The media, #metoo and the downfall of Harvey Weinstein

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‘Paradigm shift’ is an overused term. But the wave of change that followed the New York Times’ October exposé of Harvey Weinstein and his record of sexual assault and harassment was exactly that. It was a moment that brought about a fundamental change to our cultural assumptions about gender, sexuality and power, and a turning point in the role of media in the way populations form, break and remake their shared values. 

But this disruption didn’t happen overnight. In reality, it happened (to steal a phrase from the internet’s favourite teen author, John Green) “slowly, and then all at once”. 

The ‘slowly’ part was the power of crowds and their ability, via social media, to shift attitudes. From body positivity to transgender rights, social norms that once seemed impossible to alter have been gleefully torn down and rapidly reconstructed. This is thanks to previously anonymous opinions and voices being shared, amplified, and responded to by institutions and brands alike.

It was the culture of mutual support built in this period that allowed the ‘all at once’ part to happen – the cultural landslide that followed immediately in the wake of the Weinstein story. Over 100,000 #metoo posts emerged in 24 hours as women shared their own stories of harassment and assault. A flurry of new investigations implicated institutions from Westminster to BBC, and discussion of the nuances of sexual and corporate power dynamics entered living rooms, offices and talk radio stations all over the world.

While eyeballs and advertising spend move away from traditional news media to social networks like Facebook, the cultural desire for authoritative, robust journalism is more profound than ever. And while, in the era of citizen journalism, news media may have lost its status as gatekeeper to truth, it is re-invigorating its position as the mechanism by which people hold truth to power.

Recent years have seen legacy broadsheets such as The Washington Post renewing investigative offerings, but this is a profoundly youth-driven cultural moment. Buzzfeed understands this, continuing with its push to being a “consistent top tier, scoop-getting, disruptive, serious investigative part of people’s lives”, to complement the sugar rush of memes and listicles. 

But the shift goes beyond news; brands exist in this rapidly changing cultural universe too. They share the same spaces as their consumers online, they engage in the same conversations and increasingly – as the Pepsi x Kendall Jenner backlash demonstrated this year – they are called to account for getting it wrong. 

The question for brands, especially those looking to future-proof themselves with younger consumers, is to ask themselves what their target really cares about. The key is to be part of the ‘slowly’ moment, so by the time it comes to the ‘all at once’ part – the day when everything suddenly changes – they’re not caught on the back foot. 

Susie Hogarth, Flamingo