Harry Potter and the Echo Chamber of Feminist Lies

The irony of the internet never ceases to amaze me. Google gives us the ability to access data across the globe, and yet so many of us fall victim to the spread of misinformation. Today I speak specifically of the ‘controversy’ between Emma Watson and Beyoncé fans. Misread, misquoted and ultimately misrepresented, Watson was deemed a promoter of hypocritical ‘white feminism’.

Let’s rewind. The Harry Potter star and UN Women Global Goodwill ambassador first came under fire after her revealing Vanity Fair promotional shoot for Beauty and the Beast, in which Watson posed in an open-weave bolero. In response to questions over her commitment to feminism, Watson stated in an interview with the BBC:

Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. It’s about freedom, it’s about liberation, it’s about equality. I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it. It’s very confusing.

Well said. Sassy finger snaps all around.

But the dispute did not end there. Beyoncé fans tweeted a quote in which Watson apparently said Beyoncé is not a feminist because her self-titled 2013 album had been too centred on the male gaze. The statement was taken from an interview between Tavi Gevinson and Watson which was featured in Wonderland magazine. Watson had asked Gevinson:

So one last question, it’s a big one and I’m quite nervous to bring it up because I still haven’t really formulated my own ideas about it but [both laugh] Beyoncé’s new album. […] I so admire her confidence to put her music out in that way, in amidst all these very sensationalist sort of MTV performances, I was so psyched about that. On the one hand she is putting herself in a category of a feminist, this very strong woman – and she has that beautiful speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in one of her songs – but then the camera, it felt very male, such a male voyeuristic experience of her and I just wondered if you had thoughts about that?

Beyoncé fans were quick to point out Watson’s apparent hypocrisy. After all, how could Emma Watson suggest that Beyoncé’s sexuality compromises her feminist beliefs and then become angered when the same argument is used against herself a few years later? As a result, Watson was deemed a typical ‘white feminist’ for failing to ensure her brand of feminism included black women.

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However, Watson then demonstrated how this circulated statement had been taken out of context by tweeting the full interview.

In summary, Gevinson had responded to Watson by describing how Beyoncé’s sexuality seems to ‘inform’ other aspects of her identity – her marriage, motherhood and independence. Furthermore, Gevinson stated that Beyoncé’s decision to perform for her husband is remedied by the fact that it is born out of her own ‘choice’. It also has the effect of shifting ‘the male part of it from a male audience to her husband’.

Watson took up this last point, stating:

I would say two things. One is that […] in our industry, it’s as though you get a memo: don’t be seen with your boyfriend or your wife or your child because you still want your audience to believe or male fans of Beyoncé to believe that they could possess her; that in some alternate universe they could be with her. So by publicly exposing her marriage, that she is in a committed relationship, that she has a child, is probably really against that kind of memo and she does make it clear that she is performing for him. And the fact she wasn’t doing it for a label, she was doing it for herself and the control that she has directing it and putting it out there, I agree is making her sexuality empowering because it is her choice. 

The second is that I would get a sense of, “I can be a feminist, I can be an intellectual, I can be all these other things, but I can also be okay with my femininity and being pretty and with all these things that I thought might negate my message or negate what I am about”. That really is the most interesting thing about the album. It is so inclusive and puts feminism and femininity and female empowerment on such a broad spectrum.

The latter half of this interview clearly vindicates Watson. It reveals that the circulated quotation had only been the starting point of a bigger conversation about sexism in the industry and sexuality’s place in feminism. If people had only taken the time to google the original interview, they would have been able to read Watson’s conclusion that Beyoncé’s unapologetic sensual feminism is completely valid and empowering for women.

Unfortunately this incident speaks to a larger issue involving social media platforms. With only 140 characters to express their opinion, people only include a portion of the truth. Only one part of an interview is quoted. Only a spliced version of a video is posted. Only the headlines of articles are read before they are retweeted, shared or reblogged. People are too trusting with the information that flashes across their screens.

As a result, we enter into echo chambers of misinformation. One American study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at data surrounding various topics people had shared on Facebook. This study explains echo chambers as follows:

Users tend to aggregate in communities of interest, which causes reinforcement and fosters confirmation bias, segregation, and polarization. This comes at the expense of the quality of the information and leads to proliferation of biased narratives fomented by unsubstantiated rumors, mistrust, and paranoia.

In other words, we only ‘share’ things we agree with. On the surface, that seems reasonable. After all, the process of ‘sharing’ implies agreement – people are hardly going to ‘share’ a post if they object to its content. However, what is more problematic about this process is the tunnel vision it creates – users seek out the ‘truth’ they want to see and ignore the rest of the information. As a result, people spread ‘unsubstantiated’ claims which are then taken up and shared by other users, creating a community founded in fabrications.

Such can be observed in the responses to Watson. In this first tweet, Watson is quoted out of context:Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 09.50.12

The following tweets then respond to this narrow framing of Watson’s interview, condemning the actress for her supposed hypocrisy:

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By this final tweet, a narrative is being constructed for Watson – one which differs entirely from the original interview:

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These tweets are then retweeted and taken as fact. The result: an echo chamber has been formed and users have needlessly pinned two women against each other.

Whereas the effects here do not go far beyond condemning a celebrity, echo chambers have wider, more dangerous political implications. For example, two opposed political groups will look at information and neglect to fact-check. They will then respond to and share this information. This forms two entirely different political narratives which evolve alongside each other, but never interact. Neither side manages to communicate with the other – the other voice rarely manages to break through the echo chamber. Without this contact, opinions will never change and people will never learn.

I’m not suggesting everyone should footnote their Facebook statuses. And I’m aware sometimes social media is a personal space to vent rather than tirelessly argue with your distant Republican relative. Nevertheless, I do believe sharing your opinion comes with a certain degree of responsibility. We must research the information stated in articles/videos/tweets before we share them and make bold public claims. We must also engage with posts which contain unfavourable content from time to time to break out of our own echo chamber. Finally, we must remember that Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc. are not the be-all and end-all sources of information. They are only a starting point – a probe to encourage you to research for yourself. With a wealth of information at our fingertips, I’m afraid negligent posting just won’t do.

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