#aufschrei – The Role of Twitter for Feminist Activism and as a Platform for Alternative Publics
Twitter is increasingly becoming a discursive space for carrying out debates and exchanging opinions and experiences. Among the themes taken up on Twitter and in other social networks, there has been an intense discussion of sexism, especially in the past several years (see also #YesAllWomen). In the German-speaking area, #aufschrei became the Twitter message of the year 2013, the hashtag collecting and sharing sexist experiences. Similarly in the English-speaking area the hashtags #shoutingback and #EverydaySexism performed the same function. Referring to theories of the public sphere which argue for a multiplicity of publics (cf. Fraser 2005),1 our contribution is based on a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the tweets on #aufschrei, and presents its main results. We are especially interested in the following questions: How is sexism discussed on Twitter? And which alternative publics are created by online feminist protest?
Online Publics as Counter-Publics
Partial publics and counter-publics on the Internet can create intervention opportunities for marginalized groups, which are able to concentrate and mobilize their common interests. Nancy Fraser (2005),2 in particular, pointed out that regardless of their participation in discursive processes, social movements and counter publics are not included in the traditional model of the public sphere. She opposes Habermas’ ideal of a singular bourgeois public sphere and stresses the existence of numerous counter or subaltern publics. Groups within society that are affected by decisions should, in principle, have the opportunity to negotiate these decisions publicly. With the Internet, the existence of plural publics has become more evident, and they are more visible. Here, new relationships between mass media publics and everyday publics, which emerge from spontaneous encounters, are constituted. Furthermore, social movements, subcultures and counter-publics have gained new forums for meeting and communicating.
#aufschrei: A Twitter Campaign Against Sexism in Germany
“We should collect our experiences under a hashtag. I suggest aufschrei”—with this tweet Anne Wizorek initiated together with Nicole von Horst a wide-ranging debate on forms of sexism in everyday life in the German-speaking area on the evening of January 24, 2013. Alone on the day following the start of the message, 38,387 Tweets were sent as replies. Within the first four days, roughly 17,000 different people were active on #aufschrei.3 The followers of the hashtag and the further links pointed to numerous actors who form a network, which generates attention for Twitter (cf. Maireder/Schlögl 2014).4 Also in the traditional mass media, mainly in the first months, there had been coverage and continuing debates on sexism (cf. Gsenger/Thiele 2014).5
Our study comprises a quantitative and qualitative content analysis of the tweets on #aufschrei. The sampling unit is made up of all tweets posted under the hashtag #aufschrei. An analysis period of seven weeks was chosen, that is, from the start of the hashtag on January 25, 2013 until March 14, 2013. We formed an artificial week as a control sample and through random selection designated 100 tweets per day, that is, a total of 700 tweets that were deemed the unit for analysis. Such a selection naturally limits the generalizability of the results. Still, due to the recurring argumentation structures and contexts in the results, it can be assumed that the tweets that were not examined may have had similar patterns.
In the quantitative analysis it turned out that most tweets described personal experiences of everyday sexism. It is obvious that sexism is prevalent in the day-to-day life of many women, and that it affects various areas of life and work. However, there were almost no references to multiple forms of discrimination, for example, based on categories of race or sexuality. From the second week, there was a steady presence of anti-feminist tweets that contained a lot of name-calling and sexist words. The qualitative analysis of the tweets yielded that the tweets reporting on sexist experiences can be organized in terms of participating actors, situations (time and location), and types of assault. Such incidents are thereby part of social structures, as especially hierarchies are exploited in the practice of forms of sexism. At the same time, however, physical incidents—and not only verbal forms of sexism—shape many people’s experiences of this form of prejudice. Nonetheless, #aufschrei is also used as a platform for sexist and anti-feminist statements. In these statements, for the most part, clichés and stereotypes are reproduced and the structural dimensions of sexism trivialized. Anti-feminist and masculinity positions are not new phenomena; however, through the Internet they have found new forms for agitation, distribution, and networking (cf. Klaus 2008).6
Conclusion: Twitter as a Feminist Counter-Public?
As the #aufschrei campaign shows, it is necessary to achieve different layers of the public sphere in order to devolve a mobilizing power. Initially, within a protest movement, these layers comprise the “movement culture.” That is, the networks, spaces, and personal relationships of the actors; as well as the “movement public,” which constitutes a counter public with autonomous communication structures, mobilization resources, organization and gathering publicity, as well as movement-specific media—with the goal of reaching the hegemonic public (cf. Wischermann 2003; Klaus 2006).7
Twitter takes over the function of a simple public, in which sexist experiences are collected and an exchange of knowledge takes place; and which nonetheless is simultaneously connected with a “movement public,” that forms through further hashtags, feminist blogs, and also feminist media. Through the narration of personal experiences and negotiation processes dealing with sexism in general, a critical position is developed and with that, public criticism formulated.
This is the requirement for reaching the hegemonic public sphere.
To sum up, the Internet undoubtedly offers new opportunities for discussion, exchange of knowledge and experiences, and for the creation of local and transnational networks. All the same, it also copies and reproduces social structures and content that are present in everyday life. The Internet’s, in principle openness, also enables sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and right-wing use. Thus, this public sphere does not offer a protected space: anti-feminist and sexist comments are equally visible and might possibly mean new experiences of violence for women. Even so, diverse (queer-) feminist protest and organization forms and media can be observed. Feminist interventions with critical, political, and solidarity-based approaches—such as #aufschrei—are important as they depict feminism as a lived and political everyday practice.
Fraser, Nancy “Transnationalizing the Public Sphere.” Accessed May 20, 2014. http://www.republicart.net/disc/publicum/fraser01_en.pdf.
Gsenger, Marlene/Thiele, Martina. 2014. “Wird der #aufschrei erhört? Eine kritische Diskursanalyse der Sexismusdebatte in Deutschland. kommunikation.medien (3).” Accessed May 20, 2014. http://journal.kommunikation-medien.at/2014/02/wird-aufschrei-erhort-kritische-diskursanalyse-sexismus-debatte-in-deutschland/.
Klaus, Elisabeth. 2006. „Öffentlichkeit als Selbstverständigungsprozess. Das Beispiel Brent Spar“. In PR-Kampagnen. Über die Inszenierung von Öffentlichkeit, ed.Ulrike Röttger, 51-74. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag.
Klaus, Elisabeth. 2008. Antifeminismus und Elitefeminismus. Eine Intervention. Feministische Studien, 26 (2), 176–186.
Maireder, Axel/Schlögl, Stefan. 2014. 24 Hours of an #outcry: The Networked Publics of a Socio-Political Debate, European Journal of Communication (in print).
Wischermann, Ulla. 2003. Frauenbewegungen und Öffentlichkeiten um 1900. Netzwerke, Gegenöffentlichkeiten, Protestinszenierungen. Königstein/Taunus: Ulrike Helmer Verlag.