The Role of Digital Media in Pro-Choice Activism

18 minutes to read
Article
Jitske Verhagen
07/03/2022

The pro-choice movement has fought for the right to abortion for centuries. Starting in the 1800s, gaining momentum in the 1960s, and now once again rising up in the 2010s and 2020s, the fight has yet to be won. The modern pro-choice movement hopes to finally do so by making use of the most popular digital medium our modern times have to offer: the internet.

Reminiscent of the protests of the Second Feminist Wave, the internet is used to organise pro-choice events and spread the pro-choice message. By combining the affordances of digital media with those of traditional media, the movement uses the hybrid media system to increasingly grow their influence past the point where they are now. The movement may have started as an offline form of activism; they are now online and more visible than ever. In this paper, we will analyse how the pro-choice movement makes use of hybrid but also digital media, focusing on their use of hashtags such as #MyBodyMyChoice and algorithmic activism as described by Maly (2019b).

Why the Pro-Choice movement is active again

In the State of Texas, a significant anti-abortion bill has come into effect that the pro-choice movement has been protesting against ever since it was announced. The so-called Texas Heartbeat Act bans abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy. This is a dangerous time frame, as most people do not know they are pregnant until after six weeks, meaning that this bill essentially makes it impossible to get an abortion within a legal time frame. The bill thus actively forms a dangerous threat to the right to bodily autonomy for people with female reproductive organs. As a result of the controversial bill, the pro-choice movement has been rising up again, with their activism adapted to our modern times, now largely performed through the affordances of the hybrid media system so as to generate as much visibility as possible.

How Pro-Choice uses the hybrid media system

The Texas abortion law is widely written about in the traditional news, which people then respond to via their social media platforms. This interaction between offline and online media results in a hybrid media system. According to Chadwick, the hybrid media system is built upon ''interactions among older and newer media in the reflexively connected social fields of media and politics. Actors create, tap, or steer information flows in ways that suit their goals and in ways that modify, enable, or disable others’ agency, across and between a range of older and newer media settings'' (Chadwick, 2013). The hybrid media system is thus often used for activism. New actors make use of the media to let their voices be heard, such as the activists of the pro-choice movement who try to grab the media’s attention to advocate for bodily autonomy. The use of social media and, in particular hashtags, makes this easier, as they create a bridge between social media users and traditional media outlets. The latter can easily find information about a certain newsworthy event by tapping into the hashtag that social media users have given the event.

The hybrid media system is thus often used for activism

Since the Texan 6-week abortion ban, the pro-choice movement has gotten a lot more attention from traditional media because they have actively shared information and organised marches via the affordances of social media, such as hashtags. One of the most famous hashtags used by the movement is #MyBodyMyChoice. The introduction of this hashtag has been a smart move, as the slogan ''My Body My Choice'' has been used throughout history in the name of feminism. Coined in the 1970s, and starting as a mantra belonging to the gender equality movement, the term has evolved into a slogan used in the fight for reproductive rights and accessible abortions (Patterson, 2020). With its history, the hashtag is easy to recognise as a pro-choice one and therefore a very effective way to raise awareness online.

The interaction with this hashtag leads to more visibility and awareness for the Pro-Choice movement. The graph in Figure 1 below shows the influence of the use of #MyBodyMyChoice; the term peaked when there were calls for people to join the Women's March and when new anti-abortion bills were introduced. Strikingly, some of the other smaller peaks are created by republican anti-vaxxers who have essentially hijacked the hashtag to spread their own message. These anti-vaxxers have claimed the hashtag as their own, so as to achieve their collective goal of generating visibility for anti-vax content, which is on the rise due to vaccine mandates in the USA.

Of course, anti-vaxxers sternly disagree with these mandates as they believe vaccines to be either unsafe, part of a plan to implement a global totalitarian regime, or a way to inject tracking devices and microchips (Carlson & Day, 2021). The slogan is not only showing up on the signs used during anti-vax protests, but the hashtag of the slogan is also now being bombarded with anti-vax content. This has had dire consequences for the pro-choice movement’s visibility online. 

