The number of women in Hollywood and beyond who have publicly accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and assault in the last 10 days is staggering, but not surprising.
Actress Alyssa Milano effectively underscored that point Sunday afternoon: After encouraging women who’d been been sexually harassed or assaulted to tweet the words #MeToo, there was a collective raising of hands across social media.
Those two words quickly became a hashtag and top trend on Twitter. Twenty-four hours later, Twitter confirmed to The Daily Beast that #MeToo had appeared in more than 500,000 tweets.
The hashtag flooded Facebook and Instagram, too, with some simply posting #MeToo and others sharing harrowing stories of being sexually harassed or assaulted.
It wasn’t just women; men spoke about their experiences too. Milano had originally said that tweeting those two words might help people understand the “magnitude of the problem.”
If the hashtag’s instant virality is any indication, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that all women (and some men) have experienced some form of sexual harassment in their lives.
The #MeToo movement is the latest form of hashtag activism highlighting abuse against women.
It can be traced back to 2012, when the activist Laura Bates started the #EverydaySexism campaign to highlight what she believed to be a scourge of widespread sexism, harassment and assault in America.
In 2014, #YesAllWomen went viral on social media after Elliot Rodger said his hatred of women motivated him to kill six people in Southern Calfiornia. #YesAllWomen came as a response to the hashtag #NotAllMen, which began trending after mainstream media linked Rodger’s murder justification to America’s broader culture of misogyny.
#YesAllWomen ultimately overpowered #NotAllMen.
Also in 2014, Beverly Gooden coined the hashtag #WhyIStayed to raise awareness about domestic abuse after Janae Rice was criticized online for standing by her abusive husband.
Hashtag activism generally revolves around the news cycle, which means it tends to have a short shelf life. But some hashtags have more lasting influence than others (#BlackLivesMatter, for instance, is now a national movement), and experts studying the climate of social media can often predict which ones will resonate for longer than others.
“Whether or not they have an online presence, the hashtags that tend to endure and become movements are also organizing on the ground, offline,” said Jen Schradie, a sociologist with the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse who studies digital activism. “They often have support and fundraising. I’m sure we’ll see over the next few days whether some organizations take up the #MeToo hashtag.”
According to Shradie, that’s how we distinguish the hashtag activism that prompts an effective social movement from the hashtag activism that fades with the news cycle.
But even if #MeToo dies off in a few days, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an effective way of raising awareness around a stigmatized issue—or that it won’t come back when another high profile man is revealed to be a serial predator.
“The reason why I think social media is really important in these circumstances is because it’s a way for survivors to deconstruct oppressive forces and really speak to how they operate,” said Sherri Williams, who studies social media as assistant professor of Race, Media and Communication at American University. “People aren’t only talking about the sexual harassment or sexual assault they experience, but also the conditions that foster that allow that kind of oppression to happen.”
Most important, it’s an outlet for people who don't necessarily have a voice in the traditional confines of power to speak up and feel supported in the online community–even if only for a viral moment.