Abstract: From Grassroots Activism to Political Catfishing: The Promise and Perils of Giving Voice to Virtual Bodies (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

From Grassroots Activism to Political Catfishing: The Promise and Perils of Giving Voice to Virtual Bodies

Thursday, January 16, 2020
Congress, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Melissa Hardesty, PhD, Assistant Professor, State University of New York at Binghamton, Binghamton, NY

Self-photographs or “selfies” are a ubiquitous mode of self-representation made possible by advances in mass-marketed smartphones and global internet connectivity. In the selfie genre, people and the mundane activities and objects that comprise their daily lives are captured visually, made public, and marketized. Whether egregiously unfiltered or carefully staged, the self-focus of selfies has led critics to label them as narcissistic and apolitical (Burns 2015). Yet the very features of society that make mundane selfie expression possible—the relative cheapness of digital pictures versus film and access to a worldwide audience—have also been lauded for the potential to give voice to society’s most marginalized members and bolster democracy. The use of selfies for political purposes is on the upswing, among both public figures and grassroots activists. This study examines feminist and anti-feminist political selfies posted to two ideologically opposed social media campaigns. We consider the relationship between real life people and the digitally-mediated bodies that circulate through cyberspace in the form of political selfies and ask the following questions: 1. What rhetorical work is accomplished by juxtaposing a digital image of the body with a written political message?, and 2. What are the benefits and pitfalls of using digital photographs and the internet to voice political opinions?


Our analysis is based on content from two competing social media campaigns, Who Needs Feminism? and Women Against Feminism. We downloaded all political selfies posted to each campaign’s tumblr page between April 2012 and June 2015, then sorted the pictures according to their compositional features. We considered type of picture used and the relationship between the picture and the written political message.


Drawing on Anthony Giddens, who used the concept of disembedding to describe how social relations under modernity are increasingly dislocated from the particularities of time and space that characterize in-person interactions (1990), we describe selfies as a mode of disembedded embodiment. Disembedding makes it possible to assemble a mass of protesting bodies without the constraints of geography and simultaneity required for in-person protest. Both selfie campaigns amassed digital bodies for political purposes; both required internet audiences to assume that political selfies stand in for flesh and blood actors offline. Yet, several compositional features of political selfies—captions, photoshopping, and production quality—prompted us to consider how their material production troubles the genre of self-representation. Selfies mark a material/physical break between the real life political subject and the digital artifact that circulates online. The selfie subject’s digital body can be appropriated by an infinite audience of humans and bots, and made to speak things its real-life counterpart never uttered or intended. Alternatively, the selfie subject may be entirely fictional.

Conclusions & Implications

Disembedding makes political selfies an effective tool for shaping and amplifying political voice, but it also renders them susceptible to co-optation and manipulation. The break between digital and actual person achieved by disembedding troubles the ontology of voice, making it difficult to discern whom or what a selfie really represents.