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19 January 2019
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Jo Swinson MP, the former Equalities and Business Minister, talks about gradually changing her mind on how to get more women into politics. We dig into the experiences and gentle persuasion that achieved it, and the times former colleagues in government surprised her.

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24 December 2018
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lead On this episode of Changed My Mind, small business consultant and lobbyist Craig Beaumont talks about his changing views on devolution, and the need to support small business owners as they seek diversity of thought.

Beaumont is director of external affairs and advocacy at the Federation of Small Businesses. Previously he advised Sebastian Coe and the London 2012 Olympics team on policy and reputation issues, but started his career as an advisor in 10 Downing Street.

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17 December 2018
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lead On this episode of Changed My Mind, the singer, songwriter and humanitarian activist Peter Gabriel talks about how his attitude to the internet has shifted over time.

"I'm beginning to believe that technology and the internet which I've praised, loved and fought for, needs to be thought about a lot more carefully, because it has the oppertunity of keeping us in this super stimulated sex and violence mode," he tells host Alison Goldsworthy.

Gabriel also discusses his worries about the impact the internet is having on democracies and the role music could play in depolarization. 

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6 December 2018
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On this episode of Changed My Mind, the activist Shannon Downey, founder of Bad Ass Cross Stitch, talks about rethinking her views on abortion.

Downey recalls her mum’s “kindly and loving” intervention, which sowed the seeds of doubt in her mind, and encouraged a process of self-reflection. 

“This was the topic that helped me understand how to flush out what my own thoughts and opinions actually are versus what I had been fed over the course of a lifetime,” she said

Downey also talks to host Ali Goldsworthy about the impact of being woken up by a bullet in her Chicago bedroom and how her craft workshops are helping start conversations on difficult topics.

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27 November 2018
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Julia Margo

Business leader, former think-tanker and journalist Julia Margo talks about her radical volte-face on marriage. We explore – and question – the value of direct experience in changing people’s minds, as well as delving into why it’s much harder to divert from the status quo on some issues than others.

Hosting are mobilisation expert Ali Goldsworthy, behavioural scientist Alex Chesterfield and corporate affairs adviser Laura Osborne. Between them, they have 40 years’ experience of looking at what motivates people to take a stand, back a cause, become an advocate or change their behaviour.

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20 November 2018
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Jonathan Haidt at TEDxMidAtlantic 2012 Jonathan Haidt at TEDxMidAtlantic 2012. Image: TEDx MidAtlantic/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0Changed My Mind, our new podcast, continues with Jonathan Haidt. In each episode we ask a leader what they have changed their mind on and why. Most people believe we are entrenching our divisions, getting worse not better. So we want to shine a light on what people experience when they do make a fundamental shift in position.

Jonathan Haidt is one of the world’s leading moral psychologists. Based at New York University’s Stern School of Business, his book The Coddling of the American Mind is out in the UK now. 

Hosting are mobilisation expert Ali Goldsworthy, behavioural scientist Alex Chesterfield and corporate affairs adviser Laura Osborne. Between them, they have 40 years’ experience of looking at what motivates people to take a stand, back a cause, become an advocate or change their behaviour.

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16 November 2018
From: 50.50

The backlash against sexual and reproductive rights is also online. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Images. All rights reserved.For our fifth episode of the Backlash podcast, we take a deep dive into the murky world of social media targeting and how anti-rights groups are increasingly taking their fight against women's and LGBT rights online.

We talk to 50.50 fellow Sophie Hemery about her investigation into how some evangelical Christians have used online platforms to target LGBT young people with 'dehumanising' videos. Campaigner Liz Carolan explains how activists in Ireland managed to force greater transparency on targeted adverts ahead of that country's abortion referendum. And we hear from openDemocracy's editor-in-chief Mary Fitzgerald about what it means for democracy when powerful groups can so easily target us online.

Lara Whyte (LW): Hello and welcome to The Backlash, a podcast series tracking threats against women’s and LGBT rights, brought to you by 50.50, the gender and sexuality section of openDemocracy. I’m Lara Whyte and I am your host.

Grassroots, intersectional, feminist campaigning is how we realise our rights. Supported of course by investigative journalists doing their jobs. This month we wanted to take a look back at Ireland’s historic referendum to legalise abortion as it was a rare moment to celebrate and one that we here at 50.50 spent a lot of time working on.

As part of our investigation into how international actors from all over the world gathered to support the "No" campaign, we learned a lot about how Facebook and Google adverts can be targeted directly into your newsfeed. They didn’t win, but these groups flexed new muscles, and its important to understand how these groups often do win on social, and how we can fight back against them.

Coming up we will be discussing the referendum and the online tricks played by the No campaign with Liz Carolyn from the Transparency Referendum Initiative (TRI) in Ireland and openDemocracy’s editor-in-chief, Mary Fitzgerald.

First, I am delighted to welcome our feminist investigative journalism fellow Sophie Hemery, who dug into the different ways LGBTQ+ individuals are targeted online by evangelical Christian groups who disagree with their right to exist. She investigated a group called Anchored North, who make highly shareable, beautifully crafted videos that hide the ugliness of what they are actually saying. Sophie began by explaining how this Christain ministry use and abuse social media to spread their message of hate. 

Sophie Hemery (SH): So they use various social media platforms and one of their founders Greg Sukert told me they’re always innovating and always looking for kind of new ways to reach people but, currently, they mainly use Facebook and also Google ads via YouTube. And they just use the standard paid advertisement capacities that are available on these platforms to kind of micro-target their adverts at what they call ‘interest groups.’ But those interest groups are basically potentially vulnerable communities, for instance, LGBTQ+ people or women seeking abortions.

Screenshot of Anchored North video. Credit: Anchored North. LW: How do they actually reach these users? Describe the process they go through to "find the lost", and how they spend a lot of money trying to do so...

SH: So I found that, previously, Facebook was allowing advertisers to target adverts based on [users'] stated sexual preference. However, they did remove that ability a while ago but then people like Anchored North were using the ability to target based on groups that users had clicked ‘Like’ on Facebook. So, for instance, if they had clicked ‘Like’ on Pride or Planned Parenthood, they would kind of deduce likely characteristics about those people and target adverts accordingly. Due to recent scandals over user privacy and how Facebook was using users’ data, Facebook actually removed over half of these targeting options, which potentially could have kind of impeded Anchored North’s capacity to target adverts in this way. But, speaking to the founder, he said this basically hasn’t affected their ability to target these groups because of other capacities that Facebook offers paid advertisers. He said it’s basically changed nothing and they’re still allowed to target these people.

LW: How much of their business model was based on Facebook, do you think?

SH: Facebook is the main platform they use to target people, yeah.

LW: And did you find anything else out about how, you know, this type of targeting works on Google?

SH: So they also use YouTube and they’re able to target people who are searching for certain keywords and this has kind of been an increasing scandal on YouTube. Because YouTube is often where young or recently coming out or soon to come out LGBTQ+ people watch videos and it's, according to an organisation we spoke to, LGBT Tech, YouTube can provide kind of a safe haven for LGBTQ+ people, in particular, looking for supportive content.

And Anchored North and other similar organisations’ adverts were coming up before these videos as pre-roll content and certain users on YouTube had flagged this and, yeah, having spoken to the founder of Anchored North, he explained that that was, you know, something that was really great for them. You know, an anti-abortion video could come up before a supportive video about abortion or, similarly, for LGBTQ+ content, a gay conversion therapy video could come up before that content.

An anti-abortion video could come up before a supportive video about abortion, or for LGBTQ+ content, a gay conversion therapy video could come up.

LW: So you watched a lot of these videos, I know, and really, are they hate? Because the problem is Facebook seems to be saying: 'We can’t control religion' or 'It’s freedom of speech'. What was your experience of watching them? Did you consider them hate?

