Social media brings Women’s March on Chicago to life

Social Media March
A protestor captures scenes of the Women's March on Chicago in Grant Park over the weekend (Kara Voght/MEDILL)

By Kara Voght

In the hours following Donald Trump’s presidential victory, a disappointed Liz Radford scrolled through her Facebook feed and noticed posts floating the idea about a women’s march on Washington. Radford decided to gauge interest for a Chicago-based sister march within her own social network the weekend after the election.

“We put up a Facebook page on a Saturday morning, and by that night we had a thousand interested people,” she said.

That social media moment inspired her to begin planning the Women’s March on Chicago. Co-chair Radford and her fellow organizers relied on social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram to galvanize a grassroots effort that culminated in Saturday’s 250,000-person march.

“It’s social media’s own creature,” she said. “You have this tool available, and because you have that tool, that informed your thinking about how you’ll start implementing your idea.”

Protestors cross a bridge in Grant Park to line up for the Women's March on Chicago (Kara Voght/MEDILL)
Protesters cross a bridge in Grant Park to line up for the Women’s March on Chicago (Kara Voght/MEDILL)

Radford, 45, said the initial overwhelming response speaks to the power of social media platforms that make it easy for people to get involved with causes they care about.

“You don’t have to leave your house, you don’t have to call anybody, you just log onto your computer,” she said. “It offers an instant community, and I think a lot of people need that right now.”

That “instant community,” built of over 36,000 Facebook page members and almost 2,500 Twitter followers, not only discovered the event online—they helped shape it. Radford said the dialogue across social media informed how her team approached the day’s events. They received a ton of feedback from their passionate online community, on topics ranging from nature of feminism to organizing advice from experienced activists.

“There was a lot of information to mine,” she said. “In several cases, we’d pick up the phone or have an IM conversation with someone who either had criticisms or support we felt was significant. We really listened to all aspects because our goal is a successful inclusive march.”

To the organizers, inclusion meant more than welcoming as many individuals as possible. In addition to a physical march, they also hosted a virtual march, a space on their website to share any social media interactions reflecting on the march. Those who used the event’s hashtag, #womensmarchchi, could share their content to the wall. People shared almost 7,000 tweets mentioning the march’s Twitter handle or hashtag Saturday.

Amy Schoeffel, 42, the virtual march organizer, said it served as an especially important space for people who couldn’t be there Saturday.

“It started off with people with disabilities in mind, but it blossomed into things like, the mom with three kids who just really can’t make it to the march,” Schoeffel said. “Someone posted to our page, ‘Hey, I’d really like to go, but I’m undergoing chemo treatment.’ Another woman posted, ‘I’ll be in labor at that time, that’s when I’m being induced.’”

A wall on the march's webpage displayed social media messages from protestors near and far (Courtesy of Women's March of Chicago)
A wall on the march’s webpage displayed social media messages from protesters near and far (Courtesy of Women’s March of Chicago)

Marcher Keila Cruz, 26, a social worker from Chicago, had that population in mind as she captured scenes from the march on Snapchat.

“I want everybody to see what we’re doing out here,” Cruz said at the march. “It’s [Snapchat] an easy way to share information back and forth, because there are some people who work today and can’t be out here in person to see what’s going on.”

The idea of broadly sharing the march’s message digitally resonated even with typically shy social media users. Sara Altshuler, 22, a music teacher from Chicago, said she typically never uses Snapchat, but had already shared several scenes before the march began Saturday morning.

“I don’t really post a lot on social media, but today just feels like the day to spread the word,” Altshuler said.

Despite its crucial role in gathering support and sharing the day, Columbia Journalism School professor Todd Gitlin, a scholar of media and organizing efforts, warned that social media engagement does not translate into sustained change.

“What makes social media so useful in the short run also makes them illusionary in the longer run,” Gitlin said. “It may seem so easy to make things happen via social media, but people think sending out a lot of tweets and retweets amounts to organizing. It’s not, it’s a tool.”

To Gitlin, face-to-face contact is key.

“I don’t see how a virtual network is going to put the heat on members of Congress, or state legislators,” he said.

Schoeffel is keeping Gitlin’s perspective in mind as she considers what comes in the days after the march. She sees the march as the start of an effort that brings change to the community. The day after the march, the website posted a list of Chicago-area organizations to help people connect with initiatives that are important to them.

“I liked the idea of this march and it being a launching point for more good deeds and more good actions to help support other women in the months and years to follow,” she said.

Photo at top: A protester captures scenes on the Women’s March on Chicago in Grant Park over the weekend. (Kara Voght/MEDILL)