Life is on hold due to Coronavirus – and so is activism. In this very personal post, I talk about my experience as an activist and about how the campaigning front going quiet has been affecting me. Aaaand I’ll finally explain more about my involvement with the United Nations’ #GenerationEquality campaign to discuss small things we can do to fight digital inequality in lockdown.
Activism Is On Hold
At the moment, we’re all emotionally maxed out. I have been watching my country, Italy, from afar since early March, constantly panicking. I don’t know when I’ll see my loved ones, I’m scared of losing some of them, and I’m worried about the fate of my country and its lively family-owned businesses going bust. Plus, since lockdown has been introduced here in the UK, separating me from my partner and making me feel progressively trapped, my mental health has been taking a hit.
The thing is, activism networks are made of people. And people are struggling right now: we’re all in the same boat, but having trouble coping for different reasons. Some of us have children to home school and provide for; others have mental illnesses; others still are underpaid, trying to make ends meet even when work is drying up.
I didn’t consider what I was doing as ‘activism’ until I gave a talk at the Undergraduate Awards 2018 as an alumna, and was asked to talk about “my activism”. Since then, I have considered this blog and my platforms in general as a way to talk about things I am passionate about, and was blown away to win the Activist of the Year award at the Sexual Freedom Awards 2019.
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Yeah so… not always a dick fan but I’ll definitely treasure this beautiful trophy! Still can’t quite believe it bit it turns out I’m the winner of the 25th edition of the @sexualfreedomawards 2019! I’m incredibly grateful of having received this award on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. As an abusive relationship and sexual assault survivor who was able to love herself again through #poledancing and excessive nakedness, this award means everything. It also means we have so much more work to do. I am nothing without my @everybodyvisible team who have been tirelessly campaigning against the Instagram censorship which would have prevented me from finding self-love like I have now. And also, as we saw during the ceremony, we need to work so much harder to make sure that consent and correct expression and gendering of minorities are upheld in our society. This beautiful flying penis trophy, made in one of my favourite places – Bali – will be a reminder of the beautiful sex posi community and all the work we still have to do. Keep slaying – we are all winners and congrats to all the nomineees and winners! Thanks @frankicookney @ethicalstripper for the support tonight – and congrats to the gorgeous @sashadiamond_pole too 😍😍😍😍 picture by: @danmckc from my amaze team of film-makers including @misez_baby and @monikwi
I rebranded as Blogger On Pole in 2017, and a new, “more out” name allowed me to talk about subjects I would have previously considered taboo – like mental health, violence, sex, periods, body image etc. I’ve used this blog and my writing to campaign for women to be allowed to express themselves freely, sexually and mentally. Through my novel Bad/Tender, I talked about better visibility and description of domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.
On the blog, through 2019, I started speaking with Instagram to discuss their ‘shadowban’, or ‘vaguely inappropriate content’ policy, disproportionately targeting sex workers, female, LGBTQIA+, plus size and black bodies, athletes, sex educators, performers, artists etc. As a result of this, I became part of a wider coalition and, through Blogger On Pole, I obtained an apology from the platform.
After the summer, I became one of the founders and the head of research at EveryBODYVisible, the anti-censorship Instagram campaigned launched on 29 October 2019, tagging the platform’s chief to ask for better, more equal and fairer moderation. EveryBODYVisible is a growing network showcasing people who have been unfairly censored. It was covered in the BBC, Huffington Post and in a variety of news outlets, and it received the support of Dita Von Teese and Spencer Tunick at launch.
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Today is the day! Today – #internationalinternetday – I stand with @everybodyvisible – a coalition of #poledancers, educators, sex workers, models, artists, athletes, #LGBTQ accounts and more – to protest against censorship of #women, LGBTQ people and other minorities at the hands of Facebook & @instagram. As an internet #academic, a #blogger, a #writer, a #poledance performer and an abuse survivor, Instagram has been crucial to my self-promotion, education and my healing. Yet, instead of answering experts’ calls to implement #humanrights into its platform, IG and FB are restricting freedom of expression and censoring bodies. It should NOT be up to private businesses and companies with a monopoly to police people’s freedom of speech. We’d like the FB/IG team (@mosseri @sherylsandberg @maxinepwilliams @schrep @guyro @davisantigone in particular) to 1) clarify how their algorithms work 2) Work with women and minorities to retarget them 3) Share info about their algorithm-making teams to know how many women, LGBTQIA+ people and minorities work in them 4) Be consistent – why are only celebs allowed to show their bodies on IG? (We know why, but we’d like platforms to be consistent and allow everybody to be visible on the platform) 5) Share insights on how and why they block the promotion process for certain accounts 6) Acknowledge the sociological and psychological effects of shadow banning. If you’re wondering why all of this is important, check my bio for an academic analysis of what the shadowban is doing to social media and go to everybodyvisible [dot] com. Glad to be part of this coalition and proud of having worked with the team to spread the word and create our demands to improve freedom of speech on IG. Swipe right to learn how to take part in our protest today – basically share a pic of your or of our logo by @dope_minds and @el_bulldog_ingles, tag the people I mentioned above, share your story with the #everybodyvisible hashtag and tag your friends 🙂 1st📸: @theblacklightsydney
My involvement with EveryBODYVisible is both personal – as a pole dancer who has been censored by Instagram multiple times – and professional, as an academic studying online abuse, conspiracy theories, algorithm bias and moderation.
