These days, netizens make a beeline for Facebook to see what their friends are up to or tweet their thoughts on a great article that they have just read. But social media offers so much more than good-natured frivolity — it has become a potent platform to speak out on some of the most important issues of the day like the fight against gender violence.

In recent years, Facebook and Twitter have become launching pads for anti-violence campaigns and centres of conversation on how to make the world a safer place for women. “A (Twitter) hashtag, which takes off and gets people to discuss a topic they wouldn’t necessarily talk about, is really powerful. I find people stumble upon issues by seeing hashtags in their feeds so it&’s kind of effortless. Then they can jump in and learn quickly,” says Nancy Schwartzman, a New York-based filmmaker and activist against gender violence.

Schwartzman runs The Line Campaign, a movement led by young people that uses film, social media, a blog and even more to help end violence against women. The project stems from Schwartzman&’s first film, The Line, which was released in 2009 and chronicles her personal experience with sexual assault. To draw people to the Campaign, she uses Twitter along with blogging and in-person events. “I’ve worked on other campaigns where Facebook pages have been good, but in general I think Twitter is more fluid and people are used to talking to people they don’t know on it. Facebook is a little more closed. On Twitter, if you have a good moderator for a discussion, it’ll be a good conversation and people will jump in,” she says.

The Line Campaign&’s presence on social media — the Twitter handle @thelinecampaign has more than 5,700 followers and counting— caught the attention of someone who encouraged Schwartzman to enter a White House-sponsored competition to create a mobile app that helps prevent sexual violence. Schwartzman, along with others, created the Circle of 6 app, which enables people, when they find themselves in threatening situations, to connect instantly and seamlessly to six chosen friends. Pre-written text messages let users request rides home, ask friends to call them to create interruptions or alert their circles that they are in trouble and need help. The Circle of 6 app was one of the two winners at the competition and is used all over the world with people in India downloading it the fastest of any population outside of the USA.

Schwartzman continues to use Twitter to keep the dialogue going on the topic. She organises Tweet Ups — conversations that take place on the social media site — which she publicises by reaching out to a high-profile partner, such as the United Nations and then telling 50 people she knows. As those 50 share the same on their Twitter feeds, the participant list grows. “I have done a bunch of Tweet Ups about the safety of women in India, mobile technology and women&’s safety and sexism,” Schwartzman says.

Like Schwartzman, Holly Kearl, a Washington, DC-based activist, uses social media to fight gender violence. Kearl founded “Stop Street Harassment”, an organisation devoted to ending public behaviour that humiliates or victimises women—catcalls, indecent exposure and other actions that intimidate and limit people&’s safe access to public spaces. Kearl uses Facebook to create pages for events she hosts and shares content from her blog and Twitter to broadcast upcoming gatherings, organise tweet chats and connect with people worldwide who are sharing street harassment stories.

Kearl says there are positive as well as negative sides to social media use but in general, she finds the advantages are far greater. “I think street harassment is such a complex issue that it can be hard to discuss it through Twitter where one has to be so short. A lot of nuances are lost. But (through story-sharing on social media) one sees that gender violence and street harassment are problems in every country and we can speak out and amplify each other&’s voices. That&’s extremely powerful,” she says.

Schwartzman agrees, saying social media is an important component of fighting gender violence and furthering other social causes. “We need boots on the ground, people signing and creating petitions and all the other in-person work. If social media can benefit social causes too, then great. Some people call (social media activism) ‘slacktivism,’ like it&’s not the same as being on the ground, but I don’t think that&’s true. We need all hands on deck,” she says.

Span/Trans World Features