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Women activists’ strategies of online self-presentation


Activists present themselves on- and offline using a diverse range of tools, discursive strategies, and means of self-presentation, all conducive to making both themselves and their cause well known. To that end, of paramount importance is their ability to make audiences and readers empathize, and a key factor all strategies have in common is the repetitive nature of their multiplatform, multimodal discourse. I build on previous research about platforms such as Twitter and TED talks as forms of self-narration to look at the ways human rights activists deploy such strategic communicative techniques to construct a public persona. I focus on young women from the Global South using English as a lingua franca. These tend to re-use rhetoric drawn from famous historical figures who stood for social justice in the past, and nuanced repetitive techniques characterized by emotion and affect to mobilize various constituencies. Both kinds of repetition, enhanced by the affordances of technology, create a new kind of ubiquity and can thus potentially influence policymaking. The article makes the case that the recent global viral popularity of young women activists such as Malala Yousafzai, Bana Alabed, and Nujeen Mustafa deserves deeper analysis. At stake is whether digital affordances of immediacy and reach can not only amplify such activists’ messages, but help them cross new borders and create new kinds of transnational solidarity.

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  1. Kay Schaffer (1945–2019) passed away as a draft of this article was being written. She will be missed, but her important contribution to the field of human rights life writing, postcolonial and feminist studies, will continue to lead the way for future research.

  2. See Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Shandler (2012) for more on the “Anne Frank phenomenon” (p 7).

  3. Julie Rak, in conversation with the author, 2 October 2020. Rak's prolific publications include Boom! Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market (2013) and Negotiated Memory (2004) as well as the edited volume Auto/Biography in Canada: Critical Directions (2005).

  4. See part 2 in this article for further reference.


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For helpful comments on earlier versions of this article I would like to thank Julie Rak and Clare Foster. A first draft paper was presented at the Panel on Re-directing the Potentials of Digital Public Space during the Rethinking Repetition in a Digital Age Symposium held 12 June 2019 and organized by CRASSH at the University of Cambridge in the UK. That presentation, and the present publication, is part of an ongoing, larger project on human rights activists’ life narratives that I had been working on over the course of a Visiting Research Fellowship at the Centre for Life-Writing Research (CLWR) at King’s College London (KCL). Funded by the “José Castillejo” grant for young scholars titled “New narrative strategies in life writing and digital activism” ref. CAS18/00158 from the Development, Innovation and Universities Department of the Ministry of Science, Government of Spain, it has recently been published in book-length format as New Forms of Self-Narration: Young Women, Life Writing and Human Rights (2020) by Palgrave.

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Correspondence to Ana Belén Martínez García.

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Martínez García, A.B. Women activists’ strategies of online self-presentation. AI & Soc (2020).

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  • Online self-presentation
  • Rhetorical strategies
  • Women activists
  • Life writing
  • Repetition