The Power of Hashtag Activism Transforming the Discourse on Domestic Violence

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With more than two women dying per week as a result of an intimate partner or family member, there is no doubt that domestic violence is an epidemic in Australia. This social issue has received significant media attention – whether it be through news media or or social media, the issue of domestic violence receives wide scope coverage. However, the scope and quality of coverage by different media mediums has had a significant impact on the way in which domestic violence is perceived and understood. In particular, news media has a crucial role in transmitting and shaping social norms and belief as well as ‘inform[ing] the perpetration of this violence, shap[ing] victims’ responses to victimisation, and influenc[ing] community responses to violence against women (McGregor 2010, p.15). However, studies have found that Australian news media fail to report incidents of domestic violence in an accurate manner, which can negatively undermine the experiences of victims. In contrast, social media has emerged as a platform for citizens and domestic violence victims to engage in Hashtag Activism as a means to challenge social beliefs perpetuated by traditional media and spread the awareness about the gravity of the issue. In this way, social media is a platform on which citizens can subvert the gender inequalities news media perpetuates through its news coverage.

Studies (Our Watch, 2015; Morgan, J & Politoff, V 2012; Carlyle, Slater and Chakroff, 2008) have identified a number of negative characteristics in the way in which news organisations report domestic violence and contribute to misconceived notions about the issue. These include:

  • ‘Events-based’ News Reporting: News reports on domestic violence primarily focus on individual incidents located at specific places and times and fail to provide statistics and expert analysis to address the extent of this social problem. Such coverage falsely gives the impression that domestic violence is not real crime; instead, it is an individual, private responsibility as opposed to a social responsibility, and thus does not warrant State intervention.
  • Misrepresenting the Realities of Domestic Violence: Majority of news reports on domestic violence do not specify if there was a current or pre-existing relationship between the perpetrator and victim and thus  fail to present the violence within the context of intimate partner violence. This gives women a false sense of security as it wrongly perpetuates the view that the greatest threat for women comes from strangers.
  • ‘Murder-centric’ focus: News media usually report on homicide between intimate partners as opposed to other forms of violence against women. This is problematic because it ignores the fact that domestic violence includes ongoing physical and psychological abuse.
  • Use of Language which Indirectly Alters Blame and Responsibility: News reports on domestic violence shift the culpability from male perpetrators to female victims by providing unnecessary background details of the victim’s sexual life, use of drugs or alcohol, which portray victims as reckless and partially or entirely responsible for the transgressions committed against them.

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Social Media & Hashtag Activism

As a means to spread awareness of domestic violence and challenge the assumptions and beliefs perpetuated by news media, many activists and victims of domestic violence have taken to social media and participated in the culture of Hashtag Activism. Hashtag Activism unfolds through Twitter and has become a powerful tactic for fighting gender inequities around the world (Clark 2016). Such online activism empowers citizens to share their stories and detail the realities of domestic violence which news media seems to hide. In the past two years, a number of hashtags have emerged as a means to change the discourse surrounding domestic violence. These include: #stoptheviolence; #WhyIStayed; #seethesigns, #PutANailOnIt and #MaybeHeDoesntHitYou.

The hashtag, #WhyIStayed appeared in September 2014 after footage emerged of NFL player, Ray Rice, physically assaulting his wife, Janay Palmer. While the footage shocked the world, news organisations criticised Janay Palmer’s character and questioned why she would stay in an abusive relationship. Fox News Presenter, Brian Kilmeade insensitively said that women who stay with abusive partners send a “terrible message” to other people. This was problematic as it shifted culpability upon Janay for the actions of her husband. In response to such concerns, Beverley Gooden, an author, activist and a victim of domestic violence, started the #WhyIStayed hashtag to encourage women to share their experiences and help others understand the complicated nature of such abusive relationships and why they felt they were unable to leave. Following Goodnen’s tweet, the Twittersphere witnessed more than ninety thousand tweets using the hashtag in one day (Clark 2016). The aggregative and collective force of the #WhyIStayed hashtag spread greater awareness about the realities of domestic violence and how it can entail psychological abuse. Thus victims were empowered to provide a counter-discourse and collectively critique mainstream media coverage of domestic violence and its victim blaming narratives by sharing their own experiences of domestic violence and rerouting dominant news media discourse away from victims’ behaviour, towards the actions of perpetrators (Clark 2016).

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Furthermore, unlike traditional news media which dictates the news agenda, social media enables the mobilisation of diverse groups from across the globe into one online space, ensuring participation is active and equal. Hashtag Activism has provided an online space for groups who are silenced in domestic violence coverage. For example, Indigenous women are 34 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of domestic violence than women in the rest of the community. Yet such incidents receive little coverage (Gilchrist 2010) as traditional news media shapes our understanding of who can be a domestic violence victim and abuser. However, while news media bodies have a tendency to ignore domestic violence committed on Indigenous women, women of different ethnical backgrounds, sex workers and queer groups, Hashtag Activism provides greater understanding on the issue and gives these women a voice to share their powerful stories.