SH: Yes, I do. But I think organisations such as Anchored North are very clever. For instance, specifically with Anchored North, you know, among their founders are really expert digital marketers who also work for corporates. Sukert says himself that, you know, Facebook has trouble defining hate speech, he’s well aware of this, and the way that they create their content is designed specifically to get around rules and to fall through the net. They use personal stories because, as Sukert says, Facebook loves stories and they are designed to not violate the hate speech policies. However, obviously there’s so much nuance in that and there is a big difference between somebody sharing their personal story, with no intention to evangelise or affect others, and what they’re doing, which is with that explicit intention. And I think, clearly, Facebook’s policies on hate speech are not taking into account that nuance and it’s only when, through investigations such as this, content and adverts that are violating that policy, that have fallen through the net, then they will remove them. But obviously, that is a completely unsustainable model for keeping users safe. 

LW: Scary stuff there from Sophie, and you can read her investigation on our website, go to the tracking the backlash page. To refresh your memory: here at 50.50, we revealed how No campaign groups were illegally accepting foreign donations online – and how foreign groups targeted Irish voters with anti-abortion propaganda using social media. It is illegal in Ireland for any foreign group to contribute to an election or referendum campaign. But online spaces, as have heard, seemed pretty much unregulated. Amid mounting concern about foreign groups trying to influence the vote, Facebook introduced a ban on foreign adverts ahead of the vote, and Google banned all adverts. 

Keep Ireland Abortion Free banner, posted on Facebook by a US group which paid to have it targeted at Irish voters. Photo: Chris Slattery/EMC-Frontline Pregnancy Centers.I asked openDemocracy’s editor-in-chief Mary Fitzgerald, who worked across our investigation and openDemocracy's dark money dig into the DUP, how significant do you think that ban was – and why do you social media companies think they took this step?

Mary Fitzgerald (MF): I think it’s hugely significant; it's the first time that had really happened. And it feels important that they publicly recognised their responsibility in ensuring that the integrity of elections and referendums was respected and that national decisions and national conversations should be national decisions and national conversations.

However, unfortunately in this case, certainly in the case of Facebook, it was very easy to circumvent their bans. They talked about a combination of human resourcing and machine learning and AI that was going to be deployed to protect the integrity of this vote and yet our journalists were able, in just a matter of hours, to circumvent these bans and post adverts aimed at Irish voters on the Irish abortion referendum question from locations outside of Ireland.

And this wasn’t done with any particularly sophisticated masking software or devices or IP addresses, so whatever they claim they were preventing, that they were deploying their vast resources to stop, they weren’t in any way succeeding in doing that.

LW: This was clearly not effective, as we saw – yet there’s something that I think got lost in the debate – the tech companies’ self-regulation didn’t – doesn’t – work. What did you think of their reaction?

MF: It seemed very knee-jerk. It seemed also that it was a PR effort and actually they weren’t really deploying anywhere near the type of resource that you would need to deploy to be able to make such a ban like this work and make such a guarantee to the Irish people effective.

And, you know, at the same time as Mark Zuckerberg was telling MEPs in Brussels about how they were taking all these measures to ensure the integrity of democracy and to help protect it – literally that day, I think – we were posting ads aimed at Irish voters and it was very, very easy to do so.

At the same time as Mark Zuckerberg was telling MEPs in Brussels about these measures, literally that day, we were posting ads aimed at Irish voters.

LW: There’s also the legal case – which I think was overlooked unfairly: at 50.50, Claire Provost managed to donate to some of the biggest anti-abortion groups, from outside Ireland. And we at 50.50 worked with our colleagues on openDemocracy’s ongoing dark money investigation, digging up so much dirt on how foreign activists were trying to keep abortion illegal in Ireland, that we made it into a listicle.

And I suppose the thing that I couldn’t really get my head around was that I understood why Russia would interfere in the US election and why it might have an interest in Brexit, but what I have found difficult is why foreign groups would be interested in Ireland voting to do most other western countries voted to do 50 years ago. Why was it so important, do you think?

MF: Yeah, so I think the reason why openDemocracy as a whole is interested in this subject is that we didn’t take a position, let’s say, on the Brexit referendum but we were very concerned about the undisclosed, untraceable sources of funding that particularly appeared to have bankrolled the Leave campaign. We’d done a lot of work exposing the secret donation that was made to the DUP for their Brexit campaign, which was done through a very secretive channel, involving a front company and a bag man and all kinds of nefarious goings-on.

And, to us, the question of the Irish abortion referendum raised some similar issues and concerns in that it seemed as though – and it was indeed proven through our investigation that – networks and groups outside of Ireland were able to deploy a lot of resource to support one side of the argument.

Screenshot of ‘fake’ Facebook page set up by openDemocracy 50.50 to test the ban on referendum-related ads ahead of the Irish vote. Credit: Facebook.And despite there being rules and laws in place to prevent such things happening and I think despite the result, which was very emphatically pro-Yes – and most of the groups we identified were trying to influence and advocate for the No side, so they didn’t succeed in this instance – there is a much deeper question about how electoral processes can be interfered with. By whom? Through what channels? Are our laws robust enough? You know, do we have the accountability and transparency over political funding and through political campaigning that we need both here in the UK and in Ireland and in other European countries and in the US? And the answer is just emphatically no.

I mean, people were able to donate to the No campaign in Ireland, regardless of where they were based geographically, which is in direct contravention of the law. And really, if you broaden this out more, this raises massive concerns. Both the Facebook and Google issue and the funding issue and the sort of boots on the ground volunteers that were coming from all over the world to weigh in on this issue, raise huge concerns about, you know, who is trying to influence what we see, what we hear and what we read: and how successful are they? And what do we need to know about them?

There's a much deeper question to be asked about how electoral processes can be interfered with. By whom? Through what channels? Are our laws robust enough? 

There is a great asymmetry of power here between very well-resourced networks and individuals and organisations and citizens who think that they’re engaging in a democratic vote, you know, in a contest that’s going to be democratically decided. And they’re not aware of all the forces at play that are trying to influence their decision.

LW: That was openDemocracy’s editor-in-chief talking about the foreign, but ultimately unsuccessful, interference in Ireland’s abortion referendum.

And I think some credit needs to go where it’s due here – there was this groundswell of pro-choice digital and activism and in the lead up to the vote. The tone was really gentle, at times I thought it was too gentle, but it worked, so that's the most important thing. There were some really great tactics used that women’s rights organisers should be studying, I certainly hope they are.

The Transparency Referendum Initiative (TRI) and their allies did a lot of the heavy lifting in gathering the data that our reporting on 50.50 dug into, revealing the range of illegal foreign and far right contributors to anti-abortion campaigns ahead of the vote.  

Liz Carolan is a founder of the TRI, advisor at the Open Data Charter, and associate at the Open Data Institute. I asked her how this initiative started.

Liz Carolan (LC): Yeah, so a group of friends got together and we sort of work in different areas that all seemed to come together around this question of digital ads. And we were having a chat kind of over Christmas about looking at the different revelations and at that point, it already started to come out about the sort of misuse of social media in order to try to disrupt democratic campaigns. And kind of looking at the Irish abortion referendum and the fact that it’s a highly contentious issue here at home but also of potential kind of symbolic significance to other people around the world.

And also looking at our really quite lax laws when it comes to kind of overseas activity. There were a few alarm bells going off there so we decided to try to do a concrete project to, at a minimum, sort of bring some of this activity into the public domain – the activity that was happening online – so it could be kind of exposed to scrutiny.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, testifying before a United States senate committee. Photo: Ron Sachs/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.I think actually one of the really kind of points when this idea sort of stuck in my mind was watching the US senate testimony, where there was a senate hearing and they were, you know, trying to figure out what had happened in the 2016 presidential election. And, you know, there were these, senators sitting around and they were looking at these kind of blown-up images – they were screenshots, really, or even kind of photographs of a computer – of some of the ads that they were then able to subsequently trace back to Russian interference. And, you know, just the thought that, if, in a context like that, what they ended up using to try to figure out what happened was these, you know, screenshots or photographs or computers – that kind of terrified me a little bit. And so that’s where sort of the idea came from, to (as much as possible) try to gather the evidence in advance, make it publicly available immediately, so that we could understand what was happening before people vote.

The idea was to try and gather the evidence in advance, make it publicly available immediately, so that we could understand what was happening before people vote.

LW: So why do you think Facebook took the decision to ban foreign adverts ahead of the vote?

