Newswise — BINGHAMTON, N.Y. – Feminist and anti-feminist social media posts can easily be altered to advance political agendas, according to a new study conducted by faculty at Binghamton University, State University of New York.

“Our digital bodies can also be easily stolen and used to voice ideas that our real-life bodies never would,” said Melissa Hardesty, assistant professor of social work at Binghamton University. “In online interactions, we can also be duped by the repurposed bodies of others. One cannot spot a feminist or anti-feminist by looking at a picture of her.”

Hardesty, along with Caterina Gironda, a researcher and program manager at Founders Concerned About AIDS; and Erin P. Belleau, hospice clinical social worker with Duke University Health System, looked for discrepancies between feminist and anti-feminist selfies. Political selfies aim to stimulate online conversation. In this study, political selfies were those taken by an individual or by another person. These always have a political statement attached.

“The most common composition is a person holding a sign with a political statement written on it,” Hardesty said. “To my knowledge, there is not an agreed-upon definition of political selfies.”

The research consisted of gathering social media posts from feminist and anti-feminist users on Tumblr. Tumblr’s archive function gave them access to all of their users’ posts on a month-by-month basis.

“We started by thematically coding the written content of the posts, but I realized that we were reducing data that was ultimately visual to the written word and losing important information in the process,” Hardesty said. “We switched strategies and started analyzing selfies using visual criteria.”

As a result, Hardesty said that navigating social media platforms should be done carefully.

“There is fake and dubious content online,” she said. “I think digital profiles on social media have created a crisis of knowledge that threatens our democratic institutions.”

The misinterpretation of these posts is harmful because political selfies have a real impact on politics, said Hardesty.

“Real political activism is happening in online spaces, and it has an impact on offline reality,” Hardesty said. “I think there is a sense that social media activism is not real activism. Whatever people think of online activism, it is happening, and it is changing our politics and our reality.”

For Hardesty, social media gives everyday people the platform to exchange their ideas and engage in dialogue across political beliefs.

“Social media profiles and pictures give non-famous people the tools to cultivate an online persona and broadcast their voices to large audiences in ways that feel agentive and authentic,” Hardesty said. “These political selfies create solidarity using a mode of individual self-expression.”

The paper, This is what a #Feminist, #Antifeminist Looks Like? Political Selfies and the Paradox of Giving Voice to Virtual Bodies,” was published in Project MUSE. It will be published in the print journal Feminist Formations in summer 2020.

SEE ORIGINAL STUDY