A virtual paradise? Platform algorithms, coastal change, and the production of nature in the Philippines

Parris-Piper, Naomi; Dressler, Wolfram; Satizábal, Paula; Fletcher, Rob


Across parts of Southeast Asia, coastal governance strategies have drawn on ‘ecotourism’ initiatives for ‘sustainable development’ by constructing captivating imaginaries of coastal places and people as sites of touristic production and consumption. Increasingly, representations of exotic and pristine coastal natures are reproduced virtually in support of this campaign through Web 2.0 platforms and their underlying algorithms. As ecotourism expands in the region, growing networks of social media users coproduce and consume abstract virtual natures with profound consequences for coastal peoples and ecosystems. In particular, Instagram, a popular photo sharing social media platform, has become central to reifying and distorting complex coastal realities. Drawing on a case from El Nido, Palawan Island, the Philippines, our paper examines how the virtual representation of coastal places and people on Instagram accelerate coastal transformations. Our results reveal how the political economy of coastal governance and the platform capitalism of social media converge to accelerate ecotourism in ways that realign virtual ideals and material realities. As virtual imaginaries shape coastal realities, new forms of exclusion and misrepresentation of people and places drive the displacement of local fishers, violence against activists, and coastal degradation. Bringing together research exploring (mass) ecotourism, platform capitalism and virtualism, we argue that greater scholarly attention should be placed on how new digital actors and platform algorithms influence how coastal peoples and places are imagined, consumed and subject to violence over time.