Global Change from the #MeToo Movement
Megan Stubbs-Richardson, MacKenzie Paul, Shelby Gilbreath
October 15, 2023Global Change from the #MeToo Movement
In late 2017, #MeToo flooded social media: Twitter timelines, Instagram feeds, Facebook pages, and beyond. It’s likely you may recall seeing #MeToo trending across your own social media networks. Just 24 hours after Alyssa Milano’s impactful tweet, the hashtag rapidly transcended international borders, garnering over 12 million mentions across 85 nations(B. Fileborn and R. Loney-Howes, 2019). Globally, 1 in 3 women have experienced physical or sexual intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both within their lifetime (World Health Organization, 2021). Within the U.S., national data reveal that as many as 43.6% of women and 24.8% of men report experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime (Smith et al., 2018 ).
The MeToo movement, which has led to substantial legal and social change since its inception, was founded by Tarana Burke in 2006 but didn’t go viral until Alyssa Milano’s tweet in 2017. However, MeToo did not emerge overnight, but was based on a history of on the ground feminist activist efforts, such as African American women’s resistance to slavery and racial segregation, the formation of the National Organization of Women (NOW) Rape Task Force, and the organization of rallies (e.g., SlutWalks) across the globe. Many of these efforts were also backed by successful online activist efforts, such as #YesAllWomen, #BlackLivesMatter, #WhatIWasWearing, #IBelieveHer #WhyIDidntReport, #NakedChestAgainstDomesticViolence (China; Lixian 2020) , and #rättslösa (Sweden; Barbala, 2023). These historical movements, coupled with the success of recent online feminist activism efforts, laid the foundation for and solidified the success of the #MeToo movement and the subsequent societal change (Fileborn & Loney-Howes, 2019 ).
In our study recently published in the Journal of Feminist Media Studies (Stubbs-Richardson, Gilbreath, Paul, & Reid, 2023 ), we examined differences in societal change following the MeToo movement in three countries varying by gender equality (Sweden, U.S., and China). We analyzed social change connected to #MeToo using data from 42 social media platforms, forums, blogs, and documents translated from over 100 languages which included historical data and real-time data from July 21, 2019 to February 3, 2020. With this data, we looked at the most mentioned topics by country, assessed which topics were associated with societal change, and then used these to compare social change by country.
From our analyses of the data, we found the three most frequently used words across Sweden, U.S., and China were 1) Women, 2) Sexual, and 3) Trump. These keywords were also the top three identified topics in the U.S. In China, the most mentioned words were 1) Sexual, 2) China, and 3) Harass, whereas 1) Wallin, 2) Virtanen, and 3) Cissi (a combination of names from a high-profile sexual assault case) were the most frequently used words in Sweden.
The majority (72%) of posts analyzed indicated social change resulted from the MeToo movement. However, the other 28% indicated that no change had occurred. Across posts indicating that a negative change had occurred, 7% of posts advocated for greater sanctions or argued that the movement brought about a negative impact for victims. Interestingly, the most substantial change (regardless of place) occurred in criminal justice, with mentions of increased trials and subsequent convictions making up 27% of the posts indicating positive change. This was then followed by positive societal impact (11%), Hollywood or music industry (10%), multiple (10%), and law and policy changes (7%).
When we compared which country had the highest likelihood of social change, such as the transformation of social structures and practices connected to sexual violence and consent, we found the U.S. to have greater change compared to Sweden and China. However, also noteworthy to our study findings and implications is that not all voices are heard equally within the MeToo movement. Indeed, many of the local laws or practices within countries, prohibited individuals from naming the accused in their posts (Sweden) or censored content relating to the movement (China).
Despite the backlash, sexual violence survivors found ways to continue to organize activism efforts. In Sweden, victims organized behind the scenes, using polls, surveys, and private Facebook groups to share their collective testimonies privately and then worked through media resources to contribute to the larger ongoing discussion (Hansson, Sveningsson, & Ganetz, 2021) . In China, citizens created new uncensored hashtags, such as a rice bowl and bunny emoji which translated to MeToo in Chinese (Sun, 2020).
Overall, our study provides valuable insights into the impact of the #MeToo movement across different countries. MeToo has led to changes in multiple facets of society and has created a record of survivors’ resilience and resistance to oppression, leaving a trail of digital footprints for future movements to follow (Loney-Howes, Mendes, Romero, & Fileborn, & Puente, 2022). However, as we write this blog six years to date after Alyssa Milano’s viral tweet, there is still much to be done to address the pervasive issue of sexual violence. The #MeToo movement has brought attention to the scale of the issue, but it is up to all of us to continue creating a safer and more equitable world for everyone. The advent of the Internet has provided a new public sphere where debates can include individuals from all intersections of identity and produce substantial change across outlets and platforms. Our research demonstrates how the MeToo movement utilized this space to create global cross-cultural change. Together, as we continue the activism of the MeToo movement, we can all produce the change we wish to see globally.
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