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The Power of Social Media Nigeria's Changing Feminist Movement

In January 5, 2019 Rahaf Mohammed opened a Twitter handle, @rahaf84427714, and sent a tweet stating that she was running from her family who were trying to send her back to Saudi Arabia. Rahaf, who is 18, barricaded herself in a hotel room inside Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, during a family vacation, in order to prevent her forced return to a family she claimed would kill her. Following Rahaf’s tweet, which was translated from Arabic to English by Egyptian-American author, Mona Eltahawy (@monaeltahawy), the Twitter hashtag #SaveRahaf gained widespread support. In a meeting with Thai officials, the Saudi Arabian chargé d’affaires in Bangkok, Mr. Al-Shuaibi, stated that Rahaf ‘opened a Twitter account and her followers grew to 45000 within one day. It would have been better if they confiscated her cell phone instead of her passport because Twitter changed everything’.

This statement, intended as criticism, encapsulates, nonetheless, the potential of social media in the feminist movement. Almost instantly, Rahaf’s tweet went viral and Rahaf received protection from the United Nations in Thailand with Australia agreeing to grant her asylum if the UN found her claims true. Since then, Canada verified her claims and, subsequently, granted her asylum. Moreover, following Rahaf’s tweet and the international reaction to her predicament, many women in Saudi Arabia have been highlighting the experiences of women in similar circumstances to Rahaf’s.

The Saudi experience illustrates the potential of social media in shedding light on feminist issues in ways hitherto considered impossible by traditional media. With social media, people can now quickly share and highlight stories and even provide solutions that, in the past, might have arrived too late. Now, with a smartphone and access to the Internet, everyone who has a story to tell or an opinion can make it heard.

As daughters of a protective father, when we were younger, my sister and I were sent to a Federal Government girls college at a remote town in eastern Nigeria. Our school principal, a formidable lady, imbibed in us the axiom that ‘ladies are seen before they are heard’. In order to enforce this belief on the student body, the school imposed a rule prohibiting any kind of ‘talk’, (whispers or otherwise) until after breakfast. Essentially, from 5.30 a.m., when the rising bell rang, till 8.00 a.m., when the bell signalling the end of breakfast rang, no talking was allowed in the school by the young ‘ladies in the making’.

The foregoing illustrates how women are indoctrinated with the notion that their voices are not meant to be heard; that they have nothing worth saying; and that even if their arguments are valid, it can only be understood when explained by a man (a practice, these days, known as ‘mansplaining’). However, social media creates a sense of community for women as it relates to feminist issues. It forges what Lauren Berlent calls a temporary ‘intimate public’—a collective digital space where women who share ‘viewpoints’ come together virtually—of solidarity as women with like-minded thoughts, experience and stories seek to educate others about the meaning of feminism. Reading about other women’s experiences lets women know they are not alone in whatever situation. In this way, social media has a galvanizing impact vis-à-vis feminist issues. Followers or members of a social media community on either Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp etc. develop feelings of connectedness with others on a particular issue (often by using hashtags) and finding a kind of kinship in shared experiences, meanings or beliefs.

On October 15, 2017, American actress, Alyssa Milano, encouraged victims of the sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations against the American film producer, Harvey Weinstein, to tweet #MeToo in order to ‘give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem’. This tweet popularized the #MeToo hashtag developed by American civil rights activist, Tarana Burke, and led to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. The hashtag went viral in October 2017, highlighting the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment particularly in the workplace. In essence, creating an ‘intimate public’.

Milano tweeted the phrase ‘#MeToo’ around noon on October 15, 2017 and by the end of the day, the phrase had been used more than 200,000 times. By the next day, the phrase had been tweeted more than 500,000 times. On Facebook, the hashtag was used by more than 4.7 million people in 12 million posts during the first 24-hour period. Tens of thousands of people, including hundreds of celebrities, replied to #MeToo with their stories including male actors, Terry Crews and James Van Der Beek.