LC: So when it comes to sort of, you know, why Facebook took this decision: I think they were in a way left with no option. You know, we were able to bring some of the activity that was happening online to their attention, as much as to everyone else’s attention. And I think there was a lot of really, really fantastic journalism that took place using the data that we were publishing, that kind of, you know, really, really put pressure on for some sort of action to take place.

I think as well there were quite a few members of our parliament that we were working with who were also kind of raising the issue and trying to figure out what could be done about it. In terms of the action that they took I think, you know, that your experience and the experience of lots of other people indicates that it was pretty ineffective.

You know, there was an Irish [pro-choice] group here – they were registered; I was able to pull up their company registration details in about five seconds – who were refused the right to place ads, even though they had fundraised for it; they had done everything correctly. And, even when they appealed to Facebook, there was no moving. We were able to kind of use our channels into Facebook to get that unblocked.

So it seems to be that, you know, both: They were getting it wrong in terms of who was Irish-based and who wasn’t Irish-based. And also that, you know, in terms of its application, they didn’t really seem to be that open or willing to engage with people who were clearly being disadvantaged by the moves. I think overall, you know, the sort of attempts at self-regulation just didn’t work.

And Facebook talk a lot, like Mark Zuckerberg – when he was speaking to European parliamentarians and to the US congress – he, you know, kept talking about AI as a solution to these problems, as if it was some sort of, you know, magic trick that would fix everything. That was the basis of their response here and it just failed; it just didn’t work, you know. It’s too kind of complicated to do things. And I think there’s an increasing recognition with Facebook and some of the other companies that, actually, they don’t want to take this on themselves.

Facebook's ban on foreign ads was easy to circumvent. Photo: FrankHoermann/SVEN SIMON/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.In a way, they want legislation and rules there to kind of give them a bit of cover, you know. And we’re seeing that, even in the last couple of weeks, with this resurgence of the narrative around the company sort of censoring conservative or right-leaning groups. I think there’s a sense among the companies that they don’t want to have to do this; and it’s not what they were set up to do, you know.

Even now, Facebook have agreed to try to look back through their records and release some data on what happened during the referendum. We’re partnering with them and a university here to get that data. But, you know, they didn’t differentiate between an ad that was trying to change the outcome of a referendum and an ad for socks or flights or something else, you know, because they are a private company and their goal is to sell advertising space.

The realm of politics and of public opinion in these sorts of things is something they know nothing about. They don’t have the skills; they don’t have the capability to do it. And so then, you know, it really is little wonder then that when they try to take a self-regulatory step that they just, you know, that it fails.

They didn't differentiate between an ad that was trying to change the outcome of a referendum and an ad for socks.

LW: So earlier, we heard how social media companies have been enabling targeted hate to be directed to those who would be most damaged by it, and I wanted to ask you about the kinds of adverts that were being reported to you. Have you been surprised by what you found through the TRI?

LC: Yeah. I mean, it’s really disturbing to hear about some of the, you know, the use of this tool to basically attack and hurt people. And we saw that here during the referendum. There were really, really graphic images. There was one of, you know, basically a post-miscarriage scene that was being targeted at women, at young women, and at women who were campaigning. And that, to me, is just a deliberate attempt – and it sounds like some of the examples you’ve been uncovering of the kind of targeting of LGBT people – just a deliberate attempt to hurt, you know; it almost feels like an act of violence.

One thing I noticed about those ads that were happening here is that the groups behind the advertising, the targeting, these kinds of things, were anonymous. It was very difficult to trace who had done them. You know, we found that some of the more official campaigns, you know, they would never dream of engaging in that kind of activity, in part because they knew they had to go on the radio the next day and they had spokespeople. But also I think people behave very differently when they can hide behind a mask. In terms of where the companies are on this: I think they – and probably a lot of the rest of us as well – you know, they’re not very far along the learning curve.

One thing I noticed about those ads is that the groups behind the advertising, the targeting, were anonymous.

I think they’re at the point where, you know, they recognise that they have kind of blindly wandered into a territory, which is dark; it’s, you know, terra incognita in a way. There are all sorts of consequences of the technology that they’ve been building that they did not anticipate. I think, you know, they’re starting to feel that, from what I’ve kind of heard anecdotally from people who work in these companies. They’re starting to feel that, to be honest, in terms of their recruitment and their retention, in terms of their staff morale.

You know, people joined these companies thinking that they were joining a force for good in the world and now they’re having to kind of reckon with the fact that it’s being used for ill. I’m not sure to what extent that process, almost like a psychological process, they’ve gone through to get to the point where they can start to think about it.

But I think, you know, these questions are… it comes down to questions of free speech, of, you know: to what extent is their identity as a public square or is it their identity as a publisher? You know, these are sort of quite existential questions and I think, to be honest, they would prefer if somebody else just took it on and told them what to do. And, you know, I think I’m with the first to push for a regulatory response to these things, rather than relying on private companies to do some of this work for us.

There are all sorts of consequences of the technology that they've been building that they did not anticipate.

But, you know, looking at our regulators, they do not have the technical capabilities or insight to be able to do that on their own and I think there is going to have to be some sort of a collaborative response. One thing that I worry about quite a lot is, you know – in the UK, in Ireland, say, in Sweden at the moment, or even in the US – we can rely on our state institutions, to an extent, to respond to this sort of thing, even if it’s slow. And, you know, we can kind of get there in the end with a lot of pressure and hard work.

There are plenty of countries in the world where Facebook operates. I mean, look at what’s happening in Myanmar at the moment, where the state institutions aren’t going to be on the side of, you know, the public good. And so we are going to have to rely on these companies who operate in all but ten countries in the world – as Facebook do – to be doing something themselves, to make sure that they have a lid on this.

But it’s very tricky and they’re not going to be able to do it with AI. What is the difference between, say – you know, you mentioned earlier an evangelical organisation sort of targeting LGBT people – how can an AI tell the difference between a group like that communicating with its own base about particular issues and an attack ad? There’s so much context in that, you know.

There’s so much kind of nuance that’s required to do that. And these companies make billions; they make a huge amount of money and yet they kind of cry that they don’t have, you know, the resources to be able to do some of that more nuanced work and that they’re going to have to rely on AI. I can see why.

These companies make billions; they make a huge amount of money and yet they cry that they don't have the resources to be able to do some of that more nuanced work.

AI is a bit of technology; you pay your coders and you just kind of let it run. That’s not going to fly. It’s going to have to take more than that.

LW: So Google banned all adverts in the lead up to the vote – yet we haven’t heard a huge amount about them in the fall out. Why do you think that is?

LC: Yeah, so Google seem to be much more of a closed box than Facebook. Our engagement with Facebook… we were kind of given a dedicated email address; we kind of got the impression that they were, you know, willing to engage or at least that they saw it as important to appear to be engaging with us. Google are much more of a closed box and I’m not sure if that’s because they’ve kind of gotten away with it a little bit – you know, Cambridge Analytica... all the focus has been on Facebook – whereas I think the Google advertising network, and particularly YouTube, is one where, you know, there’s storms brewing there and they’re going to have to get their house in order.

I think the Google advertising network, and particularly YouTube, is where there are storms brewing and they're going to have to get their house in order.

We have found it quite difficult to engage with them. They still haven’t given a proper reason as to why they – so, two or three weeks before the referendum, they pulled all advertising and this did lead to a very strong reaction, in particular from the No campaign. They kind of called a big joint press conference, which they hadn’t held before and, you know, there was a headline in I think one of the kind of US right-leaning newspapers the next day, talking about Silicon Valley sort of silencing the anti-abortion movement in Ireland. And, you know, you still see it kind of being used, that ban being kind of held up as yet another example of tech companies’ bias against conservative movements.

I mean, the ban equally applied to both sides of the campaign and the Yes campaign – so the kind of pro-change, bringing in abortion access – they had planned to launch their Google ad campaign the day that the ban came in. But I think it was pretty clear that this was going to be one of the main avenues through which the No campaign were going to push in the last final weeks.

An anti-abortion campaign truck picture, posted on Facebook. Photo: Save the 8th/Facebook.I’ve asked the No campaign to sort of share what they had planned during the last few weeks and the kind of head of that said, “Oh well let’s not get into re-litigating the referendum,” which is convenient because they’re happy to keep using it as an excuse but they don’t want to get into the details of what they had planned. I mean, I think that’s what we really need to know: what was it that Google saw that made them take this decision?

