It started with an expose detailing countless allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. However, soon, personal stories began pouring in from women in all industries across the world, and the hashtag #metoo became a rallying cry against sexual assault and harassment.
The movement began on social media after a call to action by the actor Alyssa Milano, one of Weinstein’s most vocal critics, who wrote: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
Within days, millions of women — and some men — used Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to disclose the improprieties they have faced in their own lives.
They included celebrities and public figures, such as Bjork and Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney, as well as ordinary people who felt empowered to finally speak out.
The story moved beyond any one man; it became a conversation about men’s behavior toward women and the imbalance of power at the top.
British MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South Mhairi Black said it made for harrowing reading: “Even on my personal Facebook, stories are coming up, and it’s ‘My God, I didn’t know that had happened...’ It’s brilliant that women are coming forward and I’m sick to the back teeth especially of other women saying ‘you should have said something long ago.’ Don’t dare put that on folk. The exact reason that they’re speaking out now is to make sure that the next generation don’t have to feel the way they did. I think it’s really harrowing reading through it.”
Nearly 68,000 people have so far replied to Milano’s tweet, and the #metoo hashtag has been used more than 1 million times in the US, Europe, the Middle East and beyond. The French used #balancetonporc and the Spanish #YoTambien.
Facebook said that within 24 hours, 4.7 million people around the world engaged in the #metoo conversation, with more than 12 million posts, comments and reactions.
“It is about so much more than Harvey Weinstein,” said Caroline Criado-Perez, cofounder of The Women’s Room and the feminist campaigner who forced the Bank of England to have female representation on banknotes.
“That’s what #metoo represents, it’s happened to pretty much every woman you know. I think it’s really important that we don’t allow this to become a story about this one bad guy who did these terrible things because he’s a monster, and to make it clear that actually, it’s not just monsters ... it happens in every country every day to all women, and it’s done by friends, colleagues, ‘good guys’ who care about the environment and children and even feminism, supposedly,” she said.
The origins of #metoo can be dated back to a time before the predominance of social media, when activist Tarana Burke created the campaign as a grassroots movement to reach sexual assault survivors in underprivileged communities.
“It has been amazing watching all of the pushback against Harvey Weinstein and in support of his accusers over the last week,” Burke wrote. “In particular, today I have watched women on social media disclose their stories ... it made my heart swell to see women using this idea.”
The Internet age has better equipped people to deal with these issues.
Social media has democratized feminism, helping women to share experiences of sexual violence, such as on the HarassMap platform launched in Egypt; build solidarity, as seen with the #YesAllWomen hashtag that trended for weeks after Elliot Rodger went on a shooting spree in California; or keep international attention on events that slipped off the news agenda, such as the #BringBackOurGirls campaign launched after the abduction of more than 300 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria.
“I don’t think we can underestimate how much of an impact is being made by the way in which women can just speak out about their experiences, because we’re just not represented in the news media, and films and literature,” Criado-Perez said. “Until the Internet came along, we just weren’t having these conversations about what it’s like to be a woman, what it’s like to walk down the street and be harassed and cat-called. We didn’t know about the idea of everyday sexism.”
The movement is part of a string of hashtags and methods used by women to highlight harassment.
The Weinstein revelations also came on the anniversary of the leaked 2005 Access Hollywood tape, in which US President Donald Trump bragged about kissing and touching women because “when you’re a star, they let you do it.”
At the time, the writer Kelly Oxford said she received millions of Twitter interactions when she encouraged women to share their own experiences using the hashtag #NotOkay.
Then there has been the rise of “whisper networks,” unofficial channels women use to warn each other about creepy or even criminal men.
An anonymously created Google spreadsheet was passed around, listing “shitty media men,” accused of everything from sending inappropriate direct messages to violent sexual assault.
Growing numbers of women, using various platforms, are having private conversations about the “open secret” reputations of men in their industry.
The effects are being seen every day. One anonymous woman used the #metoo hasthag to accuse Vice journalist Sam Kriss of forcibly kissing and harassing her.
Kriss posted an apology on Medium, but has since been sacked from Vice and had his membership to Britain’s Labour Party suspended.
On Thursday, British GQ’s political correspondent Rupert Myers was also fired after a number of women made allegations against him on Twitter.
The next day, Vox Media’s editorial director Lockhart Steele was fired over allegations made against him in a Medium post.
The movement has also inspired a series of offshoot hashtags used by men, including #IDidThat and #HowIWillChange, in which men have admitted inappropriate behavior.
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