How powerful should social media activism be?

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A furor of social media activism has erupted lately, particularly on the topics of Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration law, Clarkson’s dismissal, and Batgirl. Yet these events have also called into question social media activism’s effectiveness, as petitioners were left disgruntled by the decisions made by the BBC and DC Comics. DC Comics has been accused of allowing itself to be censored, while over a million people have expressed disappointment over Clarkson’s dismissal. Those criticising these decisions, however, have forgotten that social media activism is effective because it is based on the power of the consumer and the voter—and that this, thankfully, has its limits.

The Batgirl cover controversy divided social media. For DC Comics ‘Joker Month’, all June comics will have variant covers featuring the Joker. Yet the hashtag #changethecover went viral after the Batgirl cover was revealed. The problem? It depicted the assault in the 1988 The Killing Joke, in which Batgirl is crippled, stripped naked, and perhaps raped by the Joker in an attempt to driver her father insane, making it part of the the women in refrigerators trope. A large number of female readers (and some male readers as well) were furious at this homage to a regressive representation of women. So next, other social media users decried the #changethecover campaign and, it being the internet, threats of violence were made against advocates of #changethecover. DC Comics responded by pulling the cover, citing the artist’s request and the threats of violence, causing claims of censorship.

Critics of #changethecover and DC Comics’ decision mistakenly believed that social media activism is inherently powerful. In reality, it only makes the power of the activists more apparent. It still depends on showing a company that they will suffer financially if they don’t bend to the public’s will—and in this case, the critics didn’t have the power to make DC Comics suffer financially. The angry female consumers of Batgirl, however, did. While #changethecover relates to issues of artistic freedom, representation of women and people with disabilities, and female voices on the internet, from a business perspective, this was a marketing error rather than a matter of progressiveness. When the target market vocally expressed dissatisfaction with the product, DC Comics provided good customer service by altering it. Anything else would have endangered profits. Instead, as a result of their actions, DC Comics were able to position themselves as a female-friendly brand who want to protect their target market from threats, and in doing so, potentially increased customer loyalty.

Successes such as #changethecover are why so many people were shocked by the decision to not renew Jeremy Clarkson’s contract. A sense of outrage and offendedness at the BBC’s discarding of over 1 million signatures (over 800,000 more than the Stop FGM petition on the same website garnered, to put that into shameful perspective) permeates discussion of the issue. Even without the petition, the BBC would have been aware of the huge financial loss from dropping Clarkson—so why wasn’t he kept?

While DC Comics listened to their target market and the BBC ignored theirs, the cases are similar; Clarkson was dropped, just like the Batgirl cover, because the BBC, just like DC Comics, are a corporation. Profits are of course crucial to corporations—which explains how Clarkson kept his position for so long, despite his long list of offensive comments. However, corporations must put rules above profits (or at least seem to). When making the announcement of Clarkson’s non-renewal, Director General Tony Hall stated that “there was no other way through it” because he couldn’t “not condemn a physical attack on a member of staff”. The message was clear: the one thing that was more important than profits was the safety of employees. The concept of a safe working environment is fundamental to our ideas of human rights and decency. Clarkson physically attacked his co-worker to the extent that his co-worker chose to take himself to A&E. Even if it hadn’t been over a steak, and even if Clarkson hadn’t continued to verbally abuse Tymon after the assault, it would be clear that, as Hall said, Clarkson had “gone over the line”. Consumer satisfaction should never take precedence over maintaining a violence-free working environment.

In fact, it’s crucial that there are lines that cannot be crossed. Jon Ronson’s book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, details the case of Hank (name altered) and Adria (unaltered). After Adria tweeted a complaint about Hank, a stranger, making unrelated sexual innuendos during a presentation about improving the gender gap in the technology industry, Hank lost his job and wrote about it on Hacker News. As a consequence, Adria was subject to death threats, rape threats, and then, her company’s website was hacked and taken down, with the message that it wouldn’t stop until Adria was fired. Without knowing the details of Hank’s contract, it’s impossible to determine whether he was unfairly dismissed, but it’s clear that, unlike Jeremy Clarkson, Adria was. While this was an effect of illegal hacking as opposed to legal petitions, it is apparent that business should categorically not be held accountable only to the satisfaction of members of the public. Doing so places employees as well as other members of the public in a vulnerable position.

In fact, this idea is the root of the issue around Indiana’s religious freedom bill, as it claims to protect members from of the public from the oh so hazardous action of serving people they disagree with for religious reasons, such as LGBT+ people, people of other religions, and of other ethnicities. Fortunately, plenty of people see that it doesn’t protect from discrimination so much as enact discrimination, and, as Batgirl and Clarkson remind us, consumers have a lot of power over corporations. So too do voters over politicians. As numerous organisations and individuals, from NCAA to cloud computing giant Salesforce, and from George Takei to the mayors of Seattle and San Francisco, either boycott or hint at boycotting Indiana, businesses there look likely to suffer. The effect of this on voters living in Indiana, and therefore on politicians like Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, is measurable. Already it has had an impact, as Pence opened discussions with legislators to “clarify the intent of the law”. The degree of success that #boycottindiana will have remains to be seen, but there is certainly reason for optimism.

Despite the criticisms levied against the BBC and DC Comics, we should be glad that social media activism is both powerful and limited in its power. It gives consumers and voters the ability to push for changes in the world while also ensuring the employees and vulnerable remain protected.

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About Tanya Newton 11 Articles
After studying English Language and Literature at King’s College London, Tanya moved to Japan where she teaches English. She loves to read and write, and loves tea almost as much. She is strongly interested in cultures and social structures.

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