Because if it was large amounts of overseas financing coming in then that’s something that citizens have the right to know. But if it was, in effect, an act of censorship of a legitimate campaign then that’s a very dangerous precedent and one that actually we need to have some information around to be debating. But until they give us that information, it is fueling a narrative on the conservative right, you know, here in Ireland, probably to a larger extent in the US, that Silicon Valley is sort of against them.

LW: Liz Carolan there, from the Transparency Referendum Initiative, and before that there you heard from Mary Fitzgerald, editor-in-chief of open Democracy, and Sophie Hemery, one of 50.50’s feminist investigative journalism fellows. Before you go, I wanted to draw your attention to some of our biggest stories from the past while on 50.50.

Women in Tehran, 2017. Photo: Jochen Eckel/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.We are very pleased to be introducing a new young writer inside Iran, going by the name of Zaynab. Her first piece for 50.50 – Women’s bodies have become a battleground in the fight for Iran’s future – is a chilling read.

We also have a lot of great, front line reporting pieces on how women are fighting back against online bullies – all over the world – some good pieces on trolling, and how women are responding. 

One of these is by Sian Norris on how women are fighting back against online bullies. The other is by 50.50’s Nandini Archer on the angry backlash to our reporting on an international gathering of anti-feminist men’s rights activists (MRAs), and we also have a piece coming up on what to do if you have been the target of hate one – as we in 5050 have over the MRA work we did. Resources that help you feel safer, and how to protect yourself.

We here at 50.50 would also like to thank Rocio Ros, who has been working with us this summer and helping us with this podcast, amongst many many other things. She will continue writing for 50.50 from Spain. Thank you Rocio!

You have been listening to The Backlash, by 50.50, openDemocracy’s gender and sexuality section. This podcast was presented and produced by me, Lara Whyte, and mixed and sound edited with original music by Simone Lai. Big thanks to our feminist investigative journalism fellows for their work this month, and to Brittney Ferreira, who helped transcribe this episode.

50.50 is an independent feminist media platform. You can find us on Twitter @5050oD, and you can support our work by donating on our website. Help us track the backlash against women’s and LGBT rights.

This episode of The Backlash was presented and produced by Lara Whyte. Audio editing and music production by Simone Lai.

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14 November 2018
From:

Alex Chesterfield interviewing Deborah Mattinson Alex Chesterfield interviewing Deborah Mattinson. Image: The Depolarization Project. All rights reserved.

Most people believe our divisions are getting worse not better. It has never felt more important to dig into what’s going on in our minds when our beliefs are challenged, to shine a light on what people experience when they do make a fundamental shift in position.

Deborah Mattinson is one of the UK's respect pollsters – founder of Britain Thinks and and previously adviser to former prime minister Gordon Brown. She talks to us about why people find it so hard to change their mind, and why she found it so difficult to think of a time when she had done so herself.

Changed My Mind is openDemocracy's new podcast, launched jointly with The Depolarization Project. Each week the podcast asks leaders from academia, business, politics and the arts about when they have changed their mind on a substantive policy, social or personal issue, why they did that and what they learned.

Hosting are mobilisation expert Ali Goldsworthy, behavioural scientist Alex Chesterfield and corporate affairs adviser Laura Osborne. Between them, they have 40 years’ experience of looking at what motivates people to take a stand, back a cause, become an advocate or change their behaviour.

You can also listen to Changed My Mind on:

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From: 50.50, uk

Assembled delegates at the Men’s Rights Conference in the London’s Excel Centre. Picture credit: Justice for Men and Boys.For our fourth episode of The Backlash podcast, we went inside one of the world’s largest gatherings of men’s rights activists (MRAs) in London, and spoke to some of the men, and women, involved in this anti-feminist movement.

We hear from Alastair (who didn't give us his surname) from the UK fringe political party Justice for Men and Boys which organised the conference. We also speak to Karen Straughan, a revered figure within the MRA movement and “the most famous anti-feminist in the world.”

Lara Whyte (LW): Hello and welcome to The Backlash: a podcast series tracking threats against women’s and LGBT rights, brought to you by 50.50, the gender and sexuality section of openDemocracy. I’m Lara Whyte and I am your host.

In July, 50.50 spent a weekend attending the International Conference on Men’s Issues in London, where men’s rights activists from 24 different countries gathered to discuss the evils of feminism and what can be done about it.

Concepts like mansplaining, manspreading, rape culture on campuses were all used as examples of how feminism and women’s rights have supposedly 'gone too far'.

When we talk about the backlash against feminism or women’s rights, men’s rights activists – or MRAs, as they call themselves – are a movement that we think needs serious and critical attention.

I wrote a dispatch on the conference for 50.50 and promptly received torrents of abuse – as the conference organiser emailed all attendees urging them to troll me in the comments section of our website.

There has been some extreme cherry-picking of the article, and claims of misrepresentation as I wrote how, when I walked into the room before the conference began, I was briefly the only woman in a room full of white men. It was worth mentioning, because it was the first thing I noticed as I entered, and it was quite intimidating. I did not say there were no women in the movement – there are – and at the conference there were a tiny handful of non-white attendees, including a speaker from the Indian men’s rights movement.

The Men’s Rights Movement in India. Photo:Amit Deshpande/Peter Wright/Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0.At the conference I spoke to a woman named Karen Straughan, who I really tried to understand in a lengthy interview where she talked about women's privilege and why she's never identified as a feminist herself.

Karen is a revered figure within the movement – and is loved for being, quote: “the most famous anti-feminist in the world.”

Before we go into that interview, here’s a man called Alastair from the British anti-feminist political party Justice for Men and Boys, which organised the conference. This is the description of feminists, and feminism, that he gave to openDemocracy’s Adam Bychawski, who was at the conference for 50.50.

Alastair: There is no pleasing them, there's no making deals with them. They are ideological terrorists. They are obsessed with their ideology and, regardless of what they say, they will attack you and resort to criminal and terrorist activities: bomb threats, violence, disrupting peaceful meetings and then, of course, just lies and slander.

Adam: And have you experienced that yourself?

Alastair: Personally no, but I have seen various examples. Just look at the famous case of Big Red, attacking the cafe meeting and then screaming that feminists don't hate men we just hate patriarchy and using various expletives.

So there has been case after case of feminists and feminist-aligned institutions attacking peaceful people just gathering to talk about their problems because they want to control the narrative. They are offended by men talking without women – no, without feminists – supervising. Feminism is an evil ideology and I want it to be equated with, say, the Westboro Baptist Church.

Other feminist organisations, I would rather have them classed as con groups. They are not charities, they are massive cons. They just lie about statistics to grab money. So that's not terrorism it's just con artistry. Like, wow, women's aid and things. They lie about statistics to get money, playing on people's sympathies – so they're just con artists.

“Feminism is an evil ideology and I want it to be equated with the Westboro Baptist Church.”

LW: So, that’s what we are dealing with there.

Karen Straughan is a Canadian anti-feminist who has been writing and video blogging on gender issues since 2010. She has almost 200,000 subscribers on YouTube which, from the MRAs I spoke to at the conference, seems to be a vital platform for this movement.  

Karen opened the conference with her keynote address which was called: “Why women must consign feminism to the dustbin of history.”

We spoke for about 40 minutes, and covered a lot of topics. She is a charismatic and incredibly engaging woman, and so her activism on men’s rights seems to add a certain legitimacy to this movement – which is why I wanted to talk to her to try to dig down into why she does what she does and what motivates her.

In Karen’s keynote address, she spoke about why she would give up her right to vote if it led to men and women having equality – and remember that she thinks that women have more privileges than men.

So I start here by asking her why she would possibly give up her right to vote.

Karen Straughan during her keynote speech. Photo: Lara Whyte.KS: I would if I felt like that was something that I had to do in order to make things more fair or redress an imbalance, I would certainly do that. That doesn’t mean that I want to, or that I would choose to do so for no reason whatsoever, so...

LW: So what is the reason then?

