Sarah J. Jackson
Feb 27, 2018 · 11 min read

The below is an excerpt from a Knight Foundation report which explores how Black Twitter, Feminist Twitter, and Asian-American Twitter — interact with the news and offers recommendations to strengthen the relationship between journalists and these communities.

Feminist Twitter is an amalgamation of users with diverse backgrounds and varied experiences with journalism, politics and social justice work. Members of this community list traditional feminist issues such as reproductive rights and reproductive justice, sexual assault and gendered violence, workplace discrimination and harassment, and other topics media-makers have long labeled “women’s issues” as central to their informational and political concerns. But this community is also outspoken about commitments to racial justice, sex and gender justice, labor and immigration rights, the environment, and other progressive issues.

Members of this network have long created their own media, with many reporting having joined Twitter as an early extension of their participation in the feminist blogosphere, in left-of-center online political organizing spaces such as and in academic or personal investments in centering women’s voices and critiquing mainstream narratives about gender, race, and other identity-based issues. This is reflected in many of the Feminist Twitter hashtags and debates that have received news coverage in recent years including #yesallwomen after the 2014 Isla Vista shooting that targeted women at the University of California at Santa Barbara; #solidarityisforwhitewomen, a hashtag created by Mikki Kendall that forced the Feminist Twittersphere to address histories of racism in feminist activism; #survivorprivilege, the hashtag created by campus anti-rape activism Wagatwe Wanjuki in response to a column in The Washington Post claiming that accusations of rape on college campuses are falsified and exaggerated; #notbuyingit, a hashtag used to call out sexist commercials during the Super Bowl, and many others.

When asked to define “Feminist Twitter,” members of this community disagree about whether it can be bounded because of historical tensions within the feminist movement. In particular, community members distinguished what they call “mainstream feminism” or “white feminism,” a category that is described as often excluding or marginalizing the concerns of women of color, immigrant women, queer and transgender women, disabled women and fat women, from “Black Feminist Twitter,” which is described as including all of the above as well as issues related to racial justice that are not generally categorized as feminist issues (e.g., prison reform). (This report incorporated hashtags associated with both categories.) What is notable about these descriptions is that almost every person interviewed for this study (including white, Latina, Asian, and black women) spontaneously described these distinct feminisms and seemed to use the categories of “white feminism” and “black feminism” as stand-ins for particular politics that are not necessarily distinct to race. For example, several white women interviewed reported that they do not see themselves as part of “white feminist Twitter” because they closely follow Twitter conversations about the rights of transgender people, incarcerated women, sex workers, and fat women — categories that are not racial but which they view as being excluded from “mainstream” “white feminism.” Thus, the nature of Feminist Twitter’s boundaries seems to fall somewhere between those of Black Twitter, a community that sees itself as clearly bounded in a common identity and set of experiences, and those of Asian-American Twitter, in which cohesiveness is strategic but not necessarily constant.

In addition to examining the network characteristics, leadership and popular discourses in Feminist Twitter for this study, we interviewed 15 influential members of this network. Several key findings arose from this data:

● Intersectionality is a core value of Feminist Twitter: Feminist Twitter is far more diverse, in terms of both the identities of its membership and the issues they are concerned with, than mainstream media reflect.

● Feminist Twitter became newsworthy, and feminist users became newsmakers, through advocacy: Many members of Feminist Twitter identify as journalists, writers and public commentators. While some members identified this way before Twitter, many became newsmakers because of their political engagement online.

● Feminist Twitter is highly skeptical of how mainstream journalists cover feminist issues and whose voices are elevated in mainstream media. Members of this community are more likely to trust content written and shared by journalists and columnists with connections to the Feminist Twitter community than any particular outlet.

(Intersectional) Feminist Twitter makes the news

One of the most notable findings is that the top users in the Feminist Twitter network reflect far greater racial, sexuality, gender, ability, and age diversity than the top mainstream journalists who cover it. The overwhelming majority of journalists covering Feminist Twitter are young, middle/upper class, cisgender white women — something the interview participants identified as a problem, frequently citing the centrality of intersectionality in the network and the concern that mainstream media have a blind spot when it comes to including women who do not fit a particular mold.