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Most of you have seen my dancing videos, but I actually spend a lot of time talking, whether it’s to my #criminology students, at conferences or to media. Earlier this month, I delivered a guest lecture at @feministinternet’s “Creating a #feminist chatbot” intensive at @ual_cci, with the aim to share my research to help create a chatbot dealing with online abuse. Seeing what the students came up with – four really cool chatbots, tackling everything from abuse relief to sending nudes safely – really shows how a solutions-based approach to criminological and sociological issues, especially online, is the way forward. This is just a short clip from the talk but an opportunity to see me in action. DM / email me if you want me to speak at your event / deliver keynotes / guest lectures 🙂 I can literally talk about anything (including koalas bc I’m obsessed with them 🐨), but online abuse, conspiracy theories, online subcultures, trial by social media and algorithm bias are my specialties atm ✨👯♀️
These are all cool things, but in the face of a global pandemic, they suddenly become small. When we lose our freedom and worry about our and our loved ones’ survival, campaigning and activism aren’t at the forefront of our needs and aims.
Activism networks are made of people, and as I’ve already said, people are hurting and trying to cope. This is why you’re not hearing much from us at EveryBODYVisible: we’ve all got our own battles. We started precisely because it hurt that what we shared as a form of creativity and sometimes work or respite was censored. But right now, we need to survive first. We will be back when things – hopefully – calm down.
Is There Room For Activism In Lockdown?
Remember when people used to say: “bUt ArE yOu ReAlLy An AcTiViSt iF u Do It On SoCiAl MeDiA?” Well, we’re all sofa activists right now, doing what we can or, sometimes, having to stop altogether. Those of us who have homes and a sofa, that is.
Just like with everything else, campaign work about anything we might be fighting for that isn’t related to the Coronavirus has taken the backseat. Months, years of work for some people right now are stopping, because they are not a priority. I know what you are gonna say:
And there are. Which is why activism about other stuff shouldn’t be on the news agenda as much as it was before. But, just like everything people have worked on, I am grieving about having to stop fighting for something that I’ve worked hard on. And I know others are as well.
I have been feeling conflicted about what I could do, or say, or fight for at a time when we’re all fighting to survive, some more than others. I’ve been trying to avoid speaking about things that sounded minimal, unimportant. And I realised that, for me to function, I need to strike a balance between doing things and just shutting up.
Mainly, like everyone, I’m still fighting, for myself and for what I can. I think there is room for activism in lockdown, because so many issues are unresolved. Women and children still need support in homes plagued by domestic violence, now more than ever; homeless people are even more at risk; and as our lives move online, our rights and content become even more of a pawn in the hands of the companies we need to use to work and stay connected.
The key here is about knowing what you are able to do: if you can barely look after yourself, maybe it’s time to take a break, because your health and responsibilities to your loved ones come first. If you feel that you are healthy and have space to do something, anything, then it’s about striking the balance between fighting for something meaningful, and wasting your energy banging on about something that, right now, isn’t a priority because the world is hurting.
Everybody copes differently, but I’ve been trying to keep at least some of the work up, mainly because it blends with my day academic job. So I’ve been working on my PhD and writing academic papers about social media censorship, with recommendations to improve moderation.
This hasn’t been and isn’t easy. Thinking straight is not something I’m doing very well at the moment, and developing theory as someone who doesn’t have “Dr.” in her title doesn’t make it any easier to get some controversial papers acceptable. So I’m feeling crushed and inadequate most of the time, but I’m still trying, because I’m dying to think about anything that isn’t the pandemic, and I need to feel like I haven’t thrown my work in the bin completely.
I’m also trying to talk about mental health in lockdown – responsibly – as much as possible. We’re all struggling, and everybody struggles and copes in different ways, but I feel that, as someone who is crazy high functioning in order to cope with trauma and other issues, I have a responsibility to tell people that my way isn’t the right way for everyone. So I joined this World Health Organisation campaign about mental health in lockdown, sharing what’s been helping me. See picture below.
