I want to tell you today about an incredible and inspiring young woman — let us call her Hope, because that is the pseudonym she uses online, in order to talk about the current state of digital activism in the face of #MeToo movements and #List politics.
I first met Hope in South Africa. She joined a series of workshops we were conducting on digital natives around online activism, and she was 19 at the time. In one of the conversations, she recounted the story that pushed her into activism. It was the gruesome story of a fellow student in school, who was raped and sexually abused by four other male students in the school. The men used their cellphones to record this act on school campus. The young survivor, traumatised by the incident, did not want to make the names of the perpetrators public or confront them by identifying them. The videos that emerged did not show the faces of the four young men. And the authorities, in the school, and in regulation, kept silent in the face of viral outrage online.
When the people responsible for justice abdicated their responsibilities, young people, including students in the school, decided to take matters in their own hands. They conducted digital forensic investigations on the videos to trace them back to the devices and identities. They crowdsourced identification of the four young men involved by analysing voices, marks, mannerisms, and bodies. The four men were publicly named in an online list. Hope was a part of this group. She told us that it took the courage and collective care of more than 10,000 people to finally bring these abusers to public light and, eventually, to justice. She also told us that when her core group started these activities of naming, they were threatened, bullied, coerced and persecuted by others defending the men. Every time they tried to bring the matter to light, they were blocked, harassed and attacked.
To name names, and to ask that they be brought to justice, seemed like an impossible thing. Any attempt at translating the shadow knowledge of whisper groups from human memory to digital storage met with resistance. Even when the case went to court, the young women who mobilised the organisation of this entire online movement were questioned and chastised for being vigilantes. Hope and her community were first questioned about their integrity, and later dismissed as clicktivists who don’t do any real work. The questioning came from authorities who felt pressured into taking up something that they would rather remain silent about. The dismissal came from traditional civil society organisations that remained excluded from this process and refused to accept the validity and the critical role that these young people play in transforming how we live.
That was in 2009. It is disheartening and alarming that these approaches that seek to silence young people who want change persist in 2018. Last year, we saw the emergence of the list in the wake of the global #metoo context. Even when the first names were made public, the authorities tried to dismiss it because it had no credibility, and there were traditional groups that sought to silence it because it did not follow their established processes of intervention making in the field of sexual abuse. There are many troubles with the list — it sometimes flattens out the entire landscape of abuse and does not qualify the intensities that mark abuse in all its variety. It doesn’t allow us to understand that abuse is a genre and there are multiple forms of it which do not only take the form of physical sexual violence. It does not allow for negotiation and commits to memory the names which might be, perhaps, undeserving of the negative attention.
And yet, we need to recognise, that the very act of making the list is one of courage and strength. It is not an individual attempt but the formation of a new collective of care. And just like other forms of digital organisation and activism, it has invisible labour, often performed by women, that remains unacknowledged. To dismiss the listmakers as finger-tip activists is to betray the ignorance and insecurity that one faces when confronted with new modes of direct action, informal collectives that digital networks produce. The list will continue to be a problem, and it will only do what lists can do — bring to light things that are being erased or forgotten. But to deny legitimacy or credibility to the list-making; and, hence, to negate the physical and affective labour behind such lists that can make people accountable — if not offer total justice — is a kind of abuse of power that needs to be questioned and called out.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.