The Me Too hashtag has led to continued discussions on sexual harassment and abuse across the globe. The movement has also led to open discussions and action on pay differences and improving sexual harassment policies. For example, Iceland recently passed the Equal Pay Certification law; the US Congress has also considered and passed a Member and Employee Training and Oversight on Congress Act (ME TOO Congress Act), which prohibits the use of taxpayers’ money to settle sexual harassment or assault allegations by members of Congress. Since that first tweet in October 2017, the #MeToo movement has morphed beyond social media, providing resources to victims for healing and open discussions about sexual abuse. The movement has also enabled prosecution of offenders such as the case of the US Gymnastics team, as well as advocacy for change in laws and policies surrounding sexual assault and harassment.

It could be said that the #MeToo movement is the most high-profile movement against sexual assault and harassment in recent times. However, it is not the only movement against sexual harassment around the globe. In 2017, following a sexual assault in Bengaluru, India, a group of young people organized the #IWillGoOut campaign. In a paper in the Journal of Gender and Development, Divya Titus, one of the leaders of the campaign revealed that the #IWillGoOut campaign was triggered by the comments of two politicians blaming victims for the sexual assault. In response to these comments, Titus sent a Facebook message to ten friends asking them to join her in a petition that sought to demand a public apology from the politicians and draw attention to sexual assault in India. The message gained a strong response and, within days, the thread expanded to 200 people. A Facebook page and website were created, attracting supporters from across India. This online movement culminated in offline action on January 21, 2017 when more than 30 events and marches happened across India. Thus, through Facebook, the community of young Indian feminists organized and coordinated marches in different cities.

Not to be left out, in December 2018, a group of young Nigerians came together to organize the #YabaMarch, which sought to highlight the sexual harassment experienced by Nigerian women who visit the Yaba Market in Lagos. Following the march and the backlash the protestors faced, many visitors to the market reported a change. This led to calls from women across Nigeria for a similar march in their cities.

ON THE HASHTAG

From the three foregoing examples, it seems clear that feminist movements see the power of the hashtag as a galvanizing tool. A hashtag is a type of metadata tag used in social networks to allow users to apply dynamic, user-generated tagging which makes it possible for other users to easily find messages with a specific theme or content. The use of the hashtag was first proposed by Chris Messina in a 2007 tweet as a means to sort information. Since then, it has grown into a user discourse convention that enables people to provide context, meaning and emotion in their tweets or social media shares. Since its first use in 2007, the hashtag has spread to other social media and is used as a means for people to highlight new information, draw attention to issues or find others who share their viewpoint. The hashtag helps to send targeted and tailored messages to their imagined audience to either whip up emotion, spur social or political change or seek audience approval or a following; a sense of camaraderie.

The use of hashtags to stir up emotion gained currency after hashtags were widely used in tweets relating to the 2007 San Diego forest fires in Southern California. In many other instances, the hashtag has served as a galvanizing tool for the otherwise voiceless, allowing such groups to effectively disseminate messages in a way and at a speed otherwise impossible with traditional media. During the Arab Spring—the series of anti-government uprisings that occurred in 2011 in the Gulf region—activists used social media to organize and plan efforts that evolved into a revolution. Social media also played a role as a real-time reporting device as government blocked journalists from reporting the story or provided limited access to the Internet. As a 2012 study by Zeynep Tufeku of the University of North Carolina and Christopher Wilson of the United Nations Development Program revealed, the protesters used Facebook to organize protests and spread awareness. Social media platforms provided new sources of information that the governing regimes could not easily control and thus, social media was crucial in shaping how citizens made individual decisions about participating in protests, the logistics of protests and likelihood of success.

Thus, social media platforms have enabled a new crop of tech-savvy activists to emerge, energizing people through personal stories in a bid to create shared experiences and a sense of camaraderie. These stories may have remained untold or fallen on deaf ears without the power of the hashtag to make their tweets and their photos or videos reach a level of readership or virality hitherto unimaginable. In a similar sense, social media has become a virtual feminist community, a place where women can organize, discuss and criticize cultural happenings. Moreover, it enables women to identify people who share their embodiment of feminist ideas, and who, for several reasons, they may have difficulty finding in physical spaces.