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Right now, many of us are lonely and far from our loved ones, missing our freedom. I know that my mental health is taking a hit & we’re all feeling the pressure to make the most out of this time by being overly productive. So I am joining @thefifthagency in supporting @who to show how I am staying #HealthyAtHome [esp when their funds are being stopped for political reasons 🙄] So hello from my #homeoffice 👋🏼 I am a #poledance instructor & teach + #workout a lot bc it’s both my job & my way to stay sane. BUT you do NOT have to use this time to do 800 ab reps, become a handstand whiz or learn contortion if that’s not what you feel like. While it’s important to #BeActive bc moving makes us feel good, it should not be a way to get you down. So here are my tips to #stayathome & stay strong, safe & healthy, whether you’re into #poledancing or not. 1⃣ Make lists. Small, bullet point lists of things you can tick off during the day, so that even if life is on hold, knowing that maybe you’ve made your bed, or done a tiny thing will feel like you have power over something. 2⃣ Add your meals to your daily lists. That way you won’t forget to eat, and if you plan what you’re going to make that gives you something to look forward to. 3⃣ Listen to your body. I’m often guilty of over-training, so sometimes I have to listen to my body and just rest. If you’ve already worked out 3 days in a row for instance, consider taking a rest day & just going for that one goverment-approved walk a day. 4⃣ Have a dance. Put on a song you like, and dance your ass off to it. Maybe with the lights down. Or with the lights on, make-up and a cute outfit. Dancing – even silly dancing, without a plan – was super helpful even when I wasn’t a dancer. So crank up that Covid-19 Party Playlist and shake it. 5⃣ Limit chat time. Staying connected through mobile devices is the only thing many of us (me included) currently have. But this is keeping us always on & that could be draining. So turn things off – your friends will get it. I nominate everyone watching this who wants to take part & @_sarahliberty_ @comecurious @bethashleywriter to continue the challenge 💕
In Lockdown, We Need To Protect Our Rights Even More
Realising how “on” I have been during lockdown has really made me think and focus on the work I’d been doing even more. My pole teaching has moved to Zoom, the promotion for it is essentially all done through Instagram, and I keep in touch with the people I know and love entirely through video apps and social media. So how comfortable do I feel with this?
Not that comfortable. While life as we know it seems to have stopped, issues like online harassment, privacy breaches, censorship and general lack of respect for human rights at the hands of the corporations that run our online spaces have not. While many conspiracies blame Covid-19 on 5G networks, laboratories and the like for creating an illness set to restrict our civil liberties, they forget that those civil liberties are already being restricted by the platforms we all need to use to stay connected.
Mounting concerns about video conferencing app Zoom’s handling of user data prompted the company to share a ‘Security Enhancements’ update. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is looking at data provided by the mobile advertising industry to analyse people’s movements in the midst of the pandemic, so much so that experts are worrying that the apps we use to socialise, to keep track of our fitness routine or to buy what we need during the pandemic are being used to enforce stricter measures on us.
Meanwhile, the harassment of journalists, freelancers, experts and the general public online has not stopped because of Coronavirus. Experts are warning that lockdowns might result in an increase of online sex related abuse. Social media users continue to be trolled online for their experiences, even when they are sharing their journey through surviving the virus. The FBI has warned about “Zoombombing”, a coordinated effort to infiltrate Zoom chats to show inappropriate content. A freelance sex writer contact of mine was left in tears after receiving a cyberflashing video in her Instagram DMs, a video which was not obscured as the platform claims to do. Similarly to my own experiences of cyberflashing, the harasser’s account is still active because content on his public feed does not violate community guidelines like his DMs do.
As I and many researchers have argued in the past, it’s social media’s own infrastructure that leave the most vulnerable users helpless in the face of abuse, replicating offline inequality and privilege. The founders of social media companies claimed they got into technology to put power in people’s hands, but instead they have created an environment where their indifference towards users’ needs and rights is turning platforms into what Alison Harvey calls ‘aggressive architecture’ – and at the moment, that’s the only means we have to keep working, stay in touch with our loved ones and preserve a form of normality.
While the ‘aggressive architecture’ of social media platforms leaves us vulnerable to harassment and takes data without our consent, many users are still grappling with account deletion or censorship for unspecified breaches of platform community guidelines.
In times of self-isolation, with businesses and freelancers having to move online, losing one’s account – and therefore, one’s voice, work platform and support network – can seem even more daunting. Women, the LGBTQIA+ community, artists, sex educators, athletes, sex workers, people of colour, are disproportionately affected by this form on censorship on platforms such as Instagram. Yet, while female business owners, athletes and sex workers continue to talk about how this covert censorship is affecting their livelihoods, platforms still deny it even exists.
