Trolling and extreme levels of abuse can kill an online campaign but momentum can be maintained, and the energy and morale of exhausted activists effectively restored, by tactical retreat and taking time out, new research into the landmark 'No More Page 3' campaign in the United Kingdom shows.
Dr. Sarah Glozer of the University of Bath School of Management and Dr. Lauren McCarthy of the Royal Holloway University of London School of Business and Management studied the 'No More Page 3' campaign, which from 2012 lobbied The Sun mass-circulation newspaper to stop publishing a photo of a topless woman on page 3, a daily feature launched in 1970. Page 3, the No More Page 3 campaign argued, was a symbol of institutionalised sexism. The Sun removed the Page 3 feature in 2015.
Glozer and McCarthy found the campaigners were subjected to extreme levels of abuse and hate-speech online, leading to considerable stress and exhaustion, but had developed effective measures to mitigate against these risks to their ultimately successful campaign. Key amongst those was simply retreating.
"It seems counter-intuitive - to urge campaigners to step back from the front line, take time out, perhaps retreat to silence, when campaigning seems to be so much about keeping the fight going. But our study shows it paid dividends, both for the individual's welfare and the effectiveness of the campaign itself," Glozer said.
Glozer said the No More Page 3 campaigners adopted different forms of sensory retreat - some went silent on social media or observed campaign efforts rather than participating actively. Some withdrew temporarily and deleted their accounts. Glozer said that these tactics, in most cases, ensured that most of the campaigners would return rejuvenated to the front line.
"This retreat tactic, which could have been an hour, a day or weeks at a time, allowed the campaigners to recover their emotional energy and heal - we heard the word 'healing' a lot," Glozer said.
Importantly, the campaign group's core activists, rather than demanding more and more from each other, were understanding and supportive of the need for retreat.
"They reported finding solace and taking strength in acting together. They understood the need for retreat and saw this not as a sign of weakness or flagging commitment to the cause", a lesson Glozer said could be helpful to corporates or governmental organisations wrestling with 'burn-out' cases.
McCarthy added that campaigner exhaustion was especially common when causes were directly related to individuals' identity.
"Women drew on their experiences of teenage shame about their bodies, or sexual harassment, as a kind of fuel for their campaigning. But at the same time, these experiences and continued abuse online, can lead to burnout. It's a Catch 22 situation," she said.
A key tactic in dealing with the 24/7 onslaught of social media abuse was a relay system. An exhausted campaigner wrestling with a hostile social media feed or forum would 'pass the baton' to another campaigner via a system of online messaging or 'tagging' across platforms, ensuring that campaign's momentum was unaffected.
Glozer noted that the No More Page 3 campaigners sought out their most vehement opponents to try to convince them of their argument and win their support; a brave tactic in the world of 'toxic Twitter'.
"While social media can cosset the user, surrounding us with like-minded people in a filter bubble or echo chamber, the NMP3 campaigners chose to actively enter the Lion's Den. We were struck by their tactics and how resilient they were, impressed by their rationality in the face of rude, abusive and downright abhorrent behaviour. But that takes an emotional toll," she said.
This experience in the virtual world also adversely affected the campaigners' expectations of public behaviour in the physical world.
"They became terrified they would face the same level of vitriol on the streets. Their online experience exaggerated their fears - in fact, this proved not to be the case when people were unable to hide behind their online identities," Glozer said.
Glozer said the research pointed to the need for digital platforms to do more to address the trolling and hate-speech that are still tolerated and excused in some social media channels.
"Women continue to experience inequality offline, and such tensions are only amplified online. Feminist environs provide safe spaces, and social media can help to mobilise - and has proven its value in campaigning - but there is more platforms can do to police hate-speech," she said.
McCarthy added that whilst looking to business to do more was appropriate, it was clear that campaigning organisations were taking action on their own.
"During the pandemic we saw the rise of mutual-aid groups organising on social media, far in advance of any governmental or corporate help. Similarly, campaigning groups are utilising the tools they have at their fingertips to protect and sustain their members. As we emerge from this pandemic, which has rolled the clock back on so many hard-won gains for women's equality, and only exasperated incidences of trolling and 'networked misogyny', more action is needed to fight inequality in both online and offline worlds," she said.