HASHTAG FEMINISM

Considering the power of the hashtag and social media in stirring up emotion and providing a platform for the voiceless, it is not surprising that the feminist movement has embraced the medium. Social media seems to have created a new wave of feminism with its most powerful weapon being the hashtag, giving rise to what is popularly described as ‘Hashtag Feminism’. More so, social media has democratized feminist activism, opening up participation to anyone with a social media account and a desire to fight sexism, patriarchy and misogyny. By removing the barriers of distance and geography, social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp etc. have made activism easier than ever by facilitating public dialogues and creating a platform for awareness and (potential) change.

According to University of Bradford’s Professor Abigail Locke, ‘When women speak out, they continue to suffer attack, disparagement and abuse and social media has exacerbated this, given it a new profile. But social media opens up possibilities also and a new generation of women are speaking out on social media. It is providing a new space for feminism; for speaking out and connecting. #MeToo is an expression of this’.

Tara L Conley, founder of HashtagFeminism.com says that she first began to notice the power of feminist hashtags on Twitter in 2013. In a Huffington Post interview, she said ‘Twitter had been a contentious and transformative space for feminist discourse. There are still folks out there whose day job it is to demonize feminists/feminism—most of whom hide Twitter eggs. But I also know that if it weren’t for hashtags like #YouOkSis, #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, #WhyIStayed, #RapeCultureIsWhen, #FreeMarissa, all of the #IStandWith tags, and tags that called attention to the deaths of black women like #RenishaMcBride and #SandraBland and all those under the #SayHerName tag—we would likely be having very different public conversations or worse, no conversation’.

Using tweets or WhatsApp groups/shares or Facebook updates or YouTube videos, activists have been able to shape and co-ordinate conversations and protests about women’s issues and feminism with unprecedented impact. For example, #Fem2 was one of the earliest feminist hashtags to gain popularity on Twitter. The hashtag, meaning ‘feminism 2.0’, is generally used to tag interesting articles or conversations about the future of feminism. According to HashtagFeminism.com, the hashtag was first used in 2008 by Twitter user @blogdiva and later popularized by Niambi Jervis (@hiyaahpower).

In 2014, the #YesAllWomen hashtag sprang up on Twitter in response to a killing spree in Isla Vista California, near the University of California, Santa Barbara. On May 23, 2014, Elliot Rodgers, a self-identified Incel killed 6 people and injured 14 others before killing himself. Incels, a portmanteau of involuntary celibates, are members of an online subculture who define themselves as unable to find a romantic or social partner despite desiring one, a state they describe as inceldom. Rodgers claimed that his motivation for killing was revenge against women for rejecting his sexual advances. He left behind a 137-page manifesto and a YouTube video detailing his involuntary celibacy and describing how he wanted revenge for being rejected by women. This motivated women worldwide to share their experiences with violence and abuse, creating a virtual record of 1.5 million stories in just four days. The hashtag proved a uniting movement for women against violence and oppression.

The same year, #BringBackOurGirls trended worldwide as people around the world raised awareness of the 276 Nigerian schoolgirls that had been kidnapped by Boko Haram. The movement brought the kidnapping into international limelight and prompted many celebrities, including former United States first lady, Michelle Obama, to ask the Nigerian government to intervene.

By accommodating and explaining a wide range of women’s experiences with hashtag feminism, social media leads to a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of feminism. Hashtag feminism also offers a potential for what Patricia Hill Collins calls ‘safe spaces’, for women in the digital sphere where they can be exclusionary in a protected sense while aiming for greater societal inclusion.

Kitsy Dixon notes that hashtag feminism offers a voice for a variety of feminism and, in so doing, is redefining ‘the ways we view the activist component of feminism in our present society’. She notes that hashtag feminism has created a virtual space where victims of inequality can co-exist together in an environment that acknowledges their pain, narrative and isolation. This allows individual women from a variety of feminism strands to craft messages that legitimize their own experiences. There is some privilege inherent in intimate publics and for a feeling of empowering camaraderie to exist, women must be able to find their own ‘safe spaces’ within the larger feminist discourse. Sometimes, these spaces must exclude other groups of women to be truly inclusive of the subset of women who are affected by the experience the hashtag describes. For example, the story of hashtag feminism in Nigeria is markedly different from that of other parts of the world as Nigerian feminists have unique experiences which affect them and might be foreign to other groups.

