Eight thousand miles apart – in Chibok, Nigeria, and Isla Vista, Calif. – violent brands of misogyny have in recent weeks fueled awful acts of violence against women. In Chibok, radical Islamists kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls. Their crime? Attending school. In Isla Vista, a troubled young man went on a shooting spree that left six people dead. His motivation? Sexual rejection and a hatred of women.
Chibok and Isla Vista could not be more different – one is a tiny Nigerian village, the other a California beach town – but they share a feature of modern life both too common and too commonly ignored: terrible violence toward women. But in these two cases, the news hasn’t faded from the headlines, in part because the events have sparked two of the most talked about Internet campaigns in recent memory. In the case of the kidnapping, the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, a hazy exhortation to the world to take action to rescue the girls, has become a Twitter phenomenon, with First Lady Michelle Obama and a slew of other celebrities joining the campaign. And on the heels of the shooting in Isla Vista, the hashtag #YesAllWomen has exploded online, as women have used the hashtag to describe the everyday sexual harassment women face. (Men died in the Isla Vista shootings as well, but the alleged killer’s misogynistic motive, explained in a manifesto posted online, has become the case’s focal point.)
Viral Twitter phenomena are a dime a dozen but that two such campaigns within the same month focus on violence toward women is surely a first. What can we learn by comparing the two campaigns?
First, the early numbers indicate #YesAllWomen will probably become bigger than #BringBackOurGirls. During its first three days of existence, #YesAllWomen has already beat #BringBackOurGirls’ one-day peak. On Sunday, two days after the shooting, #YesAllWomen appeared in more than 700,000 tweets, beating #BringBackOurGirls’ early May peak by about 200,000 tweets. In three days, #YesAllWomen has nearly racked up half as many tweets as #BringBackOurGirls notched during the entire month of May.
The visualization below, which tracks the global spread of #YesAllWomen tells the story and shows how an intense burst of activity in the United States and Europe fueled its spread.
By contrast, the spread of #BringBackOurGirls was more global in scope and less concentrated inthe Western world. This certainly isn’t surprising: The hashtag originated in Nigeria and eventually spread to the Western world.
Regardless of their reach, campaigns of this nature are often criticized as ephemeral expressions with little real-world impact. Indeed, as seen in the graph above, #BringBackOurGirls has faded from Twitter, yet the schoolgirls remain missing. The campaign may have played a role in galvanizing an international effort to locate them, including helping to build the political pressure that helped persuade the White House to send military advisers to Nigeria, but that effort has so far failed on its most important metric: bringing back the girls. On that score, #YesAllWomen is doing something quite different. The hashtag doesn’t present a clear end goal — and therein lies its power. Depending on your perspective, the hashtag has become a repository of shared experience and empathy. For men, they should serve as a wake-up call. Moreover, hashtag has become a frightening illustration of the social environment that might fuel the kind of misogyny that led Elliot Rodger to brutally kill six people and wound another 13 in what he described as an act of revenge for the scorn heaped upon him by women. All of a sudden, a tweet like this takes on a new urgency:
“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” -Margaret Atwood #YesAllWomen
— Lulu Antariksa (@LuluAntariksa) May 26, 2014
As a man, reading the tweets has given me a newfound appreciation of the incredible levels of misogyny women face:
#YesAllWomen learn to say “Sorry, I have a boyfriend” because we are only safe if we are another man’s property.
— Farren (@FarrenSquare) May 25, 2014
Every single woman you know has been harassed. And just as importantly, every single woman you don’t know has been harassed. #YesAllWomen
— Sarah W. (@toasterposey) May 25, 2014
Girls grow up knowing that it’s safer to give a fake phone number than to turn a guy down. #yesallwomen
— Kate Tuttle (@katekilla) May 24, 2014
For now, tweets with the hashtag #YesAllWomen appear to be concentrated mostly in the Western world, but together with #BringBackOurGirls, the global Internet has during the last month seen an incredible outpouring of support for the full equality of women. Even if the two hashtags fail to end misogyny and free the kidnapped schoolgirls, they surely represent a step in the right direction in advocating for a better reality for women.