Is Call-Out Culture Toxic?
Call-out culture is a form of online activism where you directly challenge discrimination, ‘naming and shaming’ perpetrators of prejudice online. To ‘call someone out’ is to put problematic behaviour publicly in the spotlight – the way Rose McGowan called out Harvey Weinstein on Twitter (repeatedly, along with men and women in Hollywood she claimed protected him) as part of the #MeToo movement. Not only did it signal the end of Weinstein’s career, it also helped other women come forward.
But there is a flip side. Can you tweet that someone was racist or sexist if you don’t have proof? What’s the difference between freedom of expression and defamation? And when does call-out culture turn into cyberbullying?
You’re ready to move on – but the Internet isn’t
‘Last year, a tweet of mine went viral,’ says Lesego ‘Thick Leeyonce’ Legobane, an influencer in the bodypositivity movement, model and photographer in Jo’burg. ‘A guy had tweeted that girls who look like me are into him but he’s never into us.’ He was referring to Legobane’s curvy shape. ‘I replied with: “I don’t like you.”’ Legobane’s simple, punchy response exploded, with more than 300 000 retweets. Then things turned. ‘People found that I’d written something offensive on Twitter about skinny girls in 2013. I’ve been called out ever since,’ she says. She had tweeted, ‘I feel so bad for skinny bitches whose thighs don’t touch! I bet their vaginas are frozen AF when it’s cold outside’ – worlds away from the body-positive Thick Leeyonce we know today. She wrote that tweet during a dark time. ‘It was a psychological result of believing I wasn’t enough,’ she explains. ‘I was 18. I had self-esteem issues. But I hope I don’t have to keep apologising for the same thing for the rest of my life.’
When her old post was highlighted, people tweeted things such as, ‘ Thicklee is an example of an individual who forms part of a marginalised group but is also problematic and contradicts her own politics.’ It was a brutal experience for Legobane. People were collecting receipts. ‘ That tweet resurfaced again and again,’ she says. ‘When anything big was about to happen in my life, people would be like, “Don’t be too quick to celebrate her – she’s this kind of person because remember what she said”.’ Legobane had grown since 2013, and after a heartfelt apology she wanted to move on – but her receipts wouldn’t let her.
WTF is collecting receipts?
The language attached to call-out culture is associated with collecting ‘receipts’. This ‘receipt’ trail is like digital breadcrumbs leading back to evidence such as screenshots of social media activity pointing to problematic behaviour. Because if you post something on the Internet, you’d better be ready for someone to screenshot it, and know it’ll live online forever.
‘I don’t think people realise how permanent social media is,’ says social media lawyer and founder of the Digital Law Company Emma Sadleir. ‘You can send a nude now and it’ll come back in four years. It’s not just putting content on social that can leave you vulnerable: it’s WhatsApp messages that get screenshot; it can be the way you behave in public that gets recorded on camera and shared online.’
Receipts can highlight inconsistencies and separate truth from fiction. But at the same time, if you’re actively hunting for dirt on someone’s profile, you’re bound to find it. After all, we’ve all had a bad moment, stupid tweet or drunken post we regret.
Legobane is now an advocate for body positivity. (Side note: we adore her.) But she’s had to atone time and again for something she said years ago. Sure, it’s important not to ignore online behaviour that perpetuates the systems we’re working hard to dismantle – racism, sexism, body shaming. But when do we distinguish between calling out for the cause and cyberbullying?
‘People change,’ says Legobane. ‘What I tweet today could be different to what I tweet next year.’
What does the law say?
Call-out culture can be used as a defence against trolls. If you constantly get abusive DMs, you can take control by sharing screenshots with your followers – and often silence a troll who responds to being shamed in front of the world. For many, it’s the only way to draw attention to the discrimination they’re experiencing. But know this: your calling out of someone online isn’t above the law.