Last year, queer and feminist brands were prevented from running ads on social media platforms, while on International Women’s Day this year many sex workers protested in London’s Soho for being kicked off social networks and stripped off their main and safest promotion tool. So let’s remember this:
Especially in a time when online work is the only option many people have left, account deletion or censorship in the shape of the ‘shadowban’ can have an impact on people’s freedom of expression as well as on their ability to survive. Online harassment and privacy breaches become all we see because “online” is the only space where many of us exist.
So what can we do about it?
Tiny Bits of Digital Activism & Safety We Can All Get Involved With Even In Lockdown
While we can all agree that, at present, governments have a lot more to worry about than changing the way the Internet is run, there are things that we can do as users to support people that are struggling and to hold platforms accountable.
- “Stalk” your favourite accounts and share their work. If you haven’t seen a post from them for a while, check if they have been deleted, or if algorithms have hidden their content from you. Spread the word about what they do.
- When someone is being harassed, help them raise awareness of what they are going through, in the hope platforms will take notice and enforce their rules.
- If you have to use apps that have been accused of unethical use of data, or of monitoring your behaviour in different ways, try to avoid signing in with your social media platforms to limit the amount of personal information they can access.
- The current situation calls for a serious re-thinking of how social media platforms are run. When all of this is over, consider supporting anti-censorship campaigns and holding your local representatives, governments or politicians accountable for their work (or lack thereof) to break up monopolies.
- Collectively, we should start demanding clarity from social media platforms so that they have to be more transparent about how their moderation works, how it is enforced and who runs it.
Social media platforms were a civic space before the Coronavirus pandemic and, if possible, they are even more so now. Because of this, we need to ensure they respect users’ right to privacy and freedom of expression, and that they do not add to the stress and uncertainty of a difficult time. Let’s use this hyper-connected period to reflect how we can make them work for us, so that for the next (hopefully not) pandemic we’re not left to trade-off our civil liberties for spaces that take more than they give us.
#GenerationEquality & Digital Inequalities in Lockdown
And this brings me to #GenerationEquality. Before Coronavirus, I was campaigning to make social media platforms more human rights compliant. I still have to pinch myself when I think that, earlier this year, I was asked to become an ambassador for UN Women’s #GenerationEquality campaign.
So even if activism is still on hold, I am using this space to talk about small things we can all do to make life online more equal. This is because, even if 25 years ago the Beijing Platform for Action set out how to remove the systemic barriers that hold women back from equal participation in all areas of life, there is still a lot of work to do. This is why, this year, UN Women are “bringing together the next generations of women’s rights activists with the gender equality advocates and visionaries who were instrumental in creating the Beijing Platform for Action more than two decades ago.” This might result in an event in Paris later next year (Coronavirus willing).
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Currently pinching myself. I’ve been chosen as 1 of the @unwomen #generationequality ambassadors. 25 years ago, The Beijing Declaration & Platform for Action of 1995—endorsed by 189 govts @ the 4th World Conference on Women— committed to take strategic action to improve the lives of women. 25 yrs later, the #UNWomen “Generation Equality: Realizing #women’s rights for an equal future” campaign both celebrates this anniversary & reflects on what more can be done. . As a #journalism grad + an #academic involved, amongst other things, with humanitarian media research, I‘m fully aware that digital campaigns don’t solve problems overnight & that they can shine a light more on their Western ambassadors as “saviours” than on the cause they promote. So this is why I’d like to focus on an issue that affects women daily – something we can all help to fight. That issue is visibility. . As you all know, I’ve become really involved with fighting social media censorship. Today I’d like to continue that fight & make it clear that social media censorship of womxn – especially from marginalised communities – is a #humanrights issue. Nudity may empower some, while others may prefer modesty, but the fact that women’s words & bodies on social media are disproportionately affected by both abuse by other users & censorship at the hands of platforms is a human rights issue. . By censoring pictures of women’s bodies social media platforms are saying that women that don’t conform to their idea of womanhood don’t deserve a voice. That they should be silenced. This is dangerous for us as women, for our friends, for our mothers, sisters, relatives; for our girls, for our children, for the women they’ll end up becoming or that they’ll end up loving . While my contribution to Generation Equality may be small, I hope my voice helps make everyone realise that it shouldn’t be up to a handful of private companies to say what is/ isn’t the right woman to give visibility to. We need a better internet, where all #womxn are visible. Please join me in raising awareness about this, share campaigns to fight this, demand better representation. Thanks @_sarahliberty_ for the opp 🤭
My focus for #GenerationEquality is – you guessed it – on digital inequality: it’s my area of expertise, the only field where I feel I can actually add something to the debate about making women’s lives better online. And it’s something that, even in lockdown, we can all think about and act upon.
I feel incredibly lucky to be one of these “next generation women’s rights activists” and even if life right now quite frankly sucks, I’ll do what I can – even if it’s a small thing, like writing a paper or a blog post or posting an Insta story – to talk about digital inequality.