In this regard, participants describe Twitter as a platform that helps to “expand,” “amplify” and “promote” the growing intersectional commentary, analysis and reporting that once arose from, and challenged, the feminist and politically progressive blogosphere. Some of the blogs that brought these users to Twitter are now defunct, but even members of the network who write for ongoing high-traffic blogs, such as Melissa McEwan of Shakesville, suggest that Twitter took over the role that blogs once played in terms of community-building and debate because of the wider and more immediate engagement the platform allows and the way it facilitates “listening to people talking about their lives.” This centering of stories from people’s lives aligns with findings in Black and Asian-American Twitter communities in which identity-based experience is treated as expertise in a way not usually allowed to members of marginalized populations by traditional media.

Many participants identify as “writers” and write on feminist news and issues for the feminist press (such as Bitch magazine), feminist blogs (Feministing), women’s magazines (Marie Claire) and the alternative press (ThinkProgress and Rewire). Notably, many of these writers either left other careers to pursue freelance writing (for example, former historians, engineers and attorneys) or continue to work in these careers while writing. Only some identify as “journalists,” and many of these describe a journey in coming to identify as journalists through experiences reporting on issues they care about despite lacking formal journalistic training. For example, Jessica Luther has published several high-profile investigative reports on sexual assault on college campuses and traces her move into journalism to the 2012–13 Texas state Senate battles over several anti-abortion bills. Luther was on the ground as a concerned citizen live-tweeting as pro-choice activists organized demonstrations at the capitol and Sen. Wendy Davis conducted a 13-hour filibuster. Imani Gandy, a former practicing attorney, identifies as a “legal journalist” because of the work she does reporting on the specifics of reproductive rights law, which combines her legal training with the journalistic goal of making the complex topic accessible to readers who might lack in-depth knowledge of the legal system.

Other members of the network shirk the title of “journalist.” These writers cite their own perspective that writing about “women’s issues” and “feminism” is not “neutral” or “objective” — descriptors they see used by mainstream journalists as justification for excluding social justice frameworks from their reporting or including voices from “the other side” that demean and endanger women.

News, trust and Feminist Twitter

As reflected in the quantitative and qualitative data here, Feminist Twitter is concerned not solely with serious political issues but also with popular culture and sharing community around women’s stories. For example, Feminist Twitter includes fans of programs such as “Scandal,” and many interviewees cited some of their most enjoyable Feminist Twitter moments as those that included the community live-tweeting award shows. However, both the most retweeted news in the Feminist Twitter network and the accounts of members of this community attest to the issues most central to it. Interviewees listed the following issues as most important to the Feminist Twitter community in descending order of frequency: sexual violence/rape/gendered violence; reproductive rights and reproductive justice; racial justice (for example, many interviewees identified #blacklivesmatter as central to the Feminist Twitter network, and several noted that they have learned a lot from indigenous women in the network); transgender rights; politics generally (many interviewees particularly listed the 2012 and 2016 elections as having been central topics in the network as well as the campaigns of particular women legislators); representation of women in media/advertising/popular culture; the wage gap; and issues faced by women professionals in male-dominated fields such as tech.

The most retweeted news in the network reflects these concerns, with this news focusing on stories and using hashtags centered on women in political and social life generally (#nastywoman, #everydaysexism), the killing of black women by police and the murder of trans women in general (#sayhername, #sandrabland, #aiyannastanleyjones), stories about sexual assault and rape (#notokay, #theemptychair, #rapeculture), trans rights (#girlslikeus), reproductive rights (#standwithpp), and women in the workplace (#distractinglysexy).

The participants report the most trust in the feminist press (Ms. Magazine, Bitch magazine, Bustle, The Establishment), the alternative press (ThinkProgress, Rewire), women’s magazines (Teen Vogue, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan) and international press such as The Guardian, for coverage of feminist issues and issues of general importance to the community. Trust in the feminist and alternative press and women’s magazines is linked to the centering of women’s perspectives and voices in these spaces and the clear positions taken on political and social issues ranging from abortion to female genital mutilation. Trust in international media is likely the consequence of a different editorial ethic abroad than in the U.S. Van Badham, a widely shared columnist in the Feminist Twitter network, describes, for example, an ethic at Guardian Australia in which “all my line editors are feminists, and the encouragement certainly is for me to write feminist work.” Badham notes that she identifies not as a reporter but as a columnist and that she was brought on by Guardian Australia because of her extensive experience as an activist on progressive issues, connections to Labor Party members of Parliament and, in her own words, “being a smartass on the internet.” No mainstream U.S. television news networks or newspapers were cited by participants as doing a “good job” on feminist issues.

