The “Female Blackout” Was Not Effective Social Media Activism. It Was a Chain Letter.

A question mark with a face.

Over the weekend, you might have received a Facebook message asking you to participate in something called a “female blackout.” Or perhaps Monday morning you noticed a few blacked-out profile pictures in your Facebook feed. Or maybe you didn’t see either and all you caught was the backlash to the blackout. Whatever the case, here’s what’s going on.

On Saturday, women began circulating the following instructions through Facebook messages:

Tomorrow [Sunday], female blackout from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Its a movement to show what the world might be like without women. Your profile photo should just be a black square so that men wonder where the women are. Pass it only to women … It’s for a project against domestic abuse. It is no joke. Share it.

As with many chain letters (and this one has gone around before), it was unclear who started this project or exactly what it was about—for example, did it relate to the sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, an issue that has galvanized women nationwide over the past few weeks, or was the timing just a coincidence? Blackouts, the kind that involve alcohol, have certainly been part of the discussion surrounding Kavanaugh. As Jezebel pointed out, there’s frequently a link between drinking and domestic violence. But the text of the message kept things vague, only mentioning “a project against domestic abuse.”

Though the message, or at least the version of it that I got in my own inbox and saw screenshots of, did not explicitly mention that women should keep mum on social media in addition to blacking out their profile photos, some commenters read the message that way—and took issue with it.

It’s a fair point: Why should women attempt to raise awareness about an issue by being silent? Shouldn’t a campaign like this be an occasion for women to speak up? Silence is also a particularly ineffective tactic for a social media campaign: In order to see that a woman has blacked out her avatar, she must be posting and participating in the social media conversation.

Social media campaigns are of course not useless—just look at #MeToo—but this one seems more likely to confuse people or simply be ignored. Its hazy provenance should probably also invite skepticism, particularly given the recent history of foreign trolls faking social-justice campaigns. Between that, its imprecise goals, and its apparently underthought strategy, it’s no surprise that the female blackout amounted to barely more than a flicker.