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#CzarnyProtest — a study of empowerment through social media

Warsaw. Castle Square. October 3, 2016.

This picture shows one of many protests that gathered that day in Poland and across the globe. #CzarnyProtest — meaning literally the Black Protest — has gathered about 100,000 women and men around one cause: overruling the strictest abortion law proposal in history of Poland. Despite a cold, rainy weather, and an unfavorable public media coverage, the movement has reached enough momentum. The government has made a u-turn from the proposal of almost complete penalization of pregnancy termination.

In this process however, something that has become the new model for modern citizen societies again showed itself: the trail of change, starting with likes and shares, and ending on the streets. The Black Protest, through the use of social media and effective branding, has activated the resistance of moderate, scarcely involved in public sphere individuals, and forced the conservative-leaning government away from further radicalization. This was not a precedent; in fact, the protest largely follows the pattern of moderate engagement set by Zeynep Tufekci which has been observed in other resistance movements during the Arab Spring or in Hong Kong in 2014.

The current Polish politics are multipartisan and very diverse, which fosters the formation of large centrist parties and smaller, radical communities. Since 1989, abortion has been a topic of endless debate, with radical pro-life movements wanting to completely ban the procedure, and radical pro-choice movements arguing for abortion being legal on demand. However, after being debated by centrists, the debate seemingly ended with an ambiguous, yet mostly supported compromise. The effect up until now is that abortion is only legal in case of threat to mother’s life or health, a serious impairment of a fetus, or when the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest. About 50% of the respondents in polls support the current situation, about 30% support greater availability of abortion. The debate, however, is not over, and almost every year radical movements argue for their proposals.

Prior to the start of the current abortion debate, the right-wing movements were much better organized than the pro-choice community, mostly due to support of the Church and through traditional face-to-face campaigning. The total abortion ban was proposed in 2011 by a radically conservative law society Ordo Luris, also famous for its suggestions on banning in vitro fertilization (IVF) or opposing the LGBT rights in Poland. According to the proposed act, abortion would be banned in all cases except when there is an immediate, undeniable threat to mother’s life, and a woman could spend up to 5 years in prison for committing an illegal “prenatal homicide”. The proposal, supported and promoted by the Catholic Church and pro-life NGOs across the country, has gathered more than 100,000 signatures of support, which guaranteed its recognition by the Parliament. The same was not the case for pro-choice activists. In interviews, they lamented that they were tired, could not mobilise a broad coalition and that they were intimidated to go out on to the streets talking about an issue as stigmatised as abortion. In short — most people didn’t care, but opponents harassed protesters on the streets by calling them murderers and comparing them to Nazis. Meanwhile, the government has changed into majority-conservative, and the overall political atmosphere has been turning away from liberal.

The breakthrough in the debate has occurred after a public social media outrage of liberal activists, which has also reached the centrists — mostly young and urban. After the public announcement that the proposal will be considered by the Parliament, liberal social media users have shared the news about the new law proposal. One that has been particularly popular across media was posted on Facebook on April 1, 2016, by Oliwia Piotrowska, a political activist. This one post has been shared almost 28,000 times (a record-breaking number by Polish standards) and has yielded 5,700 “Angry” reactions. The post has been very emotional and perhaps biased, as some of the suggestions of the bill were presented as more restrictive than how they are literally described in the bill. What was crucial, however, was the clear call to action that this post contained. “I read the bill proposal […] and I want to tell you to also do that, carefully” — it read. “None of the [ruling party’s] ideas […] will have as big an impact on the lives of everyone as this one. […] Sooner or later one of the women you know — or yourself — will become the victim of this law.” At this point, the problem became personal to women, regardless of their prior level of political engagement.

Right after the post went viral, a prominent left-wing grassroots political party Razem was a de facto organizer and leader of the protest action in April 2016. The Razem party, compared to the Greek movement Syriza, is often described as “the party of the precariat”. They are self-described as an “alternative to the elites”, and resemble the management style of a grassroots movement — meaning they have no official leadership. Even though they didn’t make it to the Parliament with their 3% election result, they have a large online fanbase. It is about 80,000 followers, compared to 170,000 followers of the conservative party, which has above 50% of seats in the parliament. Hence, we can infer that the supporters of Razem are more likely to engage with politics online, thus are on average younger and more urban than supporters of mainstream parties.