KS: Well, you know, when women got the vote – when men got the vote, they got the vote, largely in the US, they got the vote because their voting rights and their citizenship rights were tied to conscription. And when women got the vote and full citizenship rights they didn’t have any similar obligation placed on them.

Women got the rights, got all the same rights, they didn’t get any of the obligations to the state. So I think that’s not fair. Personally, I would rather women be made to register in the selective service in the US, I think they should be held more accountable, as citizens, and have similar obligations to men.

You know, people say there’s no draft in Canada, but that’s just one act of parliament away from happening if it’s ever necessary, right? And if women aren’t included in that draft, then I don’t know that they deserve their vote.

LW: So what about the obligations on women to continue the population?

KS: There are no obligations on women to do that. Would you...

LW: But without those bodies none of us would be here...

KS: True. What we have is this idea that women have an obligation, you know, in quotation marks, to give birth, when women have no such obligation and they haven’t for at least 50 years.

LW: And so you think that’s a privilege, that women have more privileges than men? Is that correct or am I putting words into your mouth there?

KS: Um, I think that women definitely have more privileges than men. Because a privilege is something that you get for nothing. Right?

“Women definitely have more privileges than men. Because a privilege is something you get for nothing. Right?”

LW: So what are those privileges?

KS: Well, if men got the vote because they’re draftable, and women got the vote for nothing, that’s a privilege.

LW: But do you not think everyone should have the vote?

KS: I think everyone should have the vote too, I just don’t think that only men should be drafted. And I think that the way we frame it now, it's all of these horrible men, who kept the vote away from women for no good reason whatsoever, when in reality the majority of women didn’t want the vote and essentially fought against getting the vote, some of them because they were worried that they would be drafted, and they didn’t want that.

LW: But fundamentally you do agree with the principle that women should be able to vote...

KS: I think that every adult should be able to vote, sure.

LW: So when you say 'I would give up my vote,' you are just being provocative, you don't really mean it?

KS: Not really, because I would, I absolutely would.

LW: You’re Canadian;

KS: Yes.

LW: There’s a lot of Canadian women in this movement. What's that about?

KS: I don’t know; cabin fever? I have no idea why that is, we’re a little bit weird I guess.

LW: And what did draw you to the movement – and I’m trying to avoid the 'why are you here' question – if you could just kind of take me through the steps, like did you identify as a feminist?

KS: No.

LW: Never?

KS: Never.

LW: But some of the arguments that the men’s rights movement put forward, to me as an outsider, do seem to be in line with some of the feminist goals…

KS: Yes.

LW: So...

KS: It’s not about the goals, or its not about the stated goals – feminism isn’t just a prescription, right, it’s a description as well. So it not only says here’s what we want society to look like, in the future, it also describes what they feel society actually looks like right now.

That’s a diagnosis, right, so they are essentially saying: here is the disease, here is the mechanism as to how it operates and here is what we need to prescribe in order to get to a healthy body. And I think that they have the entire paradigm of disease wrong, the entire model and conceptualisation of the disease wrong.

Slut Walk protest in Toronto, 2011. Photo:Anton Bielousov. CC 3.0LW: What has feminism got so wrong?

KS: Oh, that society is a patriarchy, where men oppress women for their own benefit. Who is raising these men who allegedly created a society that hates women? And how can you actually look at the men around you, that you care about, and say that you and people like you constructed a society based entirely on oppressing the people with whom you form the most intimate personal relationships with from the moment you are born. Oppressing them for your own benefit. What kind of psychopath would a man have to be to decide that this is how I want society to operate? That I want to oppress these women for my own benefit.

“What kind of psychopath would a man have to be to decide that this is how I want society to operate? That I want to oppress these women for my own benefit.”

LW: But did they not just inherit this society where they had a privileged position so therefore they're unwilling to give it up?

KS: I wouldn’t call it a privileged position at all.

LW: Why not?

KS: Why not, well, OK – have you ever spent any time being shelled in a trench?

LW: No, thankfully not.

KS: There you go. Well, you know, that was just something that men... all it took was social pressure from young women. There was a story I read on...

LW: Was that not more about government winning territory and utilising both men and women to do that?

KS: Yeah, they utilised women to manipulate men into giving their lives. And why would men give their lives at the behest of women if they were interested in oppressing women?

LW: Your talk was about how women need to demolish feminism…

KS: I think you need to appeal to their basic sense of fairness. I think women do have a sense of fairness when it’s sort of really presented to them in bold terms.

So many of the women who have come into sort of the men’s movement or the non feminist and anti-feminist activated sectors of society it's because they had sons and they saw how their sons were treated at school or saw how their sons were treated by the system. They don’t want to dope their kid up with ritalin, just because the teacher doesn’t like his boy behaviour.

Things like that…

“They don’t want to dope their kid up with ritalin, just because the teacher doesn’t like his boy behaviour.”

LW: Within every newsroom that I’ve worked in, I’ve experienced a man on my level earning more. Have you never experienced any kind of sexism within your work that’s made you think: oh, something’s not really right here?

KS: Not in terms of pay, no…

LW: So you’ve never been a victim of sexism?

Australian Services Union Protest, 2011. Photo: ASU/Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.KS: Sure I have… not in terms of pay. And frankly, as far as pay goes, it wouldn’t really, you know, 50 cents an hour doesn’t bother me, I’ve always been a minimum wage worker, up until I started doing this. So that’s just arguing over pennies and...

LW: It’s value, and it's a sense of...

KS: OK, you know you have a right to be angry about that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it's systemic, across society, it may just be in places where you’ve worked, or in a particular industry. You know, I could tell you that female runway models make 10-100 times more than male runway models…

LW: And male footballers make 10-100 times more than female footballers.

KS: That’s right, there you go, and there’s not necessarily any injustice there. Because female runway models bring in more money for the client, right, and so do male footballers, bring in more money for the league. So, essentially, what you're looking at: some of these issues are systemic, maybe; you can’t assume that all of it is sexism, and you don’t necessarily have to assume that any of it is sexism, because some of it can be explained just by personal preference of women.

LW: So you were featured in the film Red Pill. So one of the things that really struck me in that film was that there was a discussion of a loss of status for men, a kind of, a loss of income, a loss of place, and that women were kind of blamed directly for that. But at no point was there any discussion of capitalism. The economic realities of our time are that a few people are incredibly rich and everybody else is getting poorer, and the film really didn’t go into that.

And the men’s rights movement, from my so far limited experience of it, just seems to be anti-women it doesn’t seem to be anti-the other contributing factors that have led men to this space where they feel like they’re not being taken seriously, where their pain isn’t being heard…

Women's March in Philadelphia, 2018. Photo: Rob Kall. CC 2.0.KS: OK, well, here’s the thing: it hasn’t really mattered what system we’ve been operating under, men’s pain has not been heard. So, communism, you know, men’s pain was not heard. Capitalism, men’s pain was not heard. Socialism, men’s pain is not heard. Men’s pain is not heard. It doesn’t really matter what economic system we’re working under these are deep psychological, social-psychology problems right, that are intrinsic to us as human beings, they’re not some kind of bi-product of whatever economic system we’re using, they’re endemic to all of them.

“Men’s pain is not heard.”

LW: But it feels like feminism and women’s rights are being blamed for the conditions of where we are at the moment, and feminists would be advocating for some of the same things here… you know, men’s pain should be heard, they shouldn’t have to be strong, boys should be able to cry...

KS: I know, and it seems very surprising then that when men’s rights activists talk about their feelings, the male tears coffee mugs come out on Twitter, you know, from feminists, from the very feminists who say we want you to talk about how you really feel. When men talk about that, then they get: wha-wha, man-baby beer tears, sorry I hurt your man-feels.

LW: But is that not more about the corporate capture of feminism and how capitalism is just making feminism…

KS: Oh no, feminism has always been just absolutely rotten, right from the declaration of sentiments and probably before, it’s just absolutely rotten. It’s had a streak of man-hating a mile wide running through the middle of it, and go read the declaration of sentiments, read it with an uncharitable eye, okay, and look at it as a list of grievances: men have been horrible to women, end of story, period.

LW: But is the men’s rights movement not doing kind of the same thing by blaming women?

KS: We don’t blame women.

LW: Second part of that question is what’s it like being a woman within the men’s rights movement?