Members of the Feminist Twitter network frequently name particular writers who are a part of that network as trusted sources of general news, including Jessica Luther, Robin Marty, Imani Gandy, Mikki Kendall, Lindy West, and Irin Carmon. These and other members of the network describe being linked through Twitter in ways that allow for the development of trust and familiarity with one another’s work and politics despite disparate geographic and social locations. When prompted to name mainstream outlets or mainstream journalists they trust for news, interviewees named very few of either, saying they tended to trust specific news stories that other members of the network share (as long as the share is not for the purpose of critique) or trust news stories written by members of the network first, women of color second, and women generally third.

The only mainstream outlets or journalists whose names were specified by multiple interviewees as trustworthy are: Melissa Harris-Perry, whose canceled MSNBC morning show was the only TV news program that members of the network named as doing a “good job” on feminist issues and inclusion of feminist voices and who now is an editor at large for Elle magazine; Jamil Smith, formerly of MTV News and The New Republic and who established much of his Feminist Twitter following while working as a producer at MSNBC for the “Melissa Harris-Perry” show; Yashar Ali of New York magazine, who, like many members of Feminist Twitter, blogged on gender and politics before entering mainstream journalism; and The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times if and when a particular story or column in one of these publications is written by an identifiable member of the Feminist Twitter community (such as Lindy West or Tamara Winfrey Harris).

What Feminist Twitter wants from the news

When asked what best practices journalists, editors and producers should adopt to gain more trust from members of the Feminist Twitter community and for better coverage of the issues important to this community, interviewees unequivocally echoed some form of the same interconnected recommendations: (1) hire a greater number and diversity of women to report, edit and analyze the news and (2) credit women for their ideas and use women sources ethically.

Participants repeated frequently that they believe the lack of diversity in newsrooms at the content production and editorial levels results in a failure to adequately cover feminist and women’s issues specifically and to contextualize news generally. They suggest that more women journalists, and particularly women journalists of color and those with other intersecting identities (including trans women, disabled women, and immigrant women), would create the nuance and care in stories the network believes are desperately lacking from the mainstream. Several interviewees compared the relationship of mainstream journalists to Feminist Twitter as anthropological rather than collaborative and described the discomfort of being written about as if alien rather than to or for.

Participants of all races named African-American users as those who have most significantly shaped the internal debates and politics of Feminist Twitter. These users include Mikki Kendall, Trudy, Jamie Nesbitt Golden, Feminista Jones and Jamia Wilson. Yet interviewees noted that these women are rarely given platforms to begin and advance careers in mainstream media. For example, Bitch magazine Editorial Director Lisa Factora-Borchers credits the “intersection of Black Twitter and feminism and black women having a platform to share analysis” as not only foundational to Feminist Twitter but apparently central to anyone who is a part of the network. However, she decries the ease with which ideas arising from that analysis are “plagiarized, branded and exploited” by mediamakers who are not good-faith members of the community.

Accordingly, members of Feminist Twitter believe mainstream journalists frequently used the ideas and debates that arise from Feminist Twitter interactions, blogs and feminist-specific publications and spaces to inform stories without crediting or citing the sources of these ideas. In doing so, interviewees argued, mainstream journalists often misunderstand or misconstrue feminist ideas and debates because they lack the nuance that comes with being fully involved in those discussions, and render invisible the labor of the women engaged in developing those ideas and debates. Members of the community questioned why more mainstream outlets do not use feminist experts as sources in stories and why they return repeatedly to the same small number of “mainstream white feminists” (for example, Jessica Valenti, Amanda Marcotte and Jill Filipovic) as sources.

At the same time, members of the network are very concerned about the harm done by journalists and other mediamakers who simply pull tweets or quotations from Twitter and report them in stories without first asking or alerting the authors of these tweets. They frequently cite the harm done to rape and domestic violence survivors by journalists who amplify tweets about their assaults without permission, or trans women and women of color who are viciously trolled when tweets intended for a smaller network are shared out of context. Interviewees who identify as journalists acknowledged the complexity of these issues given the public nature of Twitter but insisted that basic journalistic ethics should include a consideration about how the inclusion (or exclusion) of particular voices and narratives that arise from feminist spaces can perpetuate inequality and exploitation.

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