Rose McGowan, Jemele Hill & the Problem with Selective Twitter Boycotts

What does #WomenBoycottTwitter say about the way some of us choose to practice our activism? Anne Thériault takes a closer look

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Women Boycott Twitter: A headshot of Rose McGowan and Jemele Hill side by side.

(Photos: Getty; Design: Leo Tapel)

Last Thursday, Rose McGowan posted on her Instagram account that Twitter had suspended her from the platform for 12 hours due to a violation of Twitter’s rules. McGowan did not clarify which rule she had violated (and perhaps at that point she didn’t know), saying only that “powerful forces” were at work and imploring her followers to be her voice. She ended her Instagram post with the hashtag #whywomendontreport, implying that she believed her account had been suspended because of her disclosure that Harvey Weinstein had sexually assaulted her and the pushback she voiced against men like Ben Affleck who swore that they hadn’t known that Weinstein was a serial predator.

However, it soon came to light that her Twitter account was in fact suspended because she included a private phone number in one of her tweets. Which genuinely does violate Twitter’s terms of service.

Although I am personally anti-doxxing regardless of the situation, I can understand why McGowan did what she did. I can absolutely sympathize with the desire to enact some kind of retaliation against the person who raped you, not to mention against those who protected the person who assaulted you so that he could continue to harm other women in a multiplicity of ways. I can also sympathize with her claim that she is being targeted by Twitter for speaking out, especially given the fact that abuse and doxxing are rampant on the platform and rarely result in any consequences for those enacting that kind of violence. McGowan’s tweet wondering when threatening nuclear war will violate Twitter’s terms of service is also a fair point. Twitter’s refusal to remove Donald Trump’s account simply because he is “newsworthy” in spite of his use of his account to target various women–for example, when he called out ESPN journalist Jemele Hill after she spoke out against him and demanded that the network “apologize for untruth,” or retweeted a doctored video of him inflicting physical violence on Hillary Clinton–does seem very much at odds with their stated terms of service.

The reaction to the news of McGowan’s suspension was swift and furious. A 24-hour boycott was organized under the hashtag #WomenBoycottTwitter, with many pledging not to use the platform on Friday October 13.

But while I understand the drive to do something—anything—about injustice that led to this boycott, it’s hard not to feel conflicted about it for several reasons.

First, what good does a 24-hour boycott do? There is little incentive for Twitter to do better if they know that any users not logging onto the platform on Friday will most likely be back on Saturday. I really do get the feeling that you need to take some kind of action in the midst of these revelations about Weinstein, but I think it’s important for us to ask ourselves if the actions we choose to take will have the consequences we hope for (in this case, to make Twitter a safer space for women, to hold the men who protected Weinstein accountable and, of course, to make sure that Weinstein’s actions don’t end up swept under the rug and forgotten, as is so often the case with powerful men accused of abuse).

Second, it seems like an odd tactic to ask women to silence themselves for a day in response to a woman being silenced. Especially considering that there are many, many Twitter users who would only be too delighted to see the most outspoken women voluntarily remove themselves from the platform for a day. In some ways, the boycott only meant putting Twitter entirely into the hands of its most misogynistic users who, I’m sure, were thrilled by the absence of many of their most prominent critics.

Third, it’s important to look at this boycott through the lens of Solidarity Is for White Women. Where were the calls for a Twitter boycott after Trump’s tweets (and his White House press secretary’s remarks) about Jemele Hill contributed her suspension at ESPN? Sarah Huckabee Sanders literally called Hill’s remarks a “fireable offense,” in effect silencing Hill in a much harsher way than Twitter reacted to McGowan. But here’s the thing: Hill didn’t dox anyone, she merely shared her opinion.

And where was Hill’s boycott? Where was the trending hashtag in solidarity for what happened to her?

More to the point: where is the white outrage (and the #WomenBoycottTwitter) over the fact that Black women consistently experience the most egregious and frightening harassment on social media?

And—as if the white-centric nature of the boycott wasn’t obvious enough—on Sunday McGowan wrote about James Corden’s tasteless Weinstein jokes in a now deleted tweet, saying “This is rich famous Hollywood white male privilege in action. Replace ‘women’ w/the ‘N’ word. How does it feel?”

Fortunately, many people chimed in to tell her how inappropriate the comparison was and to McGowan’s credit she later apologized. But the fact that it happened shows how oblivious white feminists can be to issues that don’t directly impact them.

The creator of #WomenBoycottTwitter did address some concerns with the nature of the protest. Still, it’s important for us to think about the times some of us choose to use trending hashtags, and the times we don’t.

None of these criticisms mean that I don’t have enormous respect for the bravery Rose McGowan has shown in the way she is using her platform to hold accountable the men who have supported Weinstein (or used his heinous acts as fuel for their comedy). It is incredibly fearless to out one’s self as the victim of sexual violence by one of your industry’s most powerful men. I am also not trying to shame anyone who participated in the boycott either. I just want us to think more critically about what the way we practice our activism says about us. Are we all out here trying to make the world a better place? Definitely! Does that mean we shouldn’t also be actively listening and learning and trying to better ourselves and our activism? Definitely not.

We always have room to improve and it is necessary to the feminist movement that we always retain the capacity to do just that.

Related:

Rose McGowan Isn’t Buying Ben Affleck’s Harvey Weinstein Statement—and Neither Are We
5 Reasons Social Media Platforms Aren’t Quick to Block Racist Accounts 
These Are the Worst Hollywood Reactions to the Harvey Weinstein Allegations

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