KS: It’s excellent, it’s excellent, it’s awesome to be part of this movement. One of the things that always struck me is, because I come to a lot of these things, and I have never ever in anyway felt uneasy or unsafe; there’s some wacky guys here sometimes, right, at these things, they’re a little socially awkward, they’re a little goofy, for sure. But I’ve never felt in anyway endangered while I’ve been here.

But, you know, there was this male feminist I did an interview with, and I did a sort of conversation with him online, about a year and a half ago, and he seemed desperate to jam me back into a female victim box – he seemed absolutely desperate to essentially say what you've said to me here, some of the things that you have said to me here, you know: don’t you feel you’ve been victimised by sexism? Don’t you feel you’ve been treated unfairly? Well, of course I have, everybody has. But he just seemed determined to cram me back into this box of female victimhood, where he could, I don’t know, be my rescuer and the rescuer of all woman and then, like 8 months later he shot his girlfriend to death.

LW: He’s not a feminist – if he shot his girlfriend, he’s not a feminist.

KS: But what is feminism? Other than trying to keep women in a box where they concentrate constantly on their victimhood. What I get out of the men’s rights movement is the feeling that I can serve, that I have something to offer people who are not like me, that I have something to give to society, something unique, something valuable, right, that I have an obligation and a responsibility to pick that up and carry it forward. Not for my own benefit, but for the benefit of others. That is a massively huge feeling. Feminism, all it ever told me was, you know: poor you. And that's just not who I am.

“What I get out of the men’s rights movement is the feeling that I can serve.”

LW: So do you get abuse from people online?

KS: No…. I get the odd bit from feminists, the odd feminist will be like, you know, you’re a traitor to your gender, or you just want male attention. I just, generally I just ignore it. Every once in a while someone will put an actual argument rather than a slur, and I’ll get involved in a conversation, but generally it’s pretty, I keep things pretty genial.

But 99% of the feedback I get is positive, so…

LW: What do you think is the biggest myth about the men’s rights movement that you would like to bust?

KS: That we hate women, that’s the biggest myth that I would like to bust. I have never seen anybody at any of these events who I could describe in any way as hating women. Men are angry at women, at times, particularly, and I think, honestly, justifiably so. It’s justifiable to be angry like, when you ask, how do you convince women to give up these advantages, and it’s like: because that would be fair?

LW: What advantages do you mean?

KS: Like advantages in family court, the assumption that the mother is the best parent...

LW: But feminists would agree with you on this.

KS: Except that they fight shared parenting bills.

LW: I think it was you that said earlier that a lot of shared parenting bills were brought in by women.

KS: They are brought in by women but they're not brought in by feminists.

You said: you guys seem so anti-women. And we are not anti-women. And honestly even when we talk about how men have specific masculine virtues – or like when I was saying there weren’t any women swimming through the caves in Thailand, rescuing those kids – like, you know, that’s fine, that’s fine. Because women have other things that they do, that they're good at, that men aren't necessarily good at, or don’t want to do.

And you know the whole idea is that we are complementarian, that we are together, and that we each have strengths and weaknesses and we balance all of these things out. That is what we want. We don’t want men and women to be in competition with each other – that’s just a recipe for unhappiness for everybody, especially children.

LW: You said something in your speech about gallons of water that would be saved if families stayed together. What did you mean by that?

KS: Well, when you have a divorce and you have a family now living in two separate households instead of one, you use more water, you buy more refrigerators, and washing machines, and TVs...

LW: Yeah, I get that, that’s not what I’m asking…

KS: If we didn’t have the divorce rate that we do, and if people were getting married at the age they were in the 1970s and staying married, then 30 billions gallons of water a year in the US would be preserved because we would have a lower consumption rate.

“If we didn’t have the divorce rate that we do… 30 billions gallons of water a year in the US would be preserved because we would have a lower consumption rate.”

LW: But why would you stay in an unhappy marriage? You are not advocating for that are you?

KS: Unhappy, define unhappy. And how long does unhappy last? And can you work on it to make it less unhappy, or even back to happy? They surveyed women, I forget how many, what the sample size was, but they asked them what they were going to do and they followed them for 5 years, and asked them how happy they were, and the women who decided to end their marriages were less happy than the ones who decided to work on it and stick it out.

LW: That’s seems to be a really traditional, heteronormative view of the family...

Paul Townsend/Flickr. (CC BY-ND 2.0) Some rights reserved.KW: But my family never decided what I was going to do with my life.

LW: If I could clarify, what I was trying to say there is, you know, the traditional family with the man being the head of it and the family staying together…

KS: I haven’t necessarily talked at all about…

LW: But that’s what it seems like to an outsider when we talk about families staying together…

KS: So you’re saying when women are the head of the family, families split apart... is that what you're saying?

LW: No, I’m not saying that…

KS: Because that’s what it seems… when men are the head of the family, families stay together, when women are the head of the family, families break apart...

LW: Well, no, it’s normally when a family breaks apart that the woman becomes the head of the family not necessarily through choice but circumstances… but I suppose the point I was trying to ask you about was, in a wider sense, there seems to be a kind of over-romanticising of the past within this movement…

KS: Not really…

LW: So you talk about your sons in the talk and how a lot of women come into this kind of advocacy after having sons. Why is that? And you talked about the tricks, the pitfalls, that girls can destroy boys' lives, what are they?

KS: Oh, any kind of false allegation, for sure, even if it doesn’t really go anywhere other than rumour, it can destroy your social reputation as a boy.

Paternity fraud, going off birth control without telling him. How’s that? I know a guy, one guy whose wife ‘oops’-ed him for four out of their five kids.

LW: And told you, and didn't tell...

KS: She told her sister and her sister told me. I think after the third time he pretty much knew. But by then he was stuck; it was cheaper to keep her. And every time he said he wanted a vasectomy she said she’d get a divorce. Well, yeah, she hasn’t worked the whole marriage, he’s stuck paying alimony, and she’d get custody and oh my goodness there’s his entire life in ruins, in shatters.

You know, like, honestly you realise that when men rape women, the legal system at least tries, at least acknowledges that those women have been wronged, but when women rape men, the legal system is the instrument that they use to do it.

“When women rape men, the legal system is the instrument that they use to do it.”

LW: So you’re one of the most high profile women within the men’s rights movement, and more women are joining this movement, why do you think that is?

KS: Because I think that they see something wrong, and part of the reason why I do this isn’t just because I want my sons to be OK, I want my daughter to be OK too, and the world that I am leaving them. I’m not going to be here forever, and they're going to inherit this shit, this complete shit pile, OK, and so I feel like I have an obligation to try and make things at least liveable for them.

LW: So that was Karen Straughan – and as you've heard, this movement and the men, and women, who lead it are complex.

Some of what they say actually chimes with feminist thinking, like when they talk about shared parenting responsibilities. But then other messages are just baffling: the suggestion that women, overall, are more privileged than men, or their obsession with men dying in wars for women.

We'll continue tracking the men's rights movement on 50.50, openDemocracy's gender and sexuality section. Before you go, I wanted to draw your attention to two fantastic pieces from the last month that you might have missed. Both of these pieces can also be read in Español – for those of you who can speak and read Spanish.

How ‘conscientious objectors’ threaten women’s newly-won abortion rights in Latin America – it’s an amazing piece by Diana Cariboni. And also on sexual violence at the San Fermin running of the bulls festival in Pamplona, we have a special piece by Rocío Ros. So do check those two pieces out.

You have been listening to The Backlash, by 50.50, openDemocracy’s gender and sexuality section.

Big thanks to the team at the International Men’s Rights Conference this month including Camille Mijola, who is one of our feminist investigative journalism fellows, also to openDemocracy's Adam Bychawski, who did some great reporting with these MRAs.

50.50 is an independent feminist media platform. You can find us on Twitter @5050oD, and you can support our work by donating on our website. Help us track the backlash against women’s and LGBT rights.

This episode of The Backlash was presented and produced by Lara Whyte. Audio editing and music production by Simone Lai.

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From: 50.50

50.50 at the 2018 International Journalism Festival. 50.50 at the 2018 International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy.Lara Whyte (LW): Hello and welcome to the third episode of The Backlash, a podcast series by 50.50, the gender and sexuality section of openDemocracy. I’m Lara Whyte and thank you for listening.

