02 Aug 2021 Reclaiming a feminist digital public sphere from the margins
By Deepti Bharthur and Ankita Aggarwal
“Because of the greatness of our city, the fruits of the whole earth flow in upon us,” proclaimed Pericles, one of the founding figures of the Athenian democratic city-state. In a eulogy for the fallen soldiers of the Peloponnesian war, he extols the virtues of the ancient democratic Greek city state. Pericles’ words and its modern day variations are often read as a call to the positive openness that democracy begets to us through its institutions and principles, including that of public discourse and dialogue.
Indeed, no other social and political tenet, is as celebrated or as dear to the liberal democratic project as that of the communicative – the freedom, means and the opportunity for individuals to engage in rational and meaningful dialogue that collectively elevates the state of discourse and thereby democracy itself.
The current online public sphere is, however, a far cry from such aspirations. Social media platforms have altered the architecture of the digital and by extension the nature of the communicative public sphere. The internet that once resembled an endless, rambling cabinet of curiosities in hyperlinks and web pages, has been transformed into a datafied algorithmic ecosystem. Like Ouroboros, the mythical snake that cannibalistically chases after its own tail, this planetary-scale content engine incessantly feeds from its virality, pursuing an endless quest for algorithmic optimization and advertising revenue.
Beyond social media’s structural antecedents, a deep-seated crisis of confidence and stability is unfolding within the public sphere. The post-truth phenomenon has firmly lodged itself as a given of discursive relations. The result: a multiverse of political realities and alternative facts that ricochet within echo chambers, exacerbating polarization, ably weaponized through sophisticated data-based tactics.
Political philosopher Martha Nussbaum has pointed to the absence of cultivated emotional capacity to understand and deliberate meaningfully with those we differ from as a structural problem that inevitably short-fuses any process of rational debate and exchange. This fundamental barrier leaves the public sphere an always-flawed idea, an essentially rational project that must constantly grapple with the inherent irrationality of current discourse where communicative action is primarily targeted towards the emotive triggers.
Given this, the “marketplace of ideas” model of governance for free speech fails spectacularly not only because it overwhelmingly and erroneously relies on an inherent belief in the power of reason over that of irrational sentiment, prejudice and bias but also because it is completely skewed in favour of powerful actors of state and market. Platforms, corporations, and state machinations possess disproportionate voice and reach when compared to that of the ordinary citizen, much less the marginally located citizen, individual, or community. These are challenges that the communication rights movement struggles to address today.
The public sphere’s erosion connects to a larger crisis of democracy itself. Growing anger at the social and economic failures of neoliberal globalization has combined with backlash against the gains of the progressive movement to give resurgence to populist and narrow forms of nationalism. Indeed, the democratic ethos struggles to make up for lost footholds today. What we are witnessing is a “post-democratic phase” of the capitalist polity, which, in turn, has given rise to the transitional and “unstable post-public sphere.1
The frictions in this unstable communicative space have particularly impacted how gender justice issues break into public consciousness, how they are constructed, deliberated, and progressed upon. The evolution of feminist discourses from the peripheries of the digital to a more mainstream positioning and politics, a history that has almost run parallel to the devolution of the online ecosystem provides a useful lens within which to understand how alternative spaces and publics can emerge from the margins to shape new and powerful discourses, introduce and “mainstream” the progressive agenda. Beyond the celebratory narrative however, examining these spaces critically, also surface the inevitable associated vulnerabilities to co-option, dilution as well as backlash that such mainstreaming brings with. Even for those who manage to avoid the trap, challenges persist in ensuring relevance and impact in a punishing digital attention economy, while combatting a public sphere that is disrupted and hostile.
Tracing feminist discourses from the margins to the mainstream
Feminist communicative spaces have always existed and thrived on the margins, producing substantive writing, debate, and dialogue through various alternative media including newspapers, pamphlets and “zines”. This legacy carried on in the online space in the mid 2000s with blogs. The pre-platform internet gave rise to a “feminist blogosphere” and what is popularly described as third wave feminism. Feminist blogs, admittedly, mostly North American and European such as Feministe, Feministing, Broadsheet, Bitch PhD, the F-word and many more arose in this period.
This third wave of internet feminism, which found its legs in a pre-platform era sought to define its direction and politics within the neoliberal capitalist structures that it was born into. By taking on issues in a format and tone that reflected the millennial ethos, from reproductive rights and sexuality to lighter critical cultural analysis of pop cultural material, these spaces resonated with a large but younger, mostly western demographic of digital native audiences. In 2006, it was reported that there were close to 240,000 blogs that self-identified as feminist.
These spaces built the pre-platform readership and audience for feminist issues and laid the all-important groundwork for inserting feminist discourse into a newly emerging digital attention economy. But this generation of media voices invariably ended up promoting a certain kind of feminism that tended to over-emphasize individual choice and focus less on structural issues. Unable to move beyond consciousness raising and feed into grassroots activism, these victories in discourse breakthrough inevitably fell prey to the inevitable co-option strategies of capitalism, transforming feminism into a bland but lucrative marketing palette, served up for a wider audience of women through snazzy messaging and a dilution of substantive politics.
