November 26, 2021
The @feminist Instagram account took femvertising to the next level
Content from activist social media accounts or memes about smashing down the patriarchy sometimes make me imagine the person who could have posted it.
Is it a middle-aged lesbian, holding a glass of wine in a Carrie-Bradshawesque manner? Or maybe a non-binary activist with buzz-cut hair, constantly looking for new techniques to offer their audience the best possible content? I guess you know what I mean.
The @feminist Instagram was one of these accounts which evoked such images. It’s content is so relatable that it would never have occurred to me to question the authenticity behind the intentions of it’s creators somewhere on the other end of a screen.
Well, I was wrong. There is one thing in my equations that I always forget to take under consideration, a thing which can very well blur the line between right and wrong. This thing being money.
A while ago, during a Harbingers’ Magazine editorial meeting, we discussed different progressive, awareness-rising social media accounts we follow and our reasons for which we do it. I mentioned the @feminist account, which amassed an astouding 6.4 million followers and which somewhat contributed to my knowledge on various threads of discussion concerning gender inequality. “Why don’t you try to interview them?”, one of our editors asked me. It was a good point, so later that evening I put “Who runs the @feminist account?” into Google.
The fun part was over – instead of finding someone I would like to interview, I stumbled across a debate originally sparked by Sam Sedlack’s article, published in 2018 which is headlined “@feminist got their followers by stealing from marginalised creators”. From it, I learned not only about using content without permission, but foremost, one of the largest feminism-related accounts on Instagram is co-owned by a businessmen and a social media specialist by the names of Jacob Castaldi and Tanner Sweitzer.
Another article, written by Cecilia Nguyen for The Revival Zine documented how @feminist and other similar accounts are being used to discretely promote the business venture of Castaldi and Sweitzer – for they are, respectively, the founder and chief marketing officer of a sustainable fashion brand CHNGE.
Some would immediately say that men can be feminists too, and I completely agree with that statement. Even more than that – for all their shortcomings, Castaldi and Sweitzer are by no means true villains when compared to some of the horrible people we have to deal with in business and politics, the owner of Instagram being the most notable example.
Yet, from those who share our ethics we should be demanding higher standards - and I, for one, see two basic reasons why what Castaldi and Sweitzer are doing is very much not okay.
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Firstly, the lack of authenticity. When seeking activist social media accounts, I expect representation – in the case of @feminist I feel deceived by professional social media marketers who possess all the tools and strategies to make their content relatable. Effectively, they hijacked my attention – the currency whereby social media users pay – which I had wanted to give, not to two cis men, but to people of marginalised groups.
Arguably, the owners of the @feminist account were in all likelihood painfully aware that if they were to be frank about their identities, they would not be nearly as successful as they are now, so conveniently omitted mentioning themselves in the account description.
Since their identity was revealed, the owners of the account have made a weak attempt at presenting at least some transparency. The current description of the account reads: “A community rooted in intersectional feminism. We exist to amplify a diverse network of change makers, activists & creators.”
This leads to my second point. The description above I could translate as: “We take other people’s posts, arts and ideas, and profit from posting them. But hey, we tag them now!”. It’s not a play on words when I describe my attention as currency, as social media platforms are in fact, a tool which allow their owners and creators of content to directly translate the time we spend there into dollars, sterlings, euros or rubles – you name it.
With 6.4 million followers and the CHNGE fashion brand behind it, @feminist is most likely an extraordinary moneymaking machine. When I look for activism content, I don’t wish to be discreetly tricked into buying a t-shirt, no matter how sustainable it is or what share of the profit goes to good causes (“CHNGE donates 50% of their net profits to charitable organizations and has donated over $200,000 for the Black Lives Matter movement and $250,000 to other organization”, writes Cecilia Nguyen).
Effectively, in the broadest scheme of things, there is a contradiction between what @feminist is and what it touts. The whole idea behind feminism is rooted in equality across genders. And with money mostly equating ruling power in today’s world, oppressed groups and unheralded minorities should be equal within financial opportunities, right? However, now the feminist values are being cynically used as a selling point – exploiting the very communities it should empower. It is not just some guys trying to ‘relate’ on Instagram, this account is part of a much bigger problem, which is called femvertising, defined as the utilisation of inequalities for profit.
To put things short: every like, repost or follower on the @feminist account puts this money right back into the pocket of those already sat at the top of the patriarchal chain.
It was a smart marketing move from the side of the owners, but nonetheless, deceptive. This deceiving culture is capitalising on equality values and, turning the relatively new concept of educating more people about equal rights into big dollars, straight back into the pockets of cis men. Hence, the gap of equal rights education that we are trying to fill with social media cannot be fulfilled when we are being educated at the expense of supporting the very system designed for oppression.
I have to confess, for a long time I also followed that account. I got educated from it and I thought its content was really interesting. Unfortunately, there was very little activism or action that came out of my curiosity. There were a few things, however, that I could do though once I found out the truth.
First and foremost, I unfollowed it – this was an obvious move for me. Instead, I do my best to follow the accounts of these marginalised creators who do not get the credit they deserve (many of which @feminist tagged in their pictures). I also put extra consideration to know who I an actually following. There is very little transparency on the internet, but finding out who is profiting from activist accounts is the least any of us can do, and transparency seems to be the only answer to the intricate shallowness of social media communication – if one cannot find the owner of the account, I think that speaks for itself.
Finally, I try to follow those who care for equal representation and real diversity, and repost, like and share their posts. I am not deluded that that this will even make a dent in inequality, just like not eating meat won’t do much to help animal welfare and shopping locally will bring Amazon to its knees, but we all fight our own small battles, everyday. The formula is as simple as ever – do all you can, it is just a matter of motivation. And our generation, we have plenty of reasons to stay motivated.
Madrid, Spain | Moscow, Russia
Co-founder of Harbingers' Magazine
Born in 2003 in Moscow, Russia, Eva Smolokovskaya recently graduated from high school in Switzerland. She is interested in creative writing, science and social justice. At Harbingers’ Magazine, Eva edits the Culture section and writes about social justice. She is also the editor of the Harbingers’ Weekly Brief newsletter.