Turning lactivists’ tactics against them

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Want to enrage a lactivist? Turn their tactics against them.

Lactivists insisting that corporations profit from formula? Point out that lactation professionals make 100% of their income from promoting breastfeeding.

Lactivists boasting breastfeeding saves lives? Ask them why they can’t show term babies whose lives have been saved.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]This is just the beginning![/pullquote]

Lactivists waxing rhapsodic over the purported benefits of breastfeeding? Mention that exclusive breastfeeding has become the LEADING risk factor for newborn re-hospitalization.

All are variants of culture jamming, the practice of forcing people to question the status quo, in this case the unreflective and unscientific insistence that breast is best. Lactivists get so mad when they are culture jammed!

In order to turn their tactics against them, it helps to understand exactly how those tactics work. The paper Embodied Online Activism: Breastfeeding Activism (Lactivism) on Facebook is very helpful in that regard.

The author starts with history of the movement:

Grass-roots breastfeeding support used to be understood and studied as face-to-face support groups based on formal and informal peer support. Over the last ten years, with a growing importance of mediatised sociability and the creation of ‘digital mundane’ practices of daily interactions and constant connectivity, a new form of grass-roots mobilisation has emerged.

She reports on her study of lactivist Facebook groups:

We share pictures of ourselves breastfeeding our children (‘brelfies’), experiencing the pleasure and navigating the exposure this kind of sharing can bring, including anger and fear of charges of ‘indecency’. We can also be ‘vicariously traumatised’ by the experiences of others: death of a fellow member’s child, reports of neglect, abuse, illness or stories of birth trauma. The complexities of ‘translations’ of self into social media spaces are also premised on presence – being ‘on’ for the night feeds, tapping away to fellow night-feeders with one hand, whilst nursing a child. Presence in a group is therefore experienced and performed on a personal, intimate level, but also ‘done’ in public ways.

The Fed Is Best Foundation support groups have copied lactivists. Women share pictures of their healthy breastfed, formula fed or tube fed babies. Group members are traumatized by the experiences of women whose babies have been harmed by breastfeeding. Women provide each other with support at any time of the day or night.

Facebook breastfeeding groups are primarily spaces of support, in which informational and instrumental support are inextricably linked with affirmation and emotional support parents receive. The ‘knowledge base’ on breastfeeding – research on human milk and lactation – is used to learn to live as a breastfeeding body and turned by group members into practical, actionable know-how. Biomedical knowledge on breastfeeding is also used by lactivist to justify and defend the practice, bolstered by technologically-facilitated knowledge dissemination, using pictorial content and mediated connectivity, which allows for breastfeeding knowledge to be circulated quickly and efficiently.

Fed Is Best support groups as well as groups created by me and other feeding safety advocates offer support in which scientific evidence is inextricably linked with affirmation and emotional support.

Lactivists love memes:

One example of this is the stomach size meme, which ranks amongst the most frequently shared lactivist images, using comparisons with fruit, marbles, or sweets to visualise the size of a newborn infant’s stomach. Its widespread use in online forms of breastfeeding activism – in groups, but also by pages and blogs – attests to a synergy between content (easy to read, pictorial information) and its digital format (easy to duplicate, copy, forward, and Typically posted as a comment or relayed in a ‘PM’ (private message), the swiftness of reply and the ease of re-posting are crucial, if the information is to reach a person pressurised to use formula to supplement… As digital artefacts ‘memes’ are also manipulable – easy to adapt, edit and (re)produce in different linguistic versions, another aspect of importance across different contexts of lactivism.

Sadly, this lactivist meme is a lie based on a paper from 1921. Copious, contemporary scientific evidence shows that infant stomach capacity is far larger. Feeding safety advocates counter it with memes of our own.

I use memes daily for the same reason that lactivists use them: they’re easy to understand, share and adapt to specific situations. My memes have the added advantage of accurately representing the scientific literature.

But the heart of lactivist activism is “electronic contention.”

For example, alterations to ‘walls’ have been made easier through the ‘report a correction’ feature. Using this function lactivists blocked from commenting and engaging in debate on a ‘bingo’ wall repeatedly corrected the erroneous claims made in its public posts.

Similarly, the function of ‘rating’ business pages facilitates ‘negrating’, or negative rating of pages representing businesses deemed to be discriminating against breastfeeding women or expressing negative views on breastfeeding. A coordinated mass action, negrating involves posting negative ratings and reviews on the offender’s wall and bringing its rating down using Facebook’s star system. Negrating aims to negatively impact the reputation of an organisation (reputational damage).

Both of these direct and disruptive forms of action are perceived from within the movement as ‘defence’ and as an ‘adjustment’ or ‘corrective’ measure, but may be interpreted by the affected entities (and their followers) as a (coordinated) ‘attack’…

Feeding safety advocates are able to react to lactivist attacks by using their tactics against them: reporting comments, negrating and descending en masse on “offending” Facebook pages.

The ways in which such individual interventions are then multiplied through specific technological means by lactivists whose mutual allegiance grows out of a sense of commonality predicated on engagement in an embodied practice of breastfeeding, is equally important for understanding the role of embodiment in online activism. Actions which use social media technologies in similar ways, like metadata tagging to raise awareness of an issue (hashtags) or documentation of transgressions and harassment (hollabacks), are not uniquely lactivist and have been used across social media.

That’s why feeding safety advocates use them, too.

The Fed Is Best Foundation has begun copying lactivists’ offline actions, too. They purchased their first billboard to alert women to the dangers of insufficient breastmilk and offer them an opportunity to connect with the organization. The billboard was purchased with money from — among others — parents whose babies have been harmed. Lactivists have responded with shock and anger. How dare feeding safety advocates use the exact same tactics that lactivists have mobilized against them?

I’ve got news for lactivists: this is just the beginning!

Feeding safety advocates are watching lactivists and learning from them. Most importantly we have realized that if a lactivist tactic is effective against us, it will be equally effective when deployed against lactivists.