The Rise Of #MeToo: Study Documents The Historic Movement’s Origins

SAN FRANCISCO — In many ways, the #MeToo movement had been brewing for decades, if not centuries. Anytime a man took advantage of a woman, that behavior contributed to the historic groundswell that first made headlines two years ago. As far as the movement’s name, social justice activist Tarana Burke first coined the phrase over a decade ago as a way to help survivors of sexual assault. Fast forward to 2017, and actress Alyssa Milano sparked the downfall of numerous powerful men in high-profile positions by asking her Twitter followers to reply “me too” on Twitter if they also experienced sexual assault or harassment.

While Milano’s revolutionary tweet was garnering over 1.4 million responses, San Francisco State University Assistant Professor of Economics Sepideh Modrek was watching the events unfold from the comfort of her home. As her Twitter feed was consumed with friends and followers describing their own harrowing experiences, Modrek decided to archive all of the #MeToo tweets. Modrek collected 400 tweets, which would go on to be the basis of her latest research project.

“I was floored that people were sharing details. They were writing things like, ‘When I was 15, this happened,’” Modrek says in a university release. “I was seeing pretty intimate details being shared in a public forum in a way I’d never thought people would do. I was impressed and captivated.”

Her recently released study is described as a snapshot of the #MeToo movement as it reached a fever pitch. Using machine learning, Modrek and her research assistant, Bozhidar Chakalov, studied over 12,000 #MeToo tweets posted between October 15-21, 2017. Modrek requested, and was granted access to, Twitter’s application programming interface, or API, in order to count every single undeleted #MeToo tweet.

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Then, the research team downloaded a representative subset, allowing them to determine the overall magnitude of the #MeToo movement in terms of size, demographics, and similarities among victims’ stories.

They discovered that 11% of all novel #MeToo tweets (no retweets, replies, or messages containing pictures / links) described a sexual assault or abuse case. Of those tweets, 6% of the described incidents happened early in the woman’s life, or more specifically, before the age of 22.

Most of the tweets came from Caucasian women between the ages of 25-50, but it was noteworthy that most of these women were describing events that had happened 20-30 years ago.

“They still remember it. There’s clear enduring trauma associated with each disclosure,” Modrek comments.

The study’s analysis also indicated that many female demographics were missing from the conversation; African American women were much less likely to detail any harassment on Twitter, despite the fact that other data had shown they are equally or more likely to have dealt with sexual harassment, abuse, or assault.

Besides the “novel” requirement for tweets included in the analysis, researchers also only included tweets in English that had been geo-tagged in the United States. This diminished the dataset considerably from 1.5 million tweets to a bit more than 12,000. Researchers trimmed their analysis in this manner in order to focus on tweets that clearly described personal sexual abuse situations.

In the two years since #MeToo started, a lot has changed, according to Modrek, including many people’s perceptions of the movement and its motivations. Still, she hopes her research will help remind people just how important it is to talk about sexual abuse, and understand just how devastating it can be for the women involved, even if they don’t speak up about it immediately.

“A lot of people spoke up and publicly shared these experiences,” Modrek concludes, “and it completely changed our dialogue. I wanted to capture and honor their courage.”

The study is published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

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