HASHTAG FEMINISM IN NIGERIA

Just like in other parts of the world, Nigerian feminists are increasingly relying on social media and the hashtag to pass their messages across. With the spread of social media, Nigerian feminists have been able to highlight a number of issues such as the rape of minors, sexual molestation in universities, marital rape, gender fluidity, rape culture, sexual assault and molestation, consent, gender pay gap, sexuality, and the elimination of patriarchy and misogyny.

In her now globally recognized TED X talk, ‘We All Should be Feminists’, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called for citizens around the world to understand the necessity and significance of feminism. In Nigeria, her speech started a fiery discussion on social media with many condemning her views and others using it as an opportunity to talk about feminism. In 2015, an Abuja-based book club meeting led by Florence Warmate met to discuss the book version of Adichie’s TED speech. The group of about 15 women ended up sharing their challenges and experiences as women living in Nigeria. By lunchtime the following day, the Warmate Book Club decided to create and put out the hashtags #BeingFemaleInNigeria and #BeingAWomanInNigeria, asking women to share and highlight first-hand the stories of sexism and patriarchy in Nigeria. The response was overwhelming. Thousands of Nigerian women joined in the conversation.

For example, on June 30, 2015, ‘frida kahlo’ (@wildfeminine_) tweeted, ‘My grandmother had to sleep with her husband’s corpse for three days to prove she didn’t kill him #BeingFemaleInNigeria’. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie also sparked a discussion about feminism and gender roles following her Facebook post, ‘Dear Ijeawele or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions’. The Manifesto, made up of more than 9000 words, is a letter response to a request from a friend, Ijeawele, who had just given birth to a daughter and asked Chimamanda for advice on how to raise her as a feminist. Chimamanda’s suggestions were timely—a venture into the world of Nigerian Twitter or Facebook, reveals topics, ‘Feminism’ and ‘cooking’ are often controversial and lend to discourse that ranges from ‘who has the responsibility to cook?’ to ‘how much should a man give to his woman or should a woman spend on cooking a sumptuous pot of soup’?

Issues such as ‘cooking’, ‘changing one’s name after marriage’, ‘menstrual hygiene’, ‘child marriage’ and other issues affecting women are discussed extensively on social media. But, in Nigeria, feminist online activism does not just raise awareness, it has generated tangible results too. Social media backlash against certain injustices has resulted in open discussions about taboo topics and has meant, in some cases, a call to action. These cases include but are not limited to:

#JusticeForOchanya

In 2018, social media was shocked by the story of 13-year-old Ochanya Obaje Elizabeth. Elizabeth was raped multiple times by Andrew Ogbuja—a lecturer at the Benue State Polytechnic and a member of the Order of Knights of Saint Mulumba—and his son, Victor, for 5 years. This caused her to develop Vesicovaginal fistula (VVF) and other health complications and, ultimately, led to her death in October 2018. Twitter circulated pictures of the alleged rapists and called for the necessary authorities to act using #JusticeForOchanya. A number of Nigerians signed the #JusticeForOchanya petition on the I Take Action platform and the petition was taken to the Nigerian police and the Nigerian Human Rights Commission. The order of the Knights of Saint Mulumba also publicly suspended Andrew from its organization.

#SexForMarks

The sex-for-marks scandal involved Professor Richard Akindele, a lecturer of Obafemi Awolowo University, whose telephone conversation in which he demanded five rounds of sex from a female student for better marks was recorded and released on social media. This was followed by public uproar, which led to the professor’s suspension. Almost immediately, the incident started a discussion under the hashtag, #SexForMarks, with victims of similar experiences telling their stories on social media.

#WeWillNotBeSilent

Sometime in 2018, young Nigerians took to social media with alarming stories of assault and rape. This motivated Tamilore Bamidele to set up the, ‘We Will Not Be Silent Lagos’ programme. On their Instagram page, their mission is to:

‘…push forward educating both boys and girls, inside and outside of schools on the topic of consent and other areas to do with sexual assault. We are starting with trying to reach out to schools to allow us come in and give talks and seminars and then hopefully it will become a matter of urgency to them and they will implement it into the school system and give regular classes on these areas. We can not do anything without public support so we please urge every single one of you to spread awareness as much as you can. We will be posting regular updates on events and other things happening so stay tuned!’