This month’s podcast is a little bit different, because we were at the International Journalism Festival in the beautiful Italian city of Perugia and we hosted a panel on why we need feminist investigative journalism. So we thought for this episode, we could give you a flavour of the conversation that we had there.

On the panel, we have 50.50 writer Claudia Torrisi; we also have Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi, who is the co-editor of openDemocracy’s UK investigative section Shine a Light; and Crina Boros, an independent data-driven investigative reporter.

Here’s the editor of 50.50, Claire Provost, starting us off by explaining what we mean when we say feminist investigative journalism.

Claire Provost (CP): So I became particularly attracted to and interested in investigative reporting because of its promises, its very core promises, to uncover and expose abuses of power, to reveal critical new information in the public interest.

So where are the investigative journalists challenging patriarchy, challenging structural violence against women, challenging intersecting forms of power and oppression? Now, of course, there are some incredible journalists who are doing this work, but they often do this thanklessly and with too few resources. And this is just not enough.

The goal of our ‘Tracking the Backlash’ series is to demystify how international networks of ultraconservative and fundamentalist organisations are increasingly working together internationally to undermine [sexual and reproductive] rights in law, in policy, in media and other battlegrounds.

So we see feminist investigative journalism as serious investigative reporting about women and LGBTI rights, but not only that.

We want to produce important investigative stories in collaboration with other and with younger women and trans writers to also build their capacity, and thus our collective capacity, to investigate these issues. So it’s not just about what we write, but also how we write and how we work.

"It's not just about what we write, but also how we write and how we work."

LW: And so, Claire, why do you think this hasn’t been happening so far?

CP: This is something you and I have talked about a lot. And I think there are a couple of reasons, and one of them is about the structure of newsrooms and the structure of media organisations that are – you know, this is no surprise – are often very male-dominated, particularly when you look at who holds power in these spaces: who the seniors editors are, who the commissioners are, when you look at job titles and responsibilities and the freedom that individuals have within newsrooms to pursue things that interest them.

In the US, there was one really striking study from the Women’s Media Center, which is a non-profit that tracks issues like these, that looked at when reproductive rights, for example, are covered in the media – when they are covered – it’s more often by men. And they produced a study in 2016 that looked at 12 major outlets in the US and found, for example, that at The New York Times men authored nearly twice as many reproductive rights stories as women did. And that men are were also quoted more often in these stories.

And if the exclusion of women’s voices in debates around our rights is part of the problem, then why do we accept this?

Because who speaks and who frames issues in public debates, it really does matter. And in addition to this, our very male-dominated newsrooms are often filled with a really ultra-competitive atmosphere that kicks questions like this to the curb in the race for my byline, my story, my moment, my recognition, my career, my promotion… always about the individual.

And this doesn’t encourage collaboration or mentorship or solidarity between reporters. And it can also reproduce and really fail to challenge extremely disempowering and damaging power dynamics.

"Who speaks and who frames issues in public debates, it really does matter."

This isn’t to say that all women are feminists, they aren't; and it’s not to say that doing this work is easy, it really isn’t.

As an editor, it can be easier, it can be faster, to work with a highly-educated (in a traditional sense), highly-experienced (in a traditional sense), native English-speaking man, based in the same time zone as you, who doesn’t ask these difficult questions, who doesn’t ask their editor: “Am I really the right person to write this story? Maybe should you give it to someone else.”

But that doesn’t mean that the status quo is right, or that we should continue to abide by it or to support that status quo.

Meaningful collaborations, working in solidarity with other women, supporting new writers, challenging corporate power, challenging fascisms, fundamentalisms, investigating structural violence this is also really difficult and delicate work, which I think is another reason why mainstream organisations, in particular, might not choose to focus their time on these areas.

We spend a lot of time with our writers. We spend a lot of time getting to know them, working with them, developing relationships, editing their pieces really carefully, explaining our edits, engaging in a back and forth that most news desks and editors wouldn’t dream of. It would seem really inefficient.

But our goals are different; our goals are also very explicitly about challenging the exclusion of women’s voices, of trans women, of women of colour, politically-radical women, working-class women, challenging the exclusion of their voices from media and public debates – this is really core to what we want to do, but of course it requires significant care, time and resources.

LW: Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi is an investigative reporter and the editor of Shine a Light which is openDemocracy’s UK investigative section. So, Rebecca, I wanted you to talk us through how Shine a Light covers state and structural violence against women.

ROO: Our sources tend to be based in communities and actually living through an injustice rather than people with access to money and power who might blow the whistle on something. We cover structural violence against women where it’s related to the British government’s austerity program. That program began in 2008 in response to the financial crisis and it’s continued since then.

London women’s protest against austerity cuts. Photo: Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi.By austerity I mean cutting the role of the state in society so that's less spending on public services like social security, which we call welfare benefits in the UK; that’s less money for local authorities; that’s cuts to legal aid for people who aren’t rich; and that’s a freeze on salaries of public sectors workers.

It's also lowering taxes, saving money by cutting spending, and all of this hurts women most – that’s really well documented. There is a ton of statistics I won’t go through now. But, just broadly, the reason women are more affected by austerity programmes is because they are more likely to use public services; they are more likely to be in low-pay jobs in the public sector; and they are more likely to do unpaid care work when the government is no longer providing a particular social service.

And all of these policy choices are very deliberate. Impacts assessments were produced and sent to civil servants and they still went ahead. And some of these policies seem to be a deliberate attempt to create an old-fashioned nuclear family where women are forced into financially-dependent relationships in order to survive.

"Some of these policies seem to be an attempt to create an old-fashioned nuclear family where women are forced into financially-dependent relationships in order to survive."

So, as you can imagine, there is a huge swathe of material to investigate. You've got public services that have been built over decades, usually by feminist activists, over time, that have become state services, and they are being rolled back through this policy.

And one area that I have tended to focus on is the lives of black and brown women and working-class women because we have data to show that they lose even more than the poorest white women, so they are really hit by some of these policies, and they are also dealing with existing structural disadvantages.

How does this play out in my work? In the long history of the battle for women’s rights and civil rights, and I include trans women in that struggle, personal testimony, and women talking and being listened to, has been crucial in forcing a public awakening that precipitates activism, protests, legal and policy change.

But in the world of investigative journalism, it’s very masculine, so there are certain stories that are deemed worthier than others, and the voices of women just aren’t seen as a priority. In my reporting, I deliberately listen in a particular way, especially when I’m with women of colour, groups often invisible to wider society, in policy, in politics, in feminism – there are so many stories to investigate: the violence is pervasive and it’s hidden in plain sight.

"There are so many stories to investigate: the violence is pervasive and it’s hidden in plain sight."

One story I worked on was in collaboration with journalists in Scotland and Northern Ireland to tell the story of refugee women, and women with uncertain immigration status, trying to leave violent relationships… and there is this huge gap and there is this group of women who are not being helped.

So I wrote about a smart young woman named Nabila who came to the UK from Pakistán and married a British man. Her migration status was a bit iffy; she didn’t have complete rights because she was in the UK on a spousal visa.

He was physically abusive, his family bullied her, and one day she just decided that she’d had enough. So she went to the British police and instead of supporting her, and treating her as a victim of crime, they interrogated her. When she went to a domestic violence refuge, they asked “What’s your immigration status?” before asking, or even saying, I believe you.

There is a gap in the law, basically. And it means that some migrant and refugee women in the UK who are there on a spousal visa can’t access certain public services. Nabila managed to somehow get out of this situation, leave her abusive husband, but she had nowhere to go, so what happens next?

As part of my research, as well as interviewing women, one thing that I tried to do was to get data from the government.

I sent Freedom of Information requests to the Home Office (they manage immigration). They said they don’t keep the data on domestic violence victims. I also sent requests to 34 local authorities across England and Wales, part of a network who are already monitoring migrants with precarious immigration status. Not one single council had kept any data on these women.

One of the problems that I had, as someone who is trying to track what happens to women who aren’t white or who have uncertain migration status, is that sometimes the data isn’t collected. In another quick example, I worked with a university researcher on this. She was writing a story for me about the cuts to services for South Asian women and other women of colour in her area, and she found statistics on gender, statistics on race, but never statistics on both, and it made her feel invisible and frustrated.

