Since the late 90s the internet has been used to voice opinions people may be unable or unwilling to say publicly and allowing people to network with likeminded people. In the last decade Social Media has been a further revolution. Now practically anyone who wants to can have a platform and be heard and participate in public discourse.
This has been great for minority rights: the ability of LGBT+ activists and feminists to organise online has been one of the factors behind their success in recent years. On the other end of the political spectrum, however, social media and the internet however have also been fully exploited by others to spread intolerance and extremism.
Social media is often thought of as something of a reflection of public opinion. Since the participants are “ordinary people” some lazy journalists and politicians often look to twitter for insight into what “ordinary people” think. This is a bit of a naïve view.
The highest estimates suggest that there are 14 million British twitter accounts - roughly one for every four and a half people. However, these statistics include inactive accounts, as well as those belonging to businesses and organisations, so the real figure is far smaller. Of these, most don’t even engage in public discourse about political issues, they tweet about “ordinary” stuff, because they’re not all politics nerds like us. The fact is that Twitter isn’t that representative at all. Most of the content and discussion comes from a miniscule fraction of all users.
An excellent example of this is the “debate” around the Gender Recognition Act (GRA). Online its almost treated as if both sides are equal. On Twitter anti-Trans content is almost more common than tweets in favour of reforming the GRA. Politicians of all parties’ tweet about the importance of discussing “both sides” and are wary of coming out in support of Trans rights. The situation is framed as an issue of trans rights conflicting with women’s rights etc.
This is completely at odds with the situation offline.
GRA reform was adopted as policy by all main parties before the 2016. It was (and still is) widely supported by major women’s and LGBT rights NGOs. Anyone at Edinburgh Pride this year would also have seen the eight or so Anti-Trans campaigners were outnumbered hugely by the thousands marching in support of Trans people.
The narrative online bears very little relation to reality.
So, how did this situation come about? What can we do about it? Well, to answer that I’m going to have to go through some theory first. (If you're not interested in this you're welcome to skip to the next section.)
As I stated above, many people view the internet and social media as simply an extension of offline politics; a snapshot of public opinion – but social media is far better understood as an entirely different sphere for political organisation and activity. Political organisation and activism can be organised in entirely different ways online, free from the constraints imposed by traditional forms of mobilisation.
Networks, Netwars and the Fight for the Future byRonfeldt & Arquilla describes the potential of networked based organisations online. In particular it highlights the potential of "Networked"horizontally organised and nominally leaderless groups, united far more by common ideas than any formal organisation.
When applied to social media this form of networking is very powerful. The Netwars Theoryenvisages an “all channel”network in which every node is interconnected with every other. These informal networks are resilient and, free from the constraints of conventional organisations, demonstrate a great deal of flexibility. On social media they have access to a vast audience and can recruit others to their cause. As we have seen, these informal networks can dominate certain issues online, but this relies upon them being able to convince and convert others to their cause.
This is a good reflection of how many online movements tend to work, including anti-transgender activism. Although there are some prominent individuals, such as ForWomen.Scotand several politicians, there is no central organisation behind this. Collectively these bigots have managed to dominate the discussion around the GRA. Through use of misinformation have managed to manipulate the discussion to their own ends, promoting blatant misunderstandings and lies about trans people and the GRA.
What Can We Do About It?
The recent resurgence of transphobia in Scotland is deeply troubling. According to a recent BBC report there was an 81% rise in hate crimes against trans people recorded by the police last year. Anti-Transgender activism is very powerful and damaging to our society. Changing social attitudes put Trans people at risk and threaten important reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, however:
We can overcome this.
Call it out - Call out intolerance wherever you see it. When you hear someone say something [bad/bigoted/transphobic/etc] it's tempting to stay silent, you might think it's petty and not worth calling out, or that no-one will listen. Say something. It is important that we do not tacitly endorse these attitudes.Calling out intolerance is the best way you can challenge efforts to normalise it.
Change the Narrative - Share positive content about trans rights as widely as possible. Support and listen to trans people and trans advocates online. Interact with them and share their content. Anti Trans activists want to demean and dehumanise trans people. By sharing pro-trans content we are directly challenging their narrative and opposing their influence, while denying them the right to set the agenda.
Don't be intimidated - One of the major tactics used by anti-Trans activists is swarming and harassing their opponents online. Ignore them. The best thing we can do is let them get bored.
Learn - There's a general lack of knowledge on transgender issues. To be a better ally listening to trans people and learning about Trans (and LGBT issues) is one of the best things you can do. Organisations like the Scottish Trans Alliance, Stonewall UK and LGBT Youth Scotland produce excellent educational resources and policy briefs on Trans issues.
www.scottishtrans.org - Scottish Trans Alliance
www.lgbtyouth.org.uk - LGBT Youth Scotland
www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1382.html - More on Networked Organisation theory
www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-48756370- BBC News, Transgender hate crimes recorded by police go up 81%