Figure 1: Graph of the interest in the search query 'My Body My Choice'

As Treré (2016) demonstrates, hashtags are often intended for mobilising and spreading information online, as is the case for #MyBodyMyChoice, which is used to mobilise Pro-Choice activists and spread information about abortion news. This often proves itself effective, until the hashtags get flooded with irrelevant content; in this case, the hashtag was highly effective until it was flooded with anti-vax content. What this means for the online visibility of the pro-choice movement, is that the more anti-vax (or other irrelevant) content is fed to their hashtag #MyBodyMyChoice, the more visibility the pro-choice movement loses online, as their message is drowned out by the noise of other actors, making it difficult for pro-choice activists to share their information with each other. Such a hijack can even cause hashtags to drop out of social media’s trending topics (Treré, 2016) and actively take away an actor’s or movement’s voice. This forces them to take to other hashtags or online strategies.

Pro-Choice activism: Women's March

An example of how the hybrid media system, but also other media strategies can be used to generate visibility is the Women’s March, which took place on October 2nd, 2021. According to their website, Women’s March is ‘‘a women-led movement providing intersectional education on a diverse range of issues and creating entry points for new grassroots activists & organizers to engage in their local communities through trainings, outreach programs and events. Women’s March is committed to dismantling systems of oppression through nonviolent resistance and building inclusive structures guided by self-determination, dignity and respect’.’ (Women’s March, n.d.). Women’s March organises protesting marches for contemporary issues such as female reproductive rights.

The predecessor of the Women’s March in the 21st century was the Woman Suffrage Procession, which took place in Washington D.C., in March 1913, attended by thousands of women and led by activist Inez Milholland. They marched from the U.S. Capitol building to the Treasury Building, demanding suffrage for American women. It would take another seven years, but finally, in 1920, amendments were made to the U.S. Constitution allowing women to participate in the suffrage movement and vote for themselves. (Cohen, 2016) The Women Suffrage Procession paved the way for what would become the movement for female bodily autonomy in the 20th century and finally the pro-choice Women’s March in 2017.

The 2017 Women’s March took place the very first day after Republican Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. Thousands of people crowded the U.S. capital to protest against the Trump Administration and its threat to reproductive, civil, and human rights (History.com Editors, 2021). The march was created by Teresa Shook of Hawaii, who found herself frustrated at Trump’s election and decided to make a Facebook event and invite her friends to march in protest (Los Angeles Times, 2017). Thousands of women were quick to join the event and with the help of activists and organisers, they began planning the march for the day after the inauguration. In Washington alone, around 500.000 people showed up (History.com Editors, 2021). The protests there fuelled other protests across the country; altogether between 3,267,134 and 5,246,670 people rallied, which makes this event the biggest single-day protest in U.S. history (Garfield, 2020). People voiced their support not only for women but also for all of those who were seen as vulnerable under the new administration. This included the rights of immigrants, Muslims, people part of the LGBTQ+ community and the disabled (History.com Editors, 2021). Ever since then, the Women’s March has been organised every year and thus also in 2021.

How Women's March uses algorithmic activism

The Women’s March of October 2nd, 2021 is emblematic of how the hybrid media system functions; mainstream traditional media break the news, to which social media respond. This response is, in turn, picked up by the traditional media (as will be shown in one of the following sections). The hybrid media system is often used for activism; news breaks via traditional media and people are called into action via social media. When the pro-choice movement organises big events, it essentially pressures the mainstream news to report on it. When they do report these happenings, social media responds and this goes back and forth and forms the hybrid media system. The event also shows how digital media can be used to mobilise people; the Women’s March was announced and organised through the affordances of digital media, using strategies such as algorithmic activism.

Algorithmic activism is a type of activism that contributes to spreading the message of a politician or movement, by interacting with the post in order to trigger the algorithms of the medium, so that it boosts the popularity rankings of this message and its messenger (Maly, 2019b). This type of activism presupposes that the activists support the message of the post they interact with and also understand the algorithmic construction of the medium the post is part of (Maly, 2019b). They understand how interaction — according to the popularity principle — generates visibility (Maly, 2019a). The pro-choice organisation ‘Women’s March’ in particular uses this type of activism to mobilise their activists and promote their protests; they are active on Twitter (620k followers), Instagram (1.4mln followers), TikTok (2150 followers) and Facebook (889k followers - at the time of writing) and implements all sorts of strategies to generate visibility on their social media platforms.