"She found statistics on gender, statistics on race, but never statistics on both, and it made her feel invisible and frustrated."

LW: Thank you Rebecca. To move on to Crina – Crina is a freelance data-driven investigative reporter based in London, but from Romania. I wanted you to start by telling us how you started looking into gender-related stories as a data journalist.

CB: Freelancers must find the underreported stories for a living. And I report on drivers of injustice, so I chase dodgy people, questionable business interests and harmful policies. To get a comprehensive understanding, I usually start with data analysis. When reporting on vulnerable groups, it is impossible not to find examples where women suffer the brunt of inequality.

I reported on compensation policies implemented by the British Ministry of Defense (MOD) for victims in war-torn Afghanistan. A table I obtained via Freedom of Information laid out the sums the ministry paid out for each type of injury: partial blindness, $1,000; loss of a foot, $2,500; loss of both legs, between $2,500-7,000, etcetera.

I found that women victims were compensated by default and design significantly less than men for the same type of injury. For example, if a man was accidentally killed by the British armed forces, his family would be compensated with anything between $8,000-12,000. Yet, if a woman was killed, her family would be paid between $5,000-8,000.

And so on for pretty much every single type of injury, apart from one: facially disfigured women were compensated with more money than facially disfigured men because it affected their prospects of a good marriage, if any. Asked why they made this stark discrimination between sexes, the defence ministry of Britain said they were applying local customary laws.

Case 2: I conducted two international polls on women’s rights in a small team of two. One examined endemic sexual harassment and violence on public transport in the world’s megacities. We interviewed over 6,600 women. Parisian women interviewees felt that no one will help them if they were attacked in a metro station or on a train at night. Women felt safer to travel in gender-segregated coaches or carriages in Latin America, while in India they reported being targeted even more for using women’s only transport vehicles.

The most shocking aspect of this research, to me, was to find out that women around the globe choose their lives and livelihoods not around their aspirations, dreams or ambitions, but, say, on how long they will have to walk on a street with no public lighting a seemingly banal aspect of everyday Western life.

Women using gender-segregated public transport in Jakarta. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown/Flickr. CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0. Some rights reserved.Case 3: A look at outward migrations patterns in Romania’s most underprivileged areas shows that children left at home suffer when mothers are the first in a couple to migrate for seasonal work. Due to language similarities, Romanian women prefer to migrate to Italy, Spain and Portugal. Their departure, forced by economic circumstances, had led to children going through emotional trauma, burnout phases, spikes in child sexual abuse (especially in girls) and divorces. The migrating mothers are abused too.

Their physical and mental health, self-esteem and civil rights suffer as they toil abroad, often in abject conditions. Strawberry farmers are discouraged from bringing their husbands, but they are strongly encouraged to bring other women from their village... these women have become the main breadwinners of their family. Underprivileged Romanian villages are experiencing a poverty-induced matriarchal revival.

Data-driven investigations: they have the power of showing if a wrongdoing is systematic, whether it is scientifically-correlated with another aspect of life or politics.

"Data-driven investigations: they have the power of showing if a wrongdoing is systematic."

When you go about your reporting using a data-driven approach, there is a certain integrity in your findings. Sometimes you must write your stories around extreme cases; sometimes the average is the biggest anomaly you will ever find. Evidence-based reporting, rather than anecdotal, shelters both journalists and their sources, to some degree, from retaliation.

It’s sometimes better to protect vulnerable sources when you have a database, that’s an inanimate object: you can’t kill it. Most of the times, with data, you don’t assume, you know.

LW: Claudia Torrisi is an independent reporter who writes a regular column for us. Claudia, a lot of your work for us focuses on violence against women. Why?

CT: I think that violence against women is one of the best examples of why Italy needs real feminist journalism. In Italy, the mainstream media talks a lot about stories of femicides, women killed or abused by their partners, raped by strangers. Newspapers and TV programmes are full of these kinds of stories. The problem is that telling stories about women is not the same thing as telling women’s rights stories, and too often the caution and the care that should be applied to reporting on such a critical issue is absent.

Italian media too often use a sort of romantic frame to talk about these stories. The murder is often presented as a crime of passion. You can read words like sick love, jealousy it is really unbelievable how widespread this narrative is. If you do a quick search on Google, with the words in Italian “killed for jealousy” (uccisa per gelosia), you will see an incredible number of results.

An example: last month in Sicily, a 20-year-old girl was stabbed to death by her boyfriend and there were plenty of articles and headlines saying that he killed her for jealousy. But if you dig a little into this story, you find that the relationship between that girl and her boyfriend was far from being perfect and healthy. She had been beaten up by her partner several times, but she had never filed a complaint with the police.

"Telling stories about women is not the same thing as telling women's rights stories."

So I think that is why this narrative, full of stereotypes and this romantic frame, is dangerous because describing the violence as linked to individual responsibilities leaves out from the story the roots of the violence, which are patriarchy, unequal power relations between women and men, discrimination.

There are a lot of issues related to femicides and violence that need to be investigated. For example, a lot of victims had filed complaints to the police before being killed. So the question is: why are Italian laws and authorities failing to protect women from violence? Or why do women’s centres and refuges have so many difficulties in carrying out their activities? Why are many of them about to close? Or, another example, why is Italy unable to set school education programs to prevent violence?

Something is changing now, thanks to groups of female journalists and researchers who are trying to reconstruct the way we talk about violence against women in Italy. There are initiatives, education courses, protests when there is bad coverage, but still, this narrative is predominant, so we definitely need better reporting on violence against women.

LW: You give us one of our biggest hits on 50.50 when you looked into the Weinstein scandal and how the Italian media were reporting it. Do you want to tell me about that, and what was different about how it was being reported in Italy, compared to other countries?

CT: One of Weinstein’s accusers was the Italian actress and director Asia Argento who told The New Yorker she was sexually assaulted by Weinstein in 1997. That’s the reason why the Italian media gave significant space to the scandal, but instead of focusing on Weinstein, they scrutinised the victims. We can definitely say that, in Italy, the Weinstein scandal quickly became Asia Argento's scandal.

Asia Argento in Cannes, 2012. Photo: Hahn-Marechal-Nebinger/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Media reports focused on her behaviour, describing her as an opportunist, even a prostitute, questioning why she had waited so long to come forward, and some reports said that what she was claiming wasn’t violence as she was not beaten, she did not scream, she did not escape, she did not fit the stereotype of a sexual violence victim. What is worse is that such voices, here, are seen as common sense: “She could have done something to avoid that situation.”

The debate here got stuck in show business and was treated by the media as gossip. It seems that industries all over the world had their own moments of reckoning inspired by the Weinstein scandal, while we did not have any.

Here the discussion around sexual harassment at work remains a sort of taboo. This is, of course, a cultural problem and it shows how much sexual abusers and harassers can feel safe in this country, but this also has to do with the Italian media industry which is a world in which the power is all in male hands. So the real problem is that narratives are shaped by men who are in power and we know that harassment is about power.

"The real problem is that narratives are shaped by men who are in power and we know that harassment is about power."

Our National Institute of Statistics estimated that 8.2 million Italian women between 14-65 years old have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime. 1.4 million women have experienced physical harassment or sexual blackmail in their workplace. What's more: 80% of these women said that they told no one at work about the incident; almost no one had reported the incident to the police.

So we need feminist investigative journalists to uncover this system of harassment and abuse in every working field, including the media, and to tell these underreported stories to create safer spaces for women to share their experiences.

LW: That’s it for us. Join us again next month. You can tweet us at @5050od or @Backlash_Track. Feel free to give us a bell, let us know what you think, give us some ideas, feedback also welcome. You can email us, or you can find us on Facebook.

50.50 is an independent feminist media platform. You can support our work by donating on our website. Help us track the backlash against women’s rights.

This episode of The Backlash is an edited version of 50.50's panel at the 2018 International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, chaired by Lara Whyte. Audio editing and music production by Simone Lai. Produced by Lara Whyte and Claire Provost; assistant producing by Rocio Ros. 

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