Social media has lured us all into a 'popularity trap'. We thought we were transforming democracy, but we are not. Paola Pierri makes the case for a politics of presence in the digital age. This, she argues, needs to advance the visibility of marginalised identities, not their popularity
In our digital political landscape, thanks to the use of social media platforms, hashtags and visuals, contemporary movements and their identities seem to have become more visible than ever. On the surface, this appears to be a positive shift, towards a more inclusive and successful politics of presence.
Yet this is not the case. Social movements, different identities and multiple voices may be more popular, but that's not the same thing as being more visible. Popularity, unfortunately, does not give these groups more agency over democratic transformations.
Within a politics of presence, the identities and their markers of gender, dis/abilities, etc of elected representatives in public assemblies are a key democratic concern. The central question is how and whether these assemblies display the diversity of the electorate. The identity politics of social movements also advances the visibility of marginalised identities, a crucial element of the politics of presence. From this perspective, who we are, and to what extent our identities are visible, become metrics for the quality of our democracies.
The politics of presence originated in the 1990s, when popular use of the internet was just emerging. Today, in digital politics, the issue of visibility takes on a whole new meaning.
Economies of visibility deal in popularity, while the politics of visibility deals in recognition and equity
Following Sarah Banet-Weiser, we should distinguish between a politics of visibility, which aims at reaching recognition and equity and other political objectives, and economies of visibility, in which visibility is an end in itself. In these economies, visibility is a new currency that is highly valued, in demand and delivered through digital media platforms and their logic. Economies of visibility deal in popularity, while the politics of visibility deals in recognition and equity.
Visibility in a digitised society requires access to data about certain groups. But data does not exist about everyone, for the same purpose and in the same ways. Many people are becoming increasingly concerned about data collection and digital surveillance – and rightly so!
However, the other side of the coin is often neglected. As Stefania Milan and Emiliano Treré argue, in datafied societies,
data poverty constitutes a dangerous form of invisibility which perpetuates various forms of inequalityStefania Milan and Emiliano Treré, social media + society
These new forms of poverty lead to the invisibilisation of certain groups and communities.
During the pandemic, for instance, the government failed to collect the data of many groups, including undocumented migrants, refugees, sex workers and others working in precarious and unofficial jobs. These groups did not get access to care, vaccines, or adequate protection.
Carolina Criado-Perez demonstrates how women have been made invisible because of what she calls a 'gender-data gap'. From government policies to medical research and testing to the design of new technologies, in all these fields data is collected unevenly among distinct groups. It is usually women who are marginalised. The bias of designing for the ‘default’ man results in a lack of data about women (and other groups). This, in turn, excludes women from services and products.
These new ‘data poor’ suffer from new forms of exclusion that are, paradoxically, caused by the high visibility of our era. The present era is not simply about more, but about more unequal visibility; the result of a quest for popularity through digital infrastructures. But this is not the only issue at stake.
To describe the new wave of digital feminism from the ‘Me too’ movement onwards, Sarah Banet-Weiser introduces the concept of popular feminism.
There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be popular. But popularity within a market economy-driven digital infrastructure can be problematic. If the popularity metrics become the only reference to understanding the politics of presence or to measuring success of social movements in making their voice heard, then our hope to advance recognition and justice though visibility might suffer.
Popular feminism explains a paradoxical trend. At the very same time as women’s protests become more visible, misogynism and illiberal movements are on the rise, too.
This happens because as feminist activists develop strategies to maximise their visibility, they inadvertently end up feeding the same algorithmic logic that is amplifying misogyny online. Social media algorithms are designed to amplify clicks, views and likes. This is the currency of popularity.
As a result, highly emotional and polarising content gets amplified, while substantial, reflective, and complex content is invisibilised. So, while popular feminism ‘actively’ uses these logics to become more visible, popular misogyny only needs to act ‘reactively’ to benefit from the same visibility in return. This algorithmic polarisation leads to the identity wars Hans Asenbaum describes in his foundational post for this series.
Speaking about her book Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny, Banet-Weiser argues:
For every Tumblr page dedicated to female body positivity, there were fat-shaming and body-shaming online comments. For every confidence organisation for girls, there was yet another Men’s Rights Organisation claiming that men are the ‘real’ victimssarah banet-weiser
In short, the increased visibility gained through digital means works both ways. We certainly see more feminist action and more diversity online, but we also see misogyny, racism, and white supremacy. This is not by chance but an inherent part of the digital media logic.
If we aim to forge new forms of resistance and transform democracies, we need to move beyond popularity that is built into the corporate logics of social media platforms.
As scholars, activists, and citizens, we need to critically analyse these new digital media logics and learn to differentiate between popularity and visibility. To expand and transform democracy, we need more visibility. Popularity (alone) won’t help!