In late August 2016 two Irish women live tweeted their journey to the UK to have an abortion. The hashtag ‘#TwoWomenTravel’ dominated Twitter for two days, as users watched the anonymous women document their experience in real time amidst updates of flight delays, government criticisms, and images of blood stained sheets.
The two women were widely commended for bringing the often hidden reality of abortion in Ireland into the mainstream consciousness. Under Irish law, abortion is only legal in limiting circumstances where a woman’s life in endangered by the pregnancy. It is estimated that between 10 and 12 women leave Ireland for an abortion every day.
#TwoWomenTravel not only showed the reality of Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws to a global audience but it also emphasised social media’s ability to influence mainstream media coverage. The story reached news outlets in Britain, the States, and all across Europe, directly drawing more and more attention to Ireland’s 8th amendment and the ever-growing grassroots campaign to repeal the law.
Linda Kavanagh of the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) says that social media is vital to accurately inform the public about abortion access in Ireland. “It would be foolish for anyone to assume they can operate outside of the social media sphere and stay relevant,” she says.
Social media was a relatively new tool when ARC was being set up, with the majority of campaigners previously relying on forums or message boards to get up to date information on Ireland’s abortion laws. The recent growth of platforms like Twitter and Facebook not only allowed ARC to reach a much greater audience, but also triggered an increase in social media activism around the country. The #repealthe8th hashtag was the second most talked about trending topic on Twitter in 2016.
Over the past few years, ARC have used social media to promote fundraisers, marches, and open meetings. They have also launched multiple online campaigns including their 8 myths about abortion series, and ‘They Say, We Say’, a direct response to some of the most common arguments put forward by Ireland’s pro life groups.
Kavanagh says that the main aim of these social media campaigns is to reduce the stigma around abortion. The group are also aiming to shift public perceptions about abortion related stories in the news.
“We want to highlight just how long abortion has been a part of our culture,” she says, “and show how societal attitudes presented as obvious, normal, or logical are in fact relatively new.”
The repeal campaign started gaining traction on social media in 2012 after the death of Savita Halappanavar. Before this, activists relied solely on public demonstrations and traditional media sources to highlight the resistance to Ireland’s strict reproductive laws. According to Kavanagh this is not the case anymore, as mainstream media regularly approach ARC for comment when abortion related stories break.
“We are now very much a campaign of our times and don’t rely on editors to publish news on our activity,” she says. “Social media has helped us reach people who we may not have been able to years ago. We are part of a movement with a great history. I’m proud to be a part of that.”
Although social media has had a profound effect on how activism is carried out around the world, the common judgement that popular hashtags and online campaigns are nothing more than “clicktivism” perpetuates. “Slacktivism,” or the idea that many people only engage with online campaigns to increase their cultural capital, became a regular critique of social media campaigns like #NoMakeUpSelfie in 2014, despite the hashtag raising over €200,000 for the Irish Cancer Society in one day.
While such campaigns are frequently criticised for oversimplifying issues, their ability to shift perceptions can often be vital to their cause. In 2016, Tipperary pro choice campaigner Emma Burns decided to dispel the common myth that those in favour of repealing the 8th amendment are “mainly liberal students from elite Dublin universities and Trotskyites.”
She posted a description of herself on Twitter: “42yo mother of 2 (one with additional needs) from Tipp, nonparty, disability rights advocate, researcher,” and added the hashtag #KnowYourRepealers.
Soon the tag was trending in Ireland. Burns says that seeing so many people identify themselves as supporters was “an expression of solidarity.” Tipperary TD Alan Kelly even referenced the hashtag in a speech in the Dáil.
“We are ordinary people,” she says. “There is nothing exceptional or radical about recognising a bad law that hurts people and wanting to change it.”
#KnowYourRepealers recently trended on Twitter again last month, on the same day that pro life groups marched through Dublin to celebrate the 8th amendment.
Despite the audience reach of the hashtag, Burns remains skeptical about the impact social media has on public attitudes. She says that in places like Tipperary, pro choice groups need to focus on those who won’t be aware of the repeal campaign’s presence on websites like Twitter and Facebook.
“We need gentle conversations over cups of tea,” she says, “(and) open chats that address people’s fears and assumptions.”
Social media engagement has also led to direct action and national demonstrations across Ireland. On 2017’s International Women’s Day thousands took to Dublin’s streets to Strike 4 Repeal. The idea to strike came from Poland’s ‘Black Monday,’ or ‘Czarny protest,’ the previous year where women in over 60 Polish cities boycotted work. Their strike forced the government to roll back on their proposed changes to the country’s laws, which would have made abortion access more limited.
Ireland’s Strike 4 Repeal movement was comprised of just 10 core members who, alongside ARC, decided to have a day of action on March 8th. The word ‘repeal’ hit peak search engine popularity on Google in Ireland in the days leading up to, and after, the strike.
Strike 4 Repeal organiser Eoin Ó’Faogáin says that the event would not have been possible without social media. By the time March 8th arrived, the movement’s Facebook page had gained over 10,000 likes, and the Strike 4 Repeal promotional video had been viewed over half a million times.
“It just wouldn’t have gained the traction it did without social media,” Ó’Faogáin says. “It was crucial. Without marketing ourselves, on Facebook in particular, and through event pages, we wouldn’t have seen anywhere close to the numbers we had on the day.”
At its peak, the strike saw close to 12,000 people marching through Dublin’s streets. Social media did not just allow the event to be organised, but also acted as vehicle for those who wanted to show the rest of the country, and the world, what was happening.
#Strike4Repeal trended through the day on Twitter, but Ireland’s national broadcaster RTÉ allocated the event just 21 seconds of airtime on that evening’s Six One news. The strike’s occupation of O’Connell bridge had stopped traffic for approximately two hours.
Kavanagh says that the Irish media’s method of reporting on abortion has had a limiting effect on the campaign. Since the repeal movement started gaining momentum, both sides of the debate have repeatedly criticised how abortion has been reported on. For pro choice groups, the issue has lain with the Irish media’s strict focus on balance, and their ‘hear-both-sides’ approach.
Kavanagh doesn’t believe that there are only two sides to the abortion debate, and says that this kind of reporting does “a great disservice” to the thousands of women living in Ireland who access abortion services every year.
“Opinion polls and the Citizens’ Assembly demonstrate what a small majority actually want to see no broadening of access,” she says. “Yet those people are afforded more column inches than we are, they are over represented on panels and, make no mistake, they are perpetuating the stigma and shame we find ourselves railing against.”
According to Kavanagh, the Irish media are creating a “false dichotomy” where the realities of abortion in Ireland are not given space to be examined. The “spectrum of choice,” in which some believe that abortion should only be permitted under limiting circumstances, and others agree that abortion should be legal and available to all women, is not being teased out in public for the whole of Ireland to see.
Rather, pro choice is commonly presented as one extreme, and pro life as another. Media organisations are striving to give each side equal amounts of airtime, to avoid their show being reported to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). Such a report was upheld against Ray D’Arcy’s Radio One programme in 2016 for failing to adhere to standards of “fairness, objectivity and impartiality in news and current affairs.” D’Arcy had been interviewing a couple whose baby could not have survived outside of the womb due to fatal foetal abnormality.
To combat these representative issues arising from media balance, Kavanagh says that there needs to be space for calm and respectful discussions to assuage the fears of those who may be unsure about the repeal of the 8th amendment.
“We need to talk about abortion,” she says, “and it’s hard to do that when 50% of the people involved in the conversation are against any abortion for anyone for any reason.”