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Sisterhood and screenshots – the role of memes in #RepealThe8th

Group chats to Thunderclaps, memes and powerful hashtags: the movement to repeal the Eighth amendment has galvanised a URL and IRL generation

Ireland Unfree’ is a Dazed mini-series telling the stories of Ireland’s bold fight for abortion rights, in the run up to the monumental referendum on the eighth amendment. Stirring protest, creativity, personal politics, and vital conversation, these Irish people push for autonomy. Here, we share their journey on Dazed.

In an unprecedented move this month, Google and Facebook announced they would restrict adverts relating to the upcoming Irish abortion referendum. Already under scrutiny following political upset elsewhere, Dublin-based tech giants are eager to avoid further reputational damage and regulation.

While the move had implications for strategy on both sides, it was the conservative anti-repeal campaign driven to outrage, having pumped American money into online advertising. Broadcast and print are subject to certain obligations during campaigns but the online world remains something of a Wild West where those with the deepest pockets were to free bombard timelines with the most scurrilous and vile propaganda.

The Yes campaign assert that the decision only strengthens a belief that “this referendum will be won on facts and now when undecided voters are searching online they will see the most relevant answers to their questions – not the ones that are paid to be put in front of them.”

The Repeal movement – a diverse, vibrant campaign – has played out online in a most remarkable way. From the first wave of protests to a recent crowdfunder smashing half a million euro in a matter of days, social networks play a central role in organisation, education, and radicalisation.

A key trigger for this wave of activism was the appearance of a billboard advertising an anti-choice group in 2012. Hundreds of people walking to work one morning were confronted with its graphic, oppressive message, and outrage soon spread to social media. This quickly turned to action with petitions, memes, and ad-hoc letter-writing campaigns.

It was the beginning of a spontaneous and decentralised activism that has become a crucial feature of the movement. In the kind of crowdsourcing corporate marketing gurus could only dream, online pro-choice activism has made an entirely new and vibrant contribution to Irish politics.

In 2012, disparate efforts were soon brought together around a Facebook group which became a hub for nascent activism and news updates. Admin Sinead Redmond, who was then expecting her first child, says she “knew nobody in activist circles and was only very vaguely on the edge of some political stuff. I had never been to a protest before let alone taken part in organising them.”

From her iPad on lunch break, she soon created an event page which lead to a protest outside parliament attended by politicians and journalists, but more importantly, the seeds were sown for the most effective grassroots movement the country has seen in decades. Veteran pro-choice campaigner Stephanie Lord adds that these early actions were especially distinct as “protests were self-organised non-party, non-affiliated young women raging in the streets."

Momentum built over the coming months with pro-choice activism becoming the issue in many corners online, encouraging the first mass march in over a decade. Early independent online film like X is for Anonymous and recently a documentary from performance group Speaking of IMELDA told stories away from television preoccupation with entertainment, authority and ‘balance’.

In October 2012, Savita Halappanavar died in hospital due to sepsis after she had asked for and been denied a termination. When the story broke, crowds gathered resembled a roll call of your timeline. On the main evening news, a correspondent from the national broadcaster delivered his report from a quiet street while thousands just around the corner went completely unmentioned. Pictures and speeches lit up Twitter while those watching on television only got half the story. Something was indeed stirring. Inside parliament socialist Clare Daly excoriated government benches announcing that “the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment starts here tonight”.

#Repealthe8th, the now ubiquitous hashtag had started three days earlier and since taken its place alongside #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and others as an online rallying cry with IRL reverberations. Aside from making its way onto no less than a constitutional ballot paper tomorrow, it is not uncommon to find hundreds of people with only this in their account bio. Single issue tweeters with little time for anything else. Nothing as much as that hashtag did more to popularise the simple demand of a complex story.

In Northern Ireland, where abortion rights are similarly restrictive, a 2015 campaign by Alliance For Choice saw the emergence of #trustwomen, another slogan that found its way into corridors of power. “Since then we have seen these very words used verbatim, in the North and South by politicians who had struggled to find the right vocabulary to support us before,” says organiser Emma Campbell. “The phrase has since taken on a life of its own. We didn't invent it, but we were the first to use it as a slogan in Northern Ireland and you can certainly see how it has really engaged people by getting to the crux of the misogyny behind concept of restricting abortion access.”

Online outrage has a poor reputation, but in 2018 there can be no disputing its role in shaping events beyond the newsfeeds. The Repeal movement has grown on a steady diet of national scandals, “hard cases”, and relentless indignity. On each occasion these stories were magnified; activist groups get more volunteers, donations to the Abortion Support Network increase, and the next march is bigger than the last. Many of a generation have been politicised by simple curiosity as to why everyone else is Mad Online.

While interest in parliamentary proceedings was once largely confined to political reporters and party supporters, we now see hundreds of young people live tweeting debates, speeches, and committee hearings. Anyone logging on will find the day’s events trending as vote results, transcripts and key takeaway moments are shared. During recent deliberations, a Lawyers4Choice group gave considerable time providing running commentary and real-time fact check. In a gesture characteristic of the movement, Máiréad Enright of Birmingham Law School says that “for us it was about demystifying the legal process and enabling people to feel a greater sense of ownership, both to critique that process and to defend it against misrepresentation, as appropriate”.

