Turning social media into social change

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Stuck at home for the first few months of the pandemic, Florence-Olivia Genesse and her sister Emma decided to start a TikTok channel as a sort of supplement to their higher education, which was now taking place entirely online.

“We wanted to find a way to share our research with as many people as possible,” says Genesse, a student from Montreal who is studying legal philosophy at Johns Hopkins while her sister is pursuing a master’s degree in feminist philosophy at a Canadian university. They called their channel the.sisofficial and began posting videos that combined catchy dance routines with feminist messaging. Within a short time, the channel had over 347,000 subscribers.

@the.sisofficial Please share to end domestic violence! It can save lives. #awarenessofdomesticviolence #endviolence #feminism #violenceathome ♬ Six Forty Seven – Instupendo

In late 2020, between videos on sexist school dress codes, the gender wage gap, and rape culture, the sisters posted a brief tutorial on the “Signal for Help,” a gesture created by the Canadian Woman’s Foundation that can be used when women need to discreetly communicate danger or distress. In the video, Genesse is on a Facetime call with her sister, casually talking about her day while performing the cue – pointing her open palm at the camera, tucking her thumb in and “trapping” it with her other four fingers. This video and a similar one posted a month later have collectively been viewed more than 11.5 million times. Below each is a caption with a simple message: “It can save lives.”

A year later, maybe that’s what he did. In November 2021, a 16-year-old Kentucky girl signaled from the backseat of her captor’s car to a nearby motorist, who recognized the gesture and called 911. Local police were dispatched and the girl, who had been reported missing days earlier by her parents in North Carolina – was rescued. In news reports about the incident, the video of the Genesses was included as the one that helped the hand signal go viral.

Picture credit: Canadian Women’s Foundation

Genesse says she was “shocked to see that it really had an impact on someone’s real life.” The ensuing media coverage reminded the sisters that “what’s important…isn’t the millions of views but rather the millions of lived experiences of individuals that we can impact.”

This real-world reach and advocacy is a big part of TikTok’s appeal to Johns Hopkins teachers and mentors, who have created popular channels on issues devoted to mental health and homework advice. Genesse says his own studies have taught him the importance of “democratizing research,” not only for his academic colleagues, “but also for those who don’t have access to higher education or are not in this field of study. Along with explanations of gender-based violence in countries like Poland, Mexico, and India, the.sisofficial also shares videos that break down feminist theory into entertaining, easy-to-understand chunks.

“It’s incredibly important for us to remember why we’re doing this in the first place: to improve the lives of women and girls around the world.”

Florence-Olivia Genesse

“Academia can be a bit elitist at times,” admits Genesse. “It’s incredibly important for us to remember why we’re doing this in the first place: to improve the lives of women and girls around the world.”

In addition to the “Signal for Help”, the Genesse sisters have posted videos to help women facing immediate danger. Designed to be played from the back seat of the carpool, a video features an older man reciting dialogue to recreate a phone call at home. “We’ll be waiting for you,” he said, loud enough for the driver to hear. Another asks women who are harassed in a bar or club to ask the bartender for “an angel call,” a code that communicates the need for immediate assistance.

Genesse says she and her sister often hear from followers thanking them for their educational posts — and not all posts are from women.

“We get messages from men saying they didn’t know they could be feminists, and that we helped them see that ‘feminist’ is not a dirty word.”

Genesse is currently applying to doctoral programs in law and philosophy, but plans to continue posting on the.sisofficial, despite the significant time commitment it requires. Genesse says she and her sister try to upload four to five videos a week, each requiring days to write, practice and play. In addition to scheduling challenges, the subject can also weigh on Genesse.

“It is extremely difficult to work on these issues every day, but when we see the abuse still happening in the world, we go back to our books and back to our work on [TikTok]”, she says, adding that she and her sister both see them as a means to achieve the same goal. “What we want, through our academic research and our activism, is to advance the rights of women.”

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