The ‘We Will Not Be Silent Nigeria’ movement aims to educate boys and girls about sex and consent from a young age. According to the movement, many Nigerian men have been allowed to grow up believing that they are entitled to women’s bodies, and schools and parents do not tell them otherwise. Instead of sex being a taboo topic, they argue it should be something openly discussed, in order to avoid the frequency of assaults.

Hashtag feminism in Nigeria—and social media in general—provides an opportunity for Nigerian women and feminists anywhere to organize around a common cause. This was particularly evident on Saturday, December 15, 2018, when some women under the aegis of the movement, Market March, gathered to protest the incessant harassment—ranging from touching and invasion of personal space to forceful pulling and insults from traders—female shoppers face at the Yaba and Tejuoso markets.

Since then, the protest has gained the attention of a number of influential figures including the flagbearer of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the forthcoming 2019 Lagos gubernatorial elections, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu. For the time being, the protest can be said to have gained some dividends as recent visitors to the market have testified that the traders seem to have adopted a different approach in dealing with female visitors to the markets. A Twitter user, ‘Janey Baby’ (@Janette_), thanked the convener of the march saying, ‘Oh. Went through Yaba today with my sister. As usual Yaba men started approaching us ‘buy jeans, buy shirt’. Then one of them stopped & said ‘no touch them oh’ then they stayed away. Fam, the feeling was so good, I almost shed a tear!! Thank you everyone & @MarketMarch!!’

Movements like Market March show that hashtag activism can be effective at not only creating awareness but also persuading policymakers and influential people to take action and condemn social issues that glorify patriarchy and misogyny. For instance, in 2014, responding to Boko Haram’s abduction of 276 young girls from Chibok Borno State, Twitter user Ibrahim M. Abdullahi quoted the former Minister of Education, Obiageli Ezekwesili in tweeting the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag. Using the hashtag, the Bring Back Our Girls movement has grown, and its members are still advocating for the return of the remaining girls. At the peak of the movement, two former First Ladies of the USA (Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton) and other influential celebrities came out to support the group, forcing the Nigerian government to take action.

Indeed, social media activism alone will not solve the problems women face in Nigeria. And while social Media activism may never fully replace traditional activism, it can amplify the voices to those who are otherwise silenced. It elevates the voice of one person with a social media account to a story worth telling, no matter where that person is located, what groups they are affiliated with or the resources they have.

INTERSECTIONALITY AND NIGERIAN FEMINISM

Intersectionality, the term first coined by American professor, Kimberlé Crenshaw, in 1989, challenges the monopolization of US feminist discourse by white, middle-class women by recognizing that some women experience oppression beyond sexism. The term recognizes the immense diversity of women’s experiences across gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, ethnicity, class, disability, and other forms of social group membership. To take an intersectional approach to feminism, therefore, is to acknowledge the existence of multiple dimensions of oppression and to invest in analysing the ways in which various structures of power intersect to produce systems of interlocking oppressions and privileges.

In the Nigerian feminist movement, intersectionality manifests itself in a number of ways. In addition to navigating between global feminist concepts and practices, the ways in which class, sexuality, disability, age, and other categories of identity intersect with gender equality amongst the various tribes, ethnic groups and religious practices (whether Islam, Christianity, traditional religious practices or atheism) in Nigeria are regularly highlighted in Nigerian feminist practice. Poverty, insurgency, human rights violations as well as miseducation and corruption shape the experiences Nigerian feminists face. These experiences include ‘submission’ of wives to husbands, gender roles, rape culture, ownership of property, treatment of widows or the girl child, and the inheritance of property.

In Nigeria, internal differences between tribes, religious affiliations, sexual orientation and socio-economic status intersect to shape Nigerian feminism on social media. For example, in 2017, Amasa Firdaus, a graduate of the university of Ilorin was barred by the Council of Legal Education of the Nigerian Law School from being called to the bar, for insisting that as a Muslim, it is her constitutional right to wear her hijab together with the wig and gown. Her experience, which has since 2018 been resolved (she was called to bar in July 2018 and wore her hijab), started the #EndDiscrimationAgainstHijab and #IStandWithFirdaus hashtags in Nigeria.