“Something altogether more inclusive has been built by the very people forced out of their own country for healthcare and denied full control of themselves”

This demystification effort is mirrored in how Irish women have used the internet to share personal stories on their own terms.  Social media became a place for people to go public as women disclosed to all what was still recently unspeakable.

In Her Shoes has been an intimate, personal project where women have shared their stories of travelling for abortion – they provide heartwrenching insight into the daily reality of pregnant people in Ireland. Started in January 2018, it’s grown to over 100,000 likes. “Social media has been vital in carrying these conversations from grassroots movements all the way to government campaigns because it's the way that most people access information,” says the page founder. “This just wasn’t something people were used to hearing. Most people wouldn't think that they even know someone that has had a termination – until now.” Such was the impact of these stories, the ‘No’ campaign staged a coordinated attack in effort to reduce the page’s visibility.

In a reproductive health regime so often defined by protected court cases and anonymous women, the X-ile Project launched an online portrait gallery giving face to the many others who “have effectively been exiled and ignored”.  The @Ireland account has an audience of thousands and is curated by a different person each week. In 2014, Janet O’Sullivan delivered a powerfully frank account of her own decision, deftly placing her experience in wider context.

In 2016, @TwoWomenTravel was used to record in real time the journey nine others from Ireland make to clinics in Britain each day. Followers could see first hand the Ryanair terminal desks, taxi rides, and budget accommodation far from home. “We wanted to share the very ordinariness of the situation. We wanted to show it for what it is; a series of waiting rooms, moments in transit, a sequence of tediums protracted by stigma. No filters, no monologue. Just the facts. We had to travel because the government insists that we pretend this isn’t happening.”

Significantly, these latter actions were first picked up as newsworthy internationally. In simple journalistic terms, the Irish media were starting to miss viral clicks under their own nose, as women bypassed local press to put this reality on timelines all over the world. In turn this global attention would generate further coverage, pressure, and official embarrassment back home.

Ireland’s ruling class are deeply image conscious following the financial crisis and negative attention around multinational tax avoidance. With a new young Prime Minister, Brexit uncertainty, and heavy reliance on foreign direct investment, decision makers are eager to cultivate the reputation of a modern forward looking administration.

This was somewhat undermined when the death of Savita Halappanavar became the most read story in Irish newspaper history. Women built on this, bringing gendered scandals of Magdalene Laundries, symphysiotomy, and the Eighth Amendment to wider attention. Official Irish insecurity is not the only weak spot, and during a state visit to Canada social media activism caused enough noise, leveraging Justin Trudeau’s own carefully managed progressive image, to warrant a statement on the Eighth Amendment from both Prime Ministers.

This was repeated when comedian Gráinne McGuire started tweeting her menstrual cycle directly to the Irish Prime Minister in 2015. What started as a play on absurd levels of state involvement in women’s bodies became worldwide headlines as hundreds joined in with their own monthly updates. From feminist media to major international newspapers the story spread globally in a rare instance of something verging on light-hearted bringing Ireland’s reproductive health regime to attention.  

Online humour has been important in the face IRL insult. The Ireland Simpsons Fans pages became part of a constellation of spirited, defiant pro-choice in-jokes. On the evening of the last general election, a new TD (member of the Irish assembly) quickly become the first meme of the new parliament. Emblematic of certain male privilege, young women were reacting to the election of a young middle class, anti-abortion candidate. The joke centred on his sense of entitlement, deference to authority, and continuation of an oppressive and decaying regime many increasingly sensed could be beaten. The trend dominated election night online and Irish newspapers in turn painted the episode as a “coordinated online bullying campaign” with one particularly sycophantic article likening young women’s tweets to “frothing rabies”. This was to miss the point entirely.

Like the menstrual trend and so many others, this was a moment of collective solidarity. Young women reclaiming some power for themselves. An in-joke subverting the authority and expected deference of male political and media establishment.

This same establishment has spent the six years bewildered by how far and quickly the abortion debate has moved right under their feet. Those parts of the movement visible online were something to be suspicious of. Something outside respectable agreed expression of politics. A mob to be tamed and patronised with barely concealed gendered undertones. Figures outside the movement frequently chastised women online with unsolicited advice and faux concern oblivious to how much it was growing and real effect it was having.

Away from the rigid procedure of parliamentary politics, far from choreographed TV debate and polite prejudice of the opinion pages, connections, and mutual support networks were forged online. New and profound progress in visibility was slowly carved; from big-picture feminist history to daily experience. From advice on ordering pills online and organising that personal journey, information was quietly passed from person to person.

None of this is to say that social media alone has driven the movement or none of this existed before mass internet access. This is not the overblown claims arising from Occupy or the Arab Spring. What is important to understand is that this occurred in a country with still one of the most rural populations in Europe. Where years of austerity have entrenched unprecedented social exclusion that disproportionately harms women. In one where the majority of persons seeking terminations are already occupied raising families without time or means to participate in conventional activism.

Something altogether more inclusive has been built by the very people forced out of their own country for healthcare and denied full control of themselves. From viral headlines to private group chats, #HometoVote and #BeMyYes, women in Ireland have used the internet in the most creative ways to change the country itself.