In fact, the #WhyIStayed hashtag gained such momentum that it changed mainstream discourse in the offline world and led to positive action. Mainstream news media took notice of the hashtag and amplified it to the masses by adopting a framework that supported victims and depicted a more accurate representation of the realities of domestic violence. Even the NFL partnered with No More, a domestic violence awareness campaign, to produce a series of public service announcements aired during football game broadcasts (Clark 2016). Furthermore, following the online movement, there was a significant increase in calls to domestic violence hotlines and state-funded programs across America in September 2014 (Clark 2016). In fact, one woman told Beverley Gooden that upon reading the collective experiences of other women, she too, felt empowered to leave her abusive partner. Thus the individual stories were connected together through the hashtag to create an empowering narrative about domestic violence, which produced collective action (Clark 2016).

Thus Hashtag Activism has a discursive and subversive power which is vital to changing the misconceptions traditional news coverage perpetuates about domestic violence. The #WhyIStayed movement demonstrates how social media provides an empowering platform for people from across the globe to bypass the traditional oppressive narratives asserted by news media organisations, and reclaim agency over the production of their own stories (Clarke 2016).

Reference List

Carlyle, K, Slater, M & Chakroff, J 2008, ‘Newspaper Coverage of Intimate Partner Violence: Skewing Representations of Risk’, Journal of Communication, vol. 58, no.1, pp.168-186.

Clark, R 2016, “Hope in a Hashtag: The Discursive Activism of #WhyIStayed”, Feminist Media Studies, vol.16, no.5, pp.788-804.

Cohan, C 2014, “#WhyIStayed: Twitter Hashtag Highlights Real Reasons Women Stay with Violent Partners”, The Telegraph, 10 September, viewed on, 1 September 2016 <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11087329/WhyIStayed-Twitter-hashtag-highlights-real-reasons-women-stay-with-violent-partners.html&gt;.

Gilchrist, K 2010, ‘“Newsworthy” Victims?’, Feminist Media Studies, vol.10, no.4, pp.373-390.

McGregor, K 2010, National Survey on Community Attitudes to Violence Against Women 2009: Changing Cultures, Changing Attitudes – Preventing Violence Against Women, Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, Melbourne.

Morgan, J & Politoff, V 2012, Victorian Print Media Coverage of Violence Against Women — A Longitudinal Study, Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, Melbourne.

The Conversation 2016, ‘FactCheck Q&A: are Indigenous women 34-80 times more likely than average to experience violence?, The Conversation, July 4, viewed 17 August 2016, <https://theconversation.com/factcheck-qanda-are-indigenous-women-34-80-times-more-likely-than-average-to-experience-violence-61809>.

NPR 2014, “Hashtag Activism in 2014: Tweeting ‘Why I Stayed’”, NRP, 23 December, viewed 1 September 2016, <http://www.npr.org/2014/12/23/372729058/hashtag-activism-in-2014-tweeting-why-i-stayed>

Our Watch 2015, ‘Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety to Reduce Violence against Women & their Children’, Report, November, viewed 17 August 2016, < https://www.ourwatch.org.au/getmedia/339a9055-16fb-4d57-8cb3-3d2a2f9c5fa1/Media-representations-of-violence-against-women-state-knowledge-paper.pdf.aspx>.

Osborne-Crowley, L 2015, “Two Women are Now Killed by Domestic Violence Every Week. The Time for Discussion is Over. It’s Time to Act”, Womens Agenda, 19 February, viewed 3 September 2016, <http://www.womensagenda.com.au/talking-about/top-stories/item/5319-two-women-are-now-killed-by-domestic-violence-every-week-the-time-for-discussion-is-over-it-s-time-to-act>.

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3 thoughts on “The Power of Hashtag Activism Transforming the Discourse on Domestic Violence

  1. I like how you explored social revolution in regards to a topic that is swept under the carpet, the statistics for domestic violent in Australia are appalling and need to be recognised. The hashtag has become an integral part of how we communicate from connecting to those from widespread audiences. Its interesting to see how the hashtag can be used to create awareness about issues and enable people to congregate online. The notion of ‘Slacktivism’ is aroused, where we involve ourselves in issues online which is then seen as lazy and effortless. I’ve found a source that might interest you, discussing the pointlessness and/or power of Hashtag activism [ http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/hashtag-activism-powerful-pointless/ ]

  2. Your argument is informative and well supported with a great amount of evidence. However, I did seem to get a little lost at times. Maybe if you cut down on your blog post word count it might help get your message across a little better.

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