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Selfie Protests and the Creation of a Shared Sense of Identity

The post-lunch session at AoIR 2017 starts with Giovanni Boccia Artieri, whose interest is in the #selfieprotest phenomenon. Overall, online and social media platforms are playing an increasing role in protest movements, of course, and one of the challenges here is to find some of the boundaries of the public sphere that emerges through this, as well as to trace the dynamics of engagement in these spaces.

But such public spaces are not necessarily public spheres in conventional terms; rather, there are also tensions here between the public and the private, and a fluid transition between both, especially in social media environments. This can be seen as an evolutionary leap in mediated participation, as Nico Carpentier has argued.

Giovanni's work is focussing on a pop-up netnographic moment: the #selfieprotest hashtag, capturing something thought-provoking and insightful. The study focusses on four cases of selfie protests, in fact: #notamartyr, in December 2013; #wrinkledwoman, in May 2015; #strikethehike, in 2013, and #farmers4ALR, also in 2013.

#strikethehike was a Filipino protest against cost increases for public transport. Participants were invited to post photos of themselves protesting the hike. #notamartyr was a protest against a car bomb attack in Beirut: here, an innocent bystander had just taken a selfie with friends next to the car bomb, and was killed by it; the terrorists described him as a martyr, but social media users promoted the #notamartyr hashtag to counter their rhetoric, and posted photos of themselves holding up signs with #notamartyr in English and Arabic, as well as some additional personal messages.

Such protests are driven by a self-mediation logic of bearing witness; they are pop-up moments that enable us to investigate the relationship between self-representation, self-exposure, and online activism. This personalises politics and connects it to individual stories through expressive content. It places individual images within a collective frame.

A third case is the #farmers4ALR hashtag in Canada, protesting changes to agricultural land zoning. These farmers' selfies were dubbed 'felfies', and depicted the land as well as the lives of actual farmers; they enabled participants to transform themselves into digital objects in order to avoid a representation simply as producers of primary goods. This demonstrates the framing power of the selfie, by actively tapping into an established genre to create cultural signifiers.

#wrinkledwoman (and its Cyrillic equivalent), finally, was a protest against child marriages in parts of Russia, and saw women post unflattering images of themselves in response to sexist comments from Russian government authorities. Through this, participants linked up voluntarily with each other and created ad hoc publics, to make visible a sense of shared meaning, identity, and belonging.

This is a connective form of strategy to handle the tension between public and private spheres through the creation of ephemeral public spheres that can also be brought to the attention of the mass media. It enables participants to be seen in public for what they want to be, performing a common 'we' through coordinated by individual actions.