An ideal illustration of this is Dove’s advertising campaigns. Dove successfully tapped into the body positivity movement, which was being critically deliberated in third wave feminist blogs, to advertise its products for “real women”, deploying themes of empowerment and self-care. The manipulations of this messaging, despite its feel good nature become all too clear when juxtaposed against the highly sexist and hyper masculine advertising tactics that parent company Unilever follows, without a trace of irony, in promoting its other line of male hygiene products, Axe. A more recent and jarring example of this includes a 2017 plain-white cotton t-shirt from the couture label Dior that retailed for the exorbitant price of $710. Its claim to fame, a single line claiming, “We should all be feminists.”
Andi Zeisler describes this as “marketplace feminism”, the process by which feminism becomes rebranded as “an identity that everyone can and should consume”. The intentional stripping away of its progressive underpinnings makes it possible “to promise potential detractors that feminism can exist in fundamentally unequal spaces without posing any foundational changes to them.”
Beyond corporate capture, the depoliticization of the online feminist communicative space also runs the risk of lending legitimacy to the very structures that it once sought to dismantle. For instance, the Covid-19 pandemic brought with it a brutal reality check on gender disparities with respect to both disproportionate job losses faced by women as well as the skewed distribution of care responsibilities they faced. In an almost perverse way, we also saw an uptake in “performative domesticity” on social media platforms with Instagram feeds of idealized and well-packaged narratives of domestic work such as gardening, baking and home improvement projects. Such highly classed narratives, which stress effortless and feel-good marketization of domesticity, invisibilize the enormous undervalued labour, challenges and drudgery that women, especially without economic means or without conventional family support systems undertake.
Contending with online violence
The widespread uptake of both “market feminism” as well as its more critical counterparts, which do exist, has also resulted in the rise of deeply misogynistic, retaliatory online behaviours and sub-cultures. The same tools that have allowed radical and progressive communicative spaces to emerge from the margins have also allowed other kinds of counter publics to coalesce, ones that go deeply against the democratic grain.
Incel culture is an exemplar of this kind of internet fuelled outrage. Incels are men who see themselves as unfairly excluded from a sexual marketplace that has been transformed through the rise of mainstream sex-positive culture, an explosion of internet dating apps, and not least, greater agency for women in exercising sexual choice. The Incels’ violent political ideology, which stems from this rejection, seeks retribution, not against a culture that rewards markers of sexual, social, economic and cultural capital, but against women for wielding sexual agency and capital in ways that exclude them. The toxic masculinity discourses that emanate from these obscure corners of the web not only percolate into the online public sphere but have led to numerous incidences of physical violence that call for a war against women.
Beyond such extremism, violence in other forms including hate speech, threats, and online harassment and doxxing is shockingly normalized for women, whether for the prominent international activist who chooses to speak out on an issue and is then subjected to a flood of threats as retaliation, or for the young college student who already under its chilling effect, begins to self-censor her speech and representation so as to not attract “unwarranted attention”. Legal frameworks to address technology mediated violence as well as the inadequate responses of platforms are badly failing women and their communicative rights.
A surface assessment of the current digital ecosystem may indicate that feminism has never had it better. After all, our screens and feeds light up with messages, memes and endorsements reaffirming that the future is female! But digging deeper reveals a less inspiring reality. Feminism’s cultural currency has grown at the expense of its political edge. Shallow forms of pluralism seem to compromise real diversity and the right to be heard – a vital aspect of communicative agency – does not meaningfully obtain for vast swathes of the world’s women. For those that do manage to defeat these odds, the forces of virulent online misogyny remain a constant threat.
Re-looking to the margins
Habermas, who posited the original theory of the public sphere, stresses the “idea of inclusive critical discussion, free of social and economic pressures, in which interlocutors treat each other as equals in a cooperative attempt to reach an understanding on matters of common concern.”2 Later, in proposing a theory of communicative rationality, Habermas proceeds with the assumption of mutual intelligibility and rational persuasion in dialogue, an “ideal speech situation”, free of coercion from within which consensus building takes place.3 While always acknowledging that such ideal case scenarios are only ideal, Habermas knowingly offers us this normative prescription, arguing that the aspiration is a prerequisite for any democracy that seeks to be truly transformative.
Indeed, democracy’s restoration and its very success hinge on a guarantee of space for rational and free communication – one that allows for introspection of systems and structures within the “lifeworlds” of society and culture. And yet, such an ennobling quest is only truly successful if it is able to construct that space critically, both in semantic and political terms that challenge rather than acquiesce to existing power structures and relations.
To that end, one must begin by abandoning the idea of an “unsullied” and “free-flowing” public sphere that facilitates dialogue among enlightened citizens, a narrative that predates Habermas’ postulations, and has been no more than a necessary and convenient fiction that democratic societies have told themselves to hide deep undemocratic currents. From the propertied male class of Pericles’ ancient Greece debating at the agora, to the enlightenment age coffee houses frequented by young European men of means, to the extraordinary optimism that surrounded the early internet, which opened communicative doors for a sliver of the globe’s population, a sustained process of myth-making continues to serve this platonic ideal of public discourse.
