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Prohibiting Privacy: why online activism isn't everything

Michelle Avenant's picture
Online media provide us with amazing ways of spreading the message and impact of a protest far beyond its original time frame and geographic boundaries. In doing so, they can easily undermine the safe space vital to many protests against sexual violence. This dawned on me at the Silent Protest last week.
What is the Silent Protest?
The Silent Protest is an annual protest against rape and other forms of sexual violence. It began at Rhodes University (RU) in 2007 with around 80 protestors. On 1 August 2014, the protest had over 1700 participants in Grahamstown, with satellite protests in Durban and Johannesburg.
The protest serves a dual purpose: to remove the shroud of silence around sexual violence in our society and to provide a safe space for victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence to tell their stories and seek support.
A majority of the Silent Protest’s participants wear duct tape over their mouths and shirts labeled “Sexual Violence = Silence”, undertaking a twelve-hour fast and vow of silence in an unsettling visual representation of the vast cultural silences which aid rape culture.
A smaller group of participants choose to wear shirts emblazoned “rape survivor” or “survivor”, indicating that they personally have been victims of rape or other forms of sexual violence.
Safety First
In a society fraught with stigma and victim-blaming, in which identifying as a survivor can be a dangerous act, the Silent Protest provides a safe and supportive space. Emotional and psychological support is available on site throughout the day, and any harmful comments made to protestors are considered a serious offense reportable to RU harassment officers. The public space in which survivors disclose this piece of their stories is carefully monitored for safety and has distinct spatial and temporal boundaries.
The internet is not. Photographs of the protest posted on the web can be shared, reproduced, extrapolated from their original context, and generally used and discussed in a way over which the protestors and the protest’s organisers (and even the journalists documenting the protest) have no control. What is more, getting rid of an unwanted Google Search result for your name is about as easy as bathing a cat (listen to the podcast below to see what I mean).

The protest’s organisers work hard to ensure survivors of the privacy they need. The protest may not be photographed, recorded or filmed without media accreditation, and those producing media coverage of the protest are briefed on the permission and privacy protocol to be followed when documenting survivors.

Personal experience
A survivor myself, when a reporter from a local newspaper asked me if she could publish a photograph she took of me, I said yes. I wanted to use my bad experience to do good in being part of the protest’s media footprint; to help extend the protest’s impact. I asked, though, that the reporter withhold my surname.

I’m ready to go public with my story, but I’m not ready for one of my worst experiences to be one of the first things that pops up when people search my name online, potentially for years to come. I’ve worked hard enough not to let that experience define me.

The reporter told me she couldn’t publish the photo without my full name, and I couldn’t help but feel silenced: is handing my full name to journalists (who often make mistakes) and Big Brother Google not a rather hefty price to pay for speaking out?
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, social media and networking can help protest movements grow bigger and more powerful, but they cannot recreate a safe space – at least not the public safe space I experienced on Friday.
The Upworthy videos on our newsfeeds provoke important discussions, but there are thousands of bigger, scarier conversations lurking deep below the instagrammed surfaces of our profile pictures: conversations which need to be held in person with those in our immediate communities. This is where the biggest and most challenging silences lie. 

Photograph of Silent Protest Participants by Michelle Avenant.

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