Figure 2: Tweets for the Women's March posted by Pro-Choice organisations

Firstly, they introduced the hashtag #RallyForAbortionJustice across all of their platforms for their Women’s March of October 2nd, which was a smart strategy, because it led people to post content about and generated visibility for the march, in particular, which was less likely to be hijacked by anti-vaxxers than #MyBodyMyChoice. As shown in Figures 2 and 3, the hashtag was used not only by Women’s March’s Twitter and Instagram but also by the social media accounts of a big network of organisations to promote the march and inform everyone about practicalities such as what to bring. The hashtag gained quite some traction; on TikTok it has roughly 300K views, on Instagram, the hashtag was used in over 5K posts, and on Facebook it was used over 3K times. On social media, the network of pro-choice supporting organisations has a wide reach (e.g. @plannedparenthood has 794K Instagram followers at the time of writing and their posts about the march regularly received a couple ten thousand likes) and these organisations were, therefore, able to bring the event into the public consciousness fairly easily.

Figure 3: Instagram posts by Planned Parenthood using #RallyForAbortionJustice

On Twitter, Women’s March also retweeted the #RallyForAbortionJustice posts by other organisations such as Planned Parenthood, Ipas, and National Advocates for Pregnant Women to further boost visibility. Planned Parenthood has retweeted Women’s March’s posts as well, as can be seen in Figure 4. The use of hashtags and retweets makes clear that Women’s March understands the algorithmic construction of the medium they post on.

Figure 4: Women's March Tweet retweeted by Planned Parenthood

Secondly, what is striking in Women’s March’s (and supporting organisations’) content is the smart coordination of the images they post across social media platforms. They clearly agreed on a common theme which includes a colour palette of purple, beige, and dark brown in addition to drawings of protesters. Some images also include the Women’s March’s website colour palette which consists of red, beige, and dark blue, and the Women’s March logo which is a drawing of three women looking to the right. This makes it easier for people to recognise Women’s March content and get information about the march so that they themselves can join it.

Thirdly, the Women’s March Twitter account is quite active online; they have over 32K tweets on their Twitter profile and over 4K posts on their Instagram account (as of January 2022). Furthermore, they regularly post TikToks that have recently been reaching 2K to 5K people per video, which is a big number considering they only have around 2K followers. The organisation posts, tweets, and retweets on a daily and sometimes even hourly basis about all things related to womxn’s rights and feminist activism. This is very on-message for them and gives their account a more authentic feel to it, as their online activity indicates that they care about womxn’s issues in general and not just the abortion battle.

The entire organisation organises itself and its events via the affordances of digital media such as the internet

The organisation also has a website that encourages its visitors to become digital defenders, donate money, form circles (organising groups), find and join events, become a volunteer, sign up for the newsletter, and sign petitions. What is interesting about their digital defender campaign is that it is a type of activism that takes place completely online, instead of being hybrid. This is a convenient middle ground for lots of people who want to volunteer and march, but cannot find a way to do so in real life. As a digital defender, you will be trained by Women’s March’s people themselves, after which you will defend and fight for progressive values in the online world and stop misinformation before it goes viral. As of January 2022, there is a community of 1500 digital defenders according to the Women’s March website. Finding events is made easy through a digital map that displays all the places where Women’s March events have been planned. By clicking on the locations on the map, you will be provided with a time and place, often accompanied by a button, which can be clicked to RSVP or join an event. Essentially, the entire organisation organises itself and its events via the affordances of digital media such as the internet.

Google Trends: The success of Women’s March’s algorithmic activism

The algorithmic activism strategy of the movement is quite successful: the rally for abortion has garnered quite some attention online. In Figure 5, we have a graph from Google Trends which is a website that analyses the popularity of top search queries in Google Search across various regions and languages. The ‘interest over time’ graph here is a representation of the interest in the search query ''Rally for Abortion Justice.'' A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term and we can see here that ''Rally for Abortion Justice'' reached this level on October 2nd 2021, the day of the Women’s March. What this shows is that the hashtag created not only online visibility but also peak interest in the Women’s March, which is exactly what the organisation wants; for people to care about their message and events. We can conclude that digital media are essential to the pro-choice movement’s success.