The experiences of the Nigerian LGBTQ community must also be taken into consideration when discussing Nigerian feminism. On March 2017, in an interview with the UK’s Channel 4 News, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, ‘When people talk about, “are trans women women?” My feeling is trans women are trans women. I think the whole problem of gender in the world is about our experiences. It is not about how we wear out hair or whether we have a vagina or a penis. It’s about the way the world treats us and I think if you have lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender, it is difficult for me to accept that we can equate your experiences with the experiences of a woman who has lived from the beginning as a woman and who has not been accorded those privilege that men are’.

For obvious reasons, Adichie’s comments offended LGBTQ communities across and beyond Nigeria. Nigerian trans activist, Miss Sahara, founder of TransValid.org responded saying, ‘I get a lot of online messages from Nigerian trans girls who are there [in Nigeria] now and they find it so difficult. A nightmare. There’s no male privilege for trans women in Africa’.

Clearly, Nigeria is a melting pot of ethnic, linguistic and religious differences. As such, approaches to feminist issues and realities are different and structured by cultural and religious beliefs and experiences. In a similar manner, the experiences of Nigerian women (online or otherwise) are not homogenous, as women’s worldviews vary based on socioeconomic status, education, cultural differences, religious differences and other factors.

LIMITATIONS TO HASHTAG FEMINISM IN NIGERIA

Hashtag feminism has the potential to unite women across Nigeria and, at least, to pave the way for real social impact. It offers a substantially lower barrier for women to participate in activism. But using social media to raise awareness and emphasize a need for safe spaces also has its own weaknesses. Many women who would benefit from the empowerment and messages and support of hashtag feminism have no access to it because of limited financial resources, Internet access and digital literacy. As of 2018, only 43.1 per cent of Nigerians have access to the Internet. As long as these socioeconomic divides continue to exist, it might be difficult or even impossible for people affected by patriarchy, sexism and misogyny to actually have the opportunity to share their stories or experiences on social media.

Furthermore, while hashtags may foster community among feminists, in a virtual space it is more difficult to decipher whether participants are truly passionate about a cause. This leavies women open to online harassment, hate speech and even violence. ‘Bots’, for instance, may be created for the sole purpose of harassing women. Essentially, sharing a hashtag may suggest a false ‘intimate public’, one that does not really exist, or one that exists but lacks a shared context and history among its participants to be truly viable. Kitsy Dixon notes that despite online communities on Twitter and Facebook being identified as ‘safe spaces’ for discussing feminism, social media presents opportunities for online harassment, hate speech, disagreements and miscommunication in discourse. In some instances, victims of patriarchy or misogyny have been bullied online after sharing their stories and at such intensity that some have committed suicide.

Equally, a hashtag may become a mere tool of ‘slacktivism’, a combination of slacker and activism that has been applied more generally to insincere actions on social media, such as merely ‘retweeting’ or ‘liking’ a post, signing an online petition or forwarding letters or videos about an issue, without—despite being able to—doing more.

Despite its mixed results, social media campaigns have proven effective at raising awareness around issues. Nonetheless, Hashtag feminism campaigns are unlikely to succeed unless they spark the attention of mainstream media. So, even a vigorous hashtag campaign on Twitter may reach very few women actually facing oppression or do little to change those women’s lives. Hashtag feminism enables women to define their own protests, to give a voice to their social movement and to circumvent traditional media in a drive for political and social justice. However, Nigerian women must connect the hashtag to larger discourse modes about the oppression of women. Women must not be satisfied with merely forming an intimate public online that raises awareness yet generates little real change. They must continue the movement outside social media and include mainstream media. The hashtag is, indeed, a stepping stone to empowerment and equality. But, to complete the circle of awareness the hashtag starts, Nigerian feminists must connect their activism to real world protests like the #MarketMarch. They must not just like and click and share a hashtag. They must push for changes in laws. They must fight for equality and be intersectional in their feminism. They must connect the hashtag they retweet and share to larger issues of women’s protection and abuse. We must write to our lawmakers and push and protest to affect change. We must run for office and devise means to support like-minded candidates who share our goals