Feminist digital activism: The revolution is being streamed, snapped and tweeted

The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence concludes with Brigitte Lewis’ examination of the roots and impact of feminist digital activism, both online and off.

While the internet is undoubtedly a cesspool of sexual harassment, it is also the site of digital activism. With the creation of digital activism, a feminist and female-led revolution, once pronounced dead – has been reignited. As Gil Scot-Heron famously said, “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” (1970); somewhere, on the internet, it will be streamed, photographed, tweeted and then turned into a meme.

We know historically that rights are fought and won on the streets. This was true of women’s right to vote, and women’s right to work. Increasingly, this fight has been incorporating the use of social media to challenge institutions, governments and individuals to act where they have otherwise failed to do so.

This blog examines how hashtags such as #CountingDeadWomen, #BlackLivesMatter, #IllRideWithYou, #YesAllWomen, #NotOkay, and others, are now etched into the fabric of Twitter. Each of these hashtags was coined by a woman or collective of women.


In Australia, the National Foundation of Australian Women created #CountingDeadWomen. This initiative, which continues today, literally counts the number of women killed in Australia every week.

A response to radio commentator Alan Jones, who now infamously claimed on air that “women are destroying the joint,” demonstrates the epidemic proportions of gendered violence in our society.

What Jones was talking about when making that comment was the Australian government money that had been committed to gender equality, together with the very fact of having women in public office like then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Police Commissioner Christine Nixon.

If someone as misogynistic as Jones thinks women are destroying the joint – alternately understood as the patriarchal order of the “joint” currently known as Australia – then digital activists are achieving great things.

#BlackLivesMatter and #HandsUpDontShoot

Image courtesy of Black Lives Matter, via Wikimedia Commons.
Image courtesy of Black Lives Matter, via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the most famous female-led hashtag of the last five years is #BlackLivesMatter, which was started in the United States during 2013 by three queer black women – Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza.

It began after policeman George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager, in Sandford, Florida on February 26, 2012.

Since then, it has evolved to include #HandsUpDontShoot following the murder of Michael Brown, another African American man who was shot down – allegedly with his hands in the air – in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014.

The original hashtag has since spawned a social movement which “advocates for dignity, justice, and respect.”


2014 was a prolific year for hashtags that went viral.

One of these was #Illridewithyou, which was started by writer Tessa Kum after the “Sydney Siege” where Man Haron Monis took hostages in a Lindt Café and hung an Islamic flag in the window. Consequently, Muslim women were being targeted and attacked on public transport.

Kum saw a series of tweets by Rachel Jacobs:

Thereafter, Kum responded with her own tweets:

The hashtag spread and people across Australia offered to ride with Muslim women as a show of solidarity against some people’s racist behaviour. It simultaneously highlighted the privilege with which people with white skin can move through public space. Colloquially this is known as white privilege.

#YesAllWomen and #FreeTheNipple

#YesAllWomen was created by @gildedspine and also began in 2014 after Elliot Rodger murdered six people in an act of misogynistic rage in the United States. This hashtag asked women to share their experiences of every day misogyny.

One of the most popular re-tweets, as seen below, was something that I also do every evening.

#FreeTheNipple was born in 2014 as a media campaign to advertise a documentary about female nudity being a crime in New York. It swung into a viral movement in 2015 after 17-year-old student Adda Þóreyjardóttir Smáradóttir from Iceland decided that Thursday should be free the nipple day at her school. Celebrities soon followed suit, snapping their breasts and consequently being banned from Instagram for policy breaches.


And lately, in October 2016, following the “grab her by the pussy” video which captures now president-elect Donald Trump saying that he regularly sexually harasses and assaults women, writer Kelly Oxford asked:

The response was millions of women sharing their own assault stories using the hashtag #NotOkay.

The Digital Revolution

The first Slut Walk protest in Toronto, April 3, 2011. Photograph by Anton Bielousov. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The first Slut Walk protest in Toronto, April 3, 2011. Photograph by Anton Bielousov. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Feminism is not dead. Women might still be getting silenced, but what we’re not is silent.

And we’re not just raising our voices on social media either. We’re using it as a tool to create action on the streets with #SlutWalk to end victim blaming and forward “End Rape on Campus” campaigns that have prompted universities to run surveys to finally capture the extent of the problem. We are actively creating a history that is searchable and readable by almost anyone as long as they know what hashtag they’re looking for. We are standing, sitting and SHOUTING with and to each other and much of the world, digitally, as well as through text and image, but also on the ground, where revolution began.

Of course, every method of action has its limitations. The internet, while allowing for new kinds of revolutionary action, also reinscribes some existing forms of exclusion. Only those who can afford a phone with a data plan or a laptop or device with the internet, and have access to electricity and education in order to know how to use these things, can partake in the digital history-making that happens on Twitter and Facebook. And only those people who have these things and are also situated outside dictatorships – like China and North Korea, where accessing these platforms is illegal – can easily and safely participate.

Access or not, the greater question is about fostering equality. Answers are often found in places like the internet that was once considered the realm of the unreal. Now, however, it has become an instrument of change-makers and joint destroyers across the world, and their face is overwhelmingly female identified.


The Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service Victoria (FVPLS) was established in 2002 and works with families and communities to provide assistance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander victims and survivors of family violence and sexual assault. As part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, the FVPLS is collecting toys and presents for a Christmas Giving Tree. For more information about donations, click here.


s200_brigitte-lewisBrigitte Lewis is the Research Officer for the Gendered Violence and Abuse Research Alliance (GeVARA) at RMIT where researchers are actively exploring digital activism in relation to crime and justice issues.

Follow Brigitte on Twitter @briglewis.


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