The inherent exclusions along the axes of gender, class, caste and race are not merely accidental omissions but rather structural to these discursive spaces. As Nancy Fraser shows, the liberal “turn” in the post-enlightenment phase restructured dialogic spaces to the effect of entirely eliminating working class men, women and people of colour. Rejecting the supremacy of any one ideal public sphere, she instead calls our attention to the numerous counter-, multi-dimensional and co-existing publics that have always abounded on the margins of the mainstream and have played critical roles in fostering conscientization and moving the needle forward on the progressive agenda.4
Building on this, remaking the current unstable and diffused public sphere should not be about salvaging a broken and exclusionary model. While the normative ideal of the open communicative space as a first principle of the democratic polity must always be preserved and pursued, this is not an essentially incompatible goal with that of nurturing the multiple public spheres that can emerge from the margins to bring stability in fluidity. In this regard, alternative feminist media spaces located in the global south provide useful direction and learnings.
Khabar Lahariya is an award winning feminist media initiative that constructs its identity from and for the margins. Set up by a non-profit organization, Khabar Lahariya began as a print newspaper in 2002, covering local news on gender related issues in seven regional dialects of Hindi. The initiative was explicitly aimed at producing women-led and created local and independent news content that centre a feminist perspective to reporting and covering social, political and economic issues in “media dark villages” i.e., geographies that do not make it onto the mainstream media’s radar.
Towards this, Khabar Lahariya worked to build a grassroots cadre of women reporters, located in rural North India, to tell stories intimate to their communities and their lives in local dialects. Women journalists collected reports and photographs, edited and produced stories, and brought out and distributed newspapers to over 600 villages, gaining a readership of over 80,000 readers over the years.
As audiences started going digital, Khabar Lahariya expanded online with a multi-dialect, multi-lingual website and a YouTube channel averaging an audience of five million a month. Today, while its audience base has grown to include not just the national but the global, Khabar Lahariya retains its core focus on the hyperlocal last mile. Its unique vantage position has allowed to surface new angles to mainstream narratives and make astute connections between the global and the local. For instance, it was able to draw national and global conversation towards the nuances, complexities, and diversities of socio-cultural-economic prejudices through a cutting feature on Me Too Rural.
The digital shift for a once print initiative such as Khabar Lahariya has meant rethinking strategic decision-making around engagement and community-building by experimenting with “a hybrid offline-online model/playground”. The team behind the initiative is blunt about the complexities that come with online presence and fame. In the case of Khabar Lahariya, journalists struggle with new challenges to the legitimacy that the online space opens them to. Further, as their reporters and editors have been able to build on their role as local opinion-makers in the digital space, they also negotiate the magnification of abuse and harassment that accompanies this prominence.
For the women who work for Khabar Lahariya, rooted as they are in the hyper-local context that they report on, online harm and retribution is not an abstract notion. They cannot rule out the odds of running physically into the same men who post unsolicited comments on their photos in their villages. Khabar Lahariya’s journalists therefore navigate the online space with great caution, exhibiting care in how they choose their battles. Self-imposed censorship in many cases becomes a palatable alternative to losing their hard won freedom to continue working.
As a media initiative, grounded in feminist principles coming from very different locations, with different approaches and target audiences, offer working models for how an online space can be effectively deployed to demonstrate the possibilities for true and meaningful communicative diversity and impactful discourse. Khabar Lahariya equates success with real impact and change on the ground. This includes holding the powerful to account, effecting decision-making on the grassroots levels and challenging patriarchal knowledge systems through a feminist and subaltern journalistic practice where, women journalists from marginalized communities are deeply embedded within their local contexts.
Reclaiming the public communication sphere in today’s digital paradigm needs a radical new imaginary, one that is built on feminist and digital justice principles and looks to the margins instead of the mainstream for solutions. Stabilizing the current unstable post-public sphere requires us to seek “fluidity” as recourse rather than a deterrent and embrace rather than shrink away from the idea of a “post-public”.
The still-emerging regulatory regimes around the digital communicative sphere, currently a space of contestation between state and market forces, need therefore to move beyond damage control mode to actively build new institutions that restore public trust, promote and protect alternatives and provide clear and well-defined public protocols of participation. The elimination of the spectre of online violence remains an imperative that is not just legalistic but at the heart of what is cultural and social.
The post-public needn’t be the splintered and fractured enemy of the public sphere which haunts and diminishes our democracies, but rather the multitudes that have always sustained and continue to sustain the ethos of vibrancy, diversity, and representation through grassroots and alternative efforts. Such shifting and fluid post-publics always carry the ability to coalesce around an issue and provide critical public articulation, thereby expanding public reasoning. They may move and shift, but as Me Too or other movements for democracy in recent times have shown, they can also generate constitutive and incremental changes, which will ultimately have far-reaching impact on the social/legal/institutional discourse. ν
1. Schlesinger, P. (2020). After the post-public sphere. Media, Culture & Society, 42 (7-8), 1545-1563.
2. Habermas, J. (1962). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere
3. Habermas, J. (1981). The Theory of Communicative Action
4. Fraser, N. (1990). Rethinking the public sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy. Social text, (25/26), 56-80.