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Katy Pearce on Socially-mediated Visibility

By Sarah Payne

On November 6th, the NULab, in conjunction with the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, hosted Professor Katy Pearce from the University of Washington. Pearce’s talk, “Socially-mediated Visibility in Authoritarianism,” focused on concepts of surveillance, social media, and political dissent in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan, Pearce noted, is like the rest of the South Caucasus in that the societies are semi to fully authoritarian and honor-driven, which produces interesting dynamics in terms of surveillance and gender.

The concept of socially mediated visibility, which Pearce has been developing, involves various dimensions that are relational, strategic, and outcome-based. More specifically, socially mediated visibility lacks spatiotemporal constraints, is facilitated by mass-personal ties, involves communication that often becomes exposed beyond the original intended audience, and requires strategic management of content. Because dissident content often reaches a broader audience via social media, the consequences of visibility are often more severe. Children are taught early on, for example, not to engage in politics or to be critical of the regime. Dissent is often quickly and severely punished by the government and frequently extends to the dissident’s family. People can lose jobs or be imprisoned, exiled, or even killed. Engaging in political dissent, particularly with the added visibility that accompanies social media, is extremely risky for Azerbaijanis.

For the study under discussion, Pearce conducted 29 semi-structured interviews with self-identified dissident Azerbaijanis. The average age of the interviewees was 22 years old. The guiding research questions Pearce used were: What factors influence stigma visibility management for young Azerbaijanis?; What visibility management strategies do Azerbaijanis use?; How does increased visibility of social media influence stigma visibility management among young Azerbaijanis?; and What psychological and relational outcomes of visibility did young Azerbaijanis experience?

Pearce found that stigma was a useful lens to examine the interview results as Azerbaijanis were just as, if not more so, concerned with surveillance and stigma from their friends and family as from the government. Stigma, she concluded, was the ultimate visibility context, which affects not only the stigmatized, but those associated with them such as friends and family. Additionally, Pearce noted visibility and marginalized communities is an important social and scholarly pursuit which invites the integration of different theories. Visibility, Pearce concluded, is an essential part of social media, the management of which affects our daily lives.

During the discussion portion of her talk, Pearce expanded on the post-Soviet context of her work, arguing that dissent was actually more tolerated in Azerbaijan during Soviet rule. There are, however, many layers to the Soviet context that make it difficult to parse which social norms are inherent to Azerbaijan society and which have been inherited from Soviet influence. Pearce and audience members also discussed ways in which various theories might shape her project, including social movement organizing, collective knowledge, privacy theory, as well as the use of algorithms. Moving forward, Pearce is interested in further exploring why young Azerbaijanis are willing to take on social stigma because of political dissent as well as what broader questions we can ask about marginalized populations and socially mediated visibility.

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