‘It makes no difference whether calling out happens on WhatsApp, Facebook or on the front page of the Sunday
Times – all of our publication laws kick in as soon as even a single person has seen it,’ says Sadleir. ‘If you’re calling someone out online, what you’re saying needs to be in the public interest (such as anything illegal taking place), and it needs to be true. If those things don’t add up, you could be sued for defamation.’
Defamation is if someone says something malicious about you that hurts your reputation, isn’t true and isn’t in the public interest to know. ‘You have to show that the behaviour you’re outing is in the public interest,’ says Sadleir. ‘You can’t just get away with saying whatever. But you can be sued if what you say hurts someone’s reputation.’
‘When we read stuff online, we’re quick to jump on what’s trending without necessarily understanding what’s going on,’ says Legobane. ‘I’ve done it myself. Before you do any calling out, do your research. Go on their timeline, see what they’re about.’ In essence, give someone the benefit of the doubt that you’d appreciate yourself.
If you post something on the Internet, you’d better be ready for someone to screenshot it, and know it’ll live online forever
‘My rule is the “billboard test”,’ says Sadleir. ‘If you wouldn’t put it on a billboard, with your number next to your face, you shouldn’t put it anywhere on social media.’
What about the Cybercrimes Bill currently being proposed by the government? Murray Hunter, spokesperson for the NGO Right2Know, says it might defeat the role the Internet plays in activism. ‘It lays the groundwork for heavy-handed state policing of social media users,’ he says. ‘Freedom of expression must be protected online.’ At the time of going to print, the bill had not yet been passed.
When calling out becomes cyberbullying
‘Call-out culture can be informative and nontoxic,’ says Legobane. ‘I’ve been called out on stuff I didn’t understand at a particular time – somebody would be like, “Nah, sis, you’re wrong”, and I learnt something. But some people have malicious intentions – they’ll come at you aggressively, specifically to humiliate you.’ That’s when it can become cyberbullying.
According to a 2017 Statista survey measuring the impact on women experiencing online abuse, 66% of respondents had a feeling of powerlessness in their ability to respond to abuse online. Bullying is typified by someone taking power away from someone else, and making them feel worthless or helpless. It’s also often repetitive – repeatedly tweeting someone or posting about them rather than calling someone out and moving on.
Being cyberbullied? Here’s what you can do
‘You can take legal action by getting a protection order, sending a letter of demand or a cease and desist letter,’ says Sadleir. The Protection from Harassment Act includes online and physical harassment – the same rights apply online as offline. You can apply for a protection order even if you don’t know the person harassing you. Take these steps:
Complete an Application for Protection Order (you’ll find it at Justice.gov.za), and fill in an affidavit at the nearest police station.
Lodge the completed form with your local magistrate’s court. (Look for the Clerk of the Court.)
The court may issue an interim order to protect you during the investigation. According to Divorcelaws.co.za, ‘A protection order, also called a restraining order or domestic violence interdict, is a court order that tells an abuser to stop the abuse and sets certain conditions preventing the abuser from harassing or abusing the victim again.’
If necessary, the court will make this a final order and issue a warrant of arrest if the harassment continues.
Can calling in be a better way?
There is an alternative to call-out culture: calling in. But calling in risks protecting perpetrators of social violence. Writer Asam Ahmad, who coined the term, suggests that the public nature of calling out can do more harm than good. ‘Calling in means speaking privately with an individual who has done something wrong, in order to address the behaviour without making a spectacle of the address itself,’ he says.
But this kind of compromise could make concessions for oppressors – you can still be attacked in the privacy of your inbox. And why should it be the responsibility of oppressed groups to approach bigots and give them an opportunity to convince us that they’re not the worst?
This is the challenge of calling in – but there are scenarios where people will respond more productively to a private confrontation.
Call-out culture shouldn’t be about hunting people down and bullying them – and if you’re calling out with the right intention, it shouldn’t need to be. Besides, if call-out culture can bring down Hollywood’s patriarchy, corrupt governments and racist institutions, then it has the power to do immense good.