Putting hashtag activism at the center of the conversation

#Hashtag Activism: Fast. Fierce. Effective?

Iowa City Public Library, Room A — Monday, Dec. 4 at 4:30 p.m.

Illustration by Jordan Sellergren

With the almost daily revelations about sexual harassement (and worse) by well-known men, it can be hard to get a larger perspective on what The New York Times has called “The #MeToo Moment,” named for the Twitter hashtag people have been using to share their experiences with harassment. Gaining perspective on this moment will be the subject of a panel discussion at the Iowa City Public Library on Monday.

“#Hashtag Activism: Fast. Fierce. Effective?” is part of the Obermann Conversations series, sponsored by the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Iowa and Little Village.

“The Obermann Conversation Series is intended to put UI scholars in conversation with thought-leaders from the community around a shared topic,” said the Obermann Center’s Associate Director Jennifer New. “Most of these we plan out well in advance, but we’ve been trying a new thing this semester where we do what could be called ‘pop-up’ conversations in response to something that’s more immediate.”

The first of these more immediate Obermann Conversations took place in October, and was focused on Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, which put the post-hurricane experience of the island into the broader context of Puerto Rico’s long history of being the colony of an imperial power.

The wide public attention generated by #MeToo made it an obvious topic for a new conversation.

The phrase “Me Too” was first used on social media to encourage women to share stories in 2006. Community activist and organizer Tarana Burke used the phrase on MySpace to encourage women of color to discuss their experiences with sexual abuse. In October of this year, actress Alyssa Milano suggested women add Me Too as a hashtag to make tweets about sexual harassment more visible.

“Everybody is talking — for very good reasons — about the content of #MeToo and that topic, but I was interested in the phenomenon of the use of hashtags, and how it’s changing what we talk about and how we talk,” New said “It used to be possible to dismiss online activism like this as ineffective, but this moment in time with #MeToo seems to be shifting the discussion. You can no longer just easily dismiss it.”

New said the panel will bring together people who approach the topic from different perspectives. “We’ll look at it from the perspective of journalism, communication studies and the study of race and social media. And also bringing in a public partner who can discuss her first-hand experience.”

The public partner is West High student Lucy Polyak, who created a hashtag to counter a hostile sexual atmosphere created by a small group of male students at her school. Joining Polyak will be Melissa Tully, an assistant professor in the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and two PhD candidates, Raven Maragh of the Department of Communication Studies and Lisa Covington of the Sociology Department.

The event, which will be held in Room A of the library, is free and open to the public.

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