Figure 5: Graph of the interest in the search query 'Rally for Abortion Justice'

Women's March: The event itself

The fifth annual Women’s March was an urgent call to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) and legislators. Through the protest march, they were asked to reconsider the legal attacks on abortion, especially the anti-abortion law in Texas and the abortion attacks in Mississippi. It was organised on October 2nd, 2 days before the beginning of a new term for SCOTUS (The Court and Its Procedures - Supreme Court of the United States, n.d.). Rachel Carmona is the executive director of the Women’s March organisation. On her personal Twitter account (on the left in Figure 6) and the organisation’s official Twitter, the march was announced. People were led to the website of Women’s March and were asked to take the pledge that documented they were participating in the march. There, people had the option to sign up to receive updates and action alerts from Women’s March as well.

Figure 6: Tweets by Rachel O'Leary Carmona and Women's March

On the day of the Women’s March, 650 rallies were held in all 50 states, with 120,000 people attending across the country. There were rallies with big turnouts, like the one in New York City where 5000 people participated. Others were a lot smaller but not less important. Celebrities also marched along. Actress and comedian Amy Schumer posted a picture on her Instagram account of her and actress Jennifer Lawrence marching in New York City. As seen in Figure 7, her caption reads “I don’t have a uterus and she is pregnant but we out here @womensmarch @plannedparenthood #rallyforabortionjustice”. Schumer acts as a pro-choice spokeswoman by not only participating in the Women’s March but also generating visibility for it by posting about it as well as by tagging the organisation’s Instagram account in the caption of her post. As a celebrity with a big number of followers and therefore a vast amount of influence, Schumer can truly make a difference for the organisation and the march and their popularity. She can help get the word out about both and encourage people to participate in the protesting events.

Figure 7: Instagram post made by Amy Schumer

In Houston, Texas, thousands of people protested in front of the capitol building and marched the streets. They demanded one thing: for the court to declare SB8 (the law banning near-total abortion) unconstitutional, and for the court to have the law blocked. Additionally, the leading member of the non-profit organisation 'Gen Z for Change', Olivia Julianna, held a speech in Austin. She was one of the first people that took action to have the whistleblower website where people could report women seeking abortions taken down. This was a very effective activism strategy, as it actively took away the voice from the Texas Right to Life group, which is part of the opposing pro-life movement. By taking away one of their platforms, part of pro-life’s influence and visibility was also taken away, which benefits pro-choice. 

What has the Women's March accomplished?

The marches seem to have had an impact as on October 6th, federal judge Pitman granted the Justice Department’s request to stop the enforcement of the Texan anti-abortion bill. In his 113 rulings he writes that: “From the moment S.B.8 went into effect, women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution. That other courts may find a way to avoid this conclusion is theirs to decide; this Court will not sanction one more day of this offensive deprivation of such an important right”. The organization Women’s March reposted the decision on their Twitter account that Rachel Carmona, head of Women’s March, retweeted. This is a big development for the organisation; in their social media posts following the decision they used hashtags like #PeoplePowerWorks to say that their efforts paid off. Another consequence of the march was a significant amount of media attention. Multiple American news outlets such as NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, NBC News, and The New York Times have reported on the march.

Returning to the notion of the hybrid media system, where social media and traditional media respond to each other, we can conclude that the pro-choice movement successfully made use of the hybrid media system. The news of the anti-abortion bill in Texas broke via traditional media, was responded to on social media, resulting in activism in the form of #RallyForAbortionJustice, which was then mentioned in traditional media’s news reports, such as the one by NBC News. The fact that the news reports only started emerging on the day of the march itself proves that the event itself was the most effective in raising awareness and, therefore, generating visibility.

Conclusion

In sum, the pro-choice movement performs its activism in multiple different ways. Despite the movement not having a leader or spokesperson, pro-choice manages to mobilise its members via its expansive network of organisations such as the Women's March organisation. Both online and offline they actively work on raising awareness for people with female reproductive organs. After the Texas abortion ban, people were called into action to join the Women’s March via the affordances of digital and social media.

The movement’s algorithmic activism, which included the hashtag #RallyForAbortionJustice, generated visibility for the march that was further boosted by a network of pro-choice organisations, which posted social media content using this hashtag. The Women’s March website served as a way to mobilise those wanting to join the movement, be it via the march itself or the online world. Via the hybrid media system, the movement made itself visible in social but also traditional media, the latter of which made for a final push towards optimal visibility. In the end, it was the Women’s March itself that generated the most attention, which proves that online activism will never be able to do without real-life protests. Even though the Texas Bill is currently (January 2022) still applicable, people all over the world are not ready yet to give up on their freedom of reproductive rights. They will always keep fighting to change the current ruling for their future.

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