These young activists were most likely the participants of the first protest in April, which means that their collective action did not reach beyond the liberal enclave of Warsaw. The first demonstration gathered 7,000 people and was heavily politically branded by the Razem party. It seemed to be more radicalized, too. One symbol used during the earlier, left-wing protests was a cloth hanger — a horrifying (yet accurate) reminder of one of the techniques used for underground, illegal abortion. This symbol proved too controversial and was less frequently used for the further round of the protest, which happened 5 months later.

The breaking point of national frustration was when the abortion ban passed onto the second round of the legislative process. At that moment, Razem has decided to organize and brand an apolitical, national resistance movement. The strategy challenge for communication managers at Razem was to activate groups of women who are not necessarily liberal urban activists, but rather moderates, around the country. As the chief marketing manager says in an interview for a major Polish newspaper, the design challenge was “to break through the barrier of age and geography, how to convince people — teens and elders, whether from Warsaw or from a small village — to participate in their first political demonstration.”

The challenge was resolved by assigning one, very simple yet powerful social object to the protest: the color black. The hashtag accompanying the protest is #CzarnyProtest, meaning the Black Protest.

Traditionally the color associated with mourning and sadness, black in this case is specifically is a reminder about how the complete penalization of abortion can lead to deaths of women in cases of unsafe abortions or ectopic pregnancies. Hence, wearing black clothes during the day of the protest was considered a political statement, rather than just a fashion choice. Students in high schools gathered and took group photos in all-black outfits; many women and men posted photos on social media wearing all-black clothes and dark makeup.

The open formula of the protest itself has enabled a spectrum of engagement, from support through social media activism, up to skipping work and participating in the events on the streets. Most of the supporters chose the so-called “slacktivism” which meant posting a picture or a piece of text on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, with a hashtag #CzarnyProtest embedded. Slacktivism of the Black Protest has been famously criticized by one of journalists, Karolina Korwin-Piotrowska, saying sarcastically: “Wearing a black blouse, making a sad face and posting a cute selfie to Insta […] the government will certainly sh*t in their pants”. However, what was considered so trivial by the traditional journalists has fostered a sense of mutual knowledge about the issue, and has led to a collective, synchronized action against the said bill. Over time the hashtag has proved to be of immense popularity on social media worldwide. Information about the protest has reached about 44 million people through social media, during the strike #CzarnyProtest was the 10th most popular hashtag on Twitter.

This also contributed to diffusion of information about the protest to mainstream media outlets, which included both international and Polish media. News about the protest have appeared in The Guardian, Financial Times, The Independent, The Washington Post, Time, BBC, CNN, fashion magazines like Dazed and Confused, and in a social media news outlet AJ+. Protests appeared in cities outside of Poland, most prominently the UK, also in Paris, Berlin, Los Angeles and Shanghai. This created large international pressure, as the protest became an international-level event for women’s rights.

Celebrities also started to engage with the protest — and one of them had a crucial role in turning it into a strike of women, reminiscent of the national protest of women in Iceland in 1975. It was a Polish actress, Krystyna Janda, who suggested in September that the Black Protest itself would not work — and that economic pressure of a strike would be more effective. The Razem Party has adapted this idea — and the main day of the protest, from then on, was nicknamed as the “Black Monday” as a reference to the Black Thursday of 1929. Many corporations and even public institutions have made it easier to skip work that day; some schools and universities have even cancelled classes.

Of course, the protest has also reached the public Polish media. However, the coverage was very unfavorable since public media are under direct influence of the ruling party. The protest has been labeled as “political” and calculated for the opposition’s benefit. One of the social media videos of the protest was labelled as “outrageous” and “defacing Polish heroes” (it was recorded in front of a monument). Private, mostly foreign-owned Polish media were usually favorable or neutral about the protest.

However, mainstream media was not exactly considered a primary source of information about the protest — the most powerful force behind the protest was Facebook. With a 14-million user base (about 40% of the population), it is the most important social network in Poland. Most of the users live in the cities, however, the ratio of urban to rural users is roughly equal to an overall urbanization rate of Poland (58–60%). Same applies to users in small towns (under 20,000 inhabitants), which account for 12% of the Polish population and the same percentage of Facebook users. This means that, despite slower Internet access and relative economic hardship, people from smaller communities are still well connected to social media. This gives them an additional advantage, since they can finally create broadcasting platforms alternative from local media monopolies and the Church. The previous relative disengagement of small communities with national-level politics has been disrupted by the fact that, with the Internet, anyone can have instantaneous access to communities of shared interests.

