myself away in 9th grade, at 14 years old, by a man well into his 60s — paled in comparison to the experiences of others. But at the end of the day, this fear plays into rape culture through my self-dismissal, and this debate on terminology is just a mask for the real issue.

Sexual assault and sexual harassment are “different degrees of violence in how they’re normally defined, but at the end of the day, consent was broken,” Sou emphasized. Bears That C.A.R.E. begins its workshops with loose definitions of the terms, which Sou explained is just to get all participants on the same page. But the organization recognizes and accepts different interpretations, as they have become casually used as umbrella terms. Inkelas has also seen these two terms used to describe a wide spectrum of incidences and speculated that “the reason they’re often lumped in institutional settings is because Title IX legislation applies to both.”

“Just because the terms are blurred doesn’t mean the lines of consent are.”

We can’t let criticism of the words we use to talk about SVSH transfer over to our beliefs or definitions of what constitutes sexual violence or sexual harassment. Just because the terms are blurred doesn’t mean the lines of consent are.

Inkelas believes it’s important to use the terminology broadly consistent with policies and adjudication, to provide consistency for victims, overall consistency of consent and consistency for the process of recovery. Much of her job is not only coordinating workshops, but also coordinating these perceptions.

Going viral is a much less coordinated experience. Despite this unorganized flood of commentary, the viral nature of “Me too” allowed sexual assault and sexual harassment to reach new heights of awareness. And of course, with it came the criticism. The internet seems to give people the impression that someone just handed them a mic and asked them to please share their opinions. In this case, the criticism centered around the fact that the statistic that one in five women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes — taken from a 2012 CDC report on sexual violence — is well-known, that “Me too” is just noise on social media without allowing people to focus on taking action.

Maybe words can speak just as loudly as actions. Putting voices to those statistics is an introductory discussion that holds so much potential.

“Prevention includes awareness, and part of creating awareness is education,” Inkelas stated.

“Me too” provides the first step in education: understanding. In the model that Inkelas uses, it only takes one person to reach out for an entire department to go through a workshop.

Even though “Me too” doesn’t have people immediately donating their life savings to the cause, its impact creeps up in more nuanced ways. It promotes inclusivity for “the whole landscape of sexual violence and sexual harassment prevention education and response,” reflective of the idea behind Inkelas’ unique position. It allows people to take initiative, and it shows how far attention can spread.

“I’d like to think that these campaigns give more exposure … that people will be more open to having these workshops and having these conversations that our peer educators are facilitating about these topics,” Sou emphasized. “(They provide) a space of knowledge and a level of comfort.”

The hope is that “Me too” will have a lasting behind-the-scenes influence, despite its peak and dwindling visibility. Sou believes this trajectory is natural with something so viral.

Inkelas acknowledges that “organizations that have stability can start initiatives where there’s accountability” and trackable progress but that “spreading information over the internet is a very efficient way to get a lot of people connected quickly.” In fact, her office is set to release a novel survey in January that will focus not only on how often incidences of SVSH occur on campus, but also on the reach of awareness of the issue, so that “(the office) can better tune (its) own response.” Social media provides a space for this reciprocal learning.

“(They provide) a space of knowledge and a level of comfort.”

I haven’t seen a “Me too” post in the past couple of weeks. But Sou hopes that “Me too” is still providing a way for people to relate their experiences back to popular culture.

“It is important to remember that the internet reaches only some people, and the ‘Me too’ movement started off initially being only about women, but it’s not only women who are the subjects of sexual harassment and sexual violence,” Inkelas added, giving another reason to keep the conversation going in new ways.

Sharing stories has undoubtedly powerful effects. After all, it was a story that sparked Burke’s interest in creating a nonprofit for victims of sexual assault and harassment and her choice to name her movement “Me too.”

So take your criticism somewhere that doesn’t discourage people from participating in change. Consider this my “Me too.” And remember to not extinguish the flame.

Contact Alejandra Dechet at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @aydecks.