The map of local protest in and outside of Poland

In the case of #CzarnyProtest, it was often women’s rights FB groups where activists got help from other members, and organized independent events in their towns. Most of the people who participated in small towns got the information about the event from Facebook. The attendance was usually from tens to hundreds of people, events involved marching through the streets, performances, speeches of activists (often with personal stories of women affected by the controversy) and taking group pictures.

It is crucial that the news about the protest has reached small towns and villages, since this is where conservatives traditionally win the elections. Most people, even among conservatives, don’t support either full legalization of abortion or a complete ban of it — they are moderates. Hence, the Black Protest attracted people in places that were usually not the venues of political debate — about 90% of all protest actions happened in towns of population below 50,000. This is what the organizers of the protest have publicly claimed to be the greatest strength of it. Even though the small-town churches organized special masses and priests preached against the protest, this time citizens were also presented with an alternative point of view, embodied in the protest in a central square of a town. The communication manager and founder of the #CzarnyProtest hashtag has elaborated on this effect in an interview with Gazeta Wyborcza:

“You know what is most touching to me? Not a photo of a celebrity dressed in black, although the fact that Anja Rubik uses her popularity in this important case is great! But what is more touching to me is that 16-year-old Kasia from a small town posted an Instagram selfie in all-black. Because Kasia just got interested in the fact that politics affect her directly. She got interested in why someone wants to decide for her […] And in the next elections she will vote for the party that has a better program for her. That’s how it works.”

The reality in small towns, however, proved not to be that simple. The first obstacle was very practical — small town women often cannot afford leaving work, since many of them are self-employed or in small businesses. The more hidden barrier for the protest was how fragile social standing in small communities is. Going to a protest in a town of 5,000 people is much more of a political statement than participating in an anonymous gathering in the center of Warsaw. That’s why many women, despite supporting the protest, decided not to show up. Some of the local activists demanded that their names are taken down from official coverage in the local media or Facebook events. I tried to interview the leader of the protest in my small hometown; she was willing to cooperate initially. But remarkably, after a few weeks of waiting, she decided not to participate.

After the Protest, an entire new movement has been created (National Strike of Women). Since then, it has been balancing between having an institutional leader and being a grassroots movement. These two factors are perhaps responsible for the success of the protest: the leaderless Razem party has hired professional communication managers that were successful in providing common, nationally uniting social objects: the black clothes and the hashtag #CzarnyProtest. However, currently the Razem party and National Strike of Women are two different entities with different social media presences. Even though abortion itself is still a polarizing issue on a political level, the movement has been officially unlinked from any political affiliation. Practically however, there is some correlation between opposition against the abortion ban and against the government itself. Recently, the movement started organizing demonstrations again — this time, in favor of legalizing safe, on-demand abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy. However, this time the popularity of demonstrations was much smaller, because of the smaller engagement of the moderate group.

The conservative establishment in considering the bill was ignorant of the preferences of a majority of their electorate. Even though many right-wing politicians would rather stick to the status quo, the ruling party chose to disregard the prevailing views in favor of their personal views, agenda of the party or the Church. However, what they did not anticipate was the possibility of such a major collective action against the proposed bill. The issue of abortion has been heavily politicized over the last 25 years — however, in the light of such a dangerous law, the issue stopped being just partisan, and has become personal to women and families.

Once again, it has been shown that the silent majority is, in fact, moderate. Until the government wants to infringe on the rights that were previously taken for granted, resistance won’t likely happen. However, restricting more and more to fulfill the pro-life teachings and gain endorsement from the Church has been counterproductive to the government. It resulted in the emergence of a political movement of women that did not exist prior to the debate. However one issue with it, which has reoccurred across the social media-powered revolutions, is that it was very clearly focused around a “no” instead of a “go”. The participant pool consisted of both people who want to keep the semi-restrictive law (majority) and the ones who want to overturn it altogether. Is the new Black Protest in favor of abortion reform likely to happen? Definitely not. However, the Black Protest has shown to the government that Polish women, even the moderate, have an enormous power of gathering together around specific, personally relatable causes — often leading to a broader change. Many of them still remember the times of Solidarity, which started as a labor movement with specific points of disagreement — and ended up overturning the communist system in Poland, and across the Soviet Bloc. Regardless of what the future holds, the Black Protest was a very memorable moment for both the history of Poland and the feminist movement across the world. The spread of information through online media was crucial for its success.

This originally appeared on Medium, and has been reprinted with permission.

Photo: Grzegorz Zukowski/Creative Commons