How Social Networks Reflect Women’s Voices around Elections

2016/03/09

Nabz-Nameh March 2016 - Elections Edition

In open societies, it is political parties or social movements that identify the demands and concerns of social groups, such as women, and give voice to them at the level of media and society. Parties and civil society organizations thus strive to translate these groups’ demands to the political arena. Political forces, including parties, make use of independent surveys, the free media, and formal ties with social groups to assess their needs, find a politically meaningful way to express them, and attempt to fulfil these needs by making them part of the bigger discussion.

However, because of the historical and structural weaknesses of Iranian political parties, stemming largely from constraints on political activity, relations between social groups and parties have been tenuous. In addition, it is not possible to conduct independent surveys in Iran, especially on sensitive matters, while the media is also barred from wading into certain areas, in particular on issues related to women. As a result, women’s voices have been broadly silenced in society and in politics, and there is practically no sign of them in public discourse, especially among politicians.

Due to shortcomings in the understanding of women’s demands, the sociopolitical analyses and the prevailing discourse around those demands have fallen prey to oversimplifications. The conventional wisdom is that Iranian women fall into two groups: they are either secular advocates for progressive demands and equality across the board for women and men, or they are religious, conservative supporters of the government who favor maintaining gender inequality. This perspective acknowledges neither the complex and pluralistic nature of society (particularly among women), nor the diversity of Iranian women’s demands. There are individuals/groups who are discontent with the existing situation but who, in certain aspects, prefer for the unequal relationship between women and men to persist. On the other hand, there are also individuals/groups who, despite being close to the state, support the progressive demands of women. In order to bring women’s voices into the political decisionmaking process, it is therefore necessary to recognize that women’s demands are diverse and that society is pluralistic.

The development of the Internet and particularly the growing use of social networks in Iran has made it easier for Iranians to express their opinions. So in the absence of independent media and surveys by universities, an opportunity has emerged for women’s voices to be heard just as they are. In recent years, researchers from a variety of fields have turned to the Internet as a window through which one can observe people’s behavior, understand social phenomena, and gauge public opinion, and this approach could be especially effective for grasping the demands of ordinary citizens in closed societies.

When elections approach in Iran, the government usually fosters a more open environment for airing political opinions. During that time, political parties and organizations also tend to engage themselves more actively with identifying the needs of social groups, and as a result, citizens find both greater motivation and opportunity to express their demands and views. For the same reason, this year’s elections--particularly the parliamentary elections, which take place on a national level--are one of the best chances for understanding the demands of Iranian women.

Twitter

In recent years, there has been a notable growth in the use of Twitter among Iranian users, especially for expressing sociopolitical views. The filtering of Twitter in Iran has not stopped political dissidents, reformist activists, journalists based inside the country, or even government supporters from using this social network. Some journalists working for domestic newspapers even have verified Twitter accounts (Twitter allows for prominent individuals to have the identity of their user accounts be independently verified). Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Iran’s “officers of the soft war”, cyber activists affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, are likewise active on Twitter. Meanwhile the character limit for tweets, and therefore the word limit, makes it easier to parse out the discourse and the demands expressed by users, since they are forced to avoid extraneous verbiage to get their points and objectives across. All of these factors make Twitter a convenient platform for assessing people’s demands.

This report is based on a total of 63,896 tweets containing at least one of the following keywords (in Farsi): “elections”, “Majles [parliament]”, “vote”, “candidate”, and “women”. These tweets were collected in the four-week period between January 12 and February 9, 2016, representing 9,891 different Twitter accounts.


Comparing recurrence of keywords

Figure 1: Comparing usage of the words “women” and “elections” in the month-long period near the elections

Click on the image to enlarge it.

As this image shows, the number of elections-related tweets swung up and down relative to events in the electoral timeline, though tweets about women during this period remained relatively steady or fluctuated slightly.

This analysis used only those accounts that published at least three tweets containing the chosen keywords during the four-week data collection period, while users whose participation in discussions related to women and elections fell below this level were excluded.

This approach identified 1,916 active user accounts that had published a total of 39,523 tweets related to women or elections. The analyses below were conducted by identifying the collective network of followers of these accounts, and by sorting and analyzing the content published by them. In displaying the results of the analyses, the identities and activities of lesser-known users are withheld out of respect for their privacy.

Analyzing the Network of Followers and Content

The network of users active in the discussion on women and elections is not scattered uniformly, but is rather comprised of interconnected clusters. In the setting of social networks, users form connections with one another on the basis of similarities, including shared interests, personal backgrounds, relationships in the real world, like-mindedness, political inclination, and mutual ties. This process results in clusters that consist of individuals with shared characteristics, so that by identifying the clusters, one can find out what these characteristics are or classify them. The network of user accounts active in the discussion on women consists of six visibly distinct clusters.


Network of Twitter user accounts

Figure 2 shows the network of followers of 1,916 Twitter users active in the discussion on women and elections, comprising a total of 104,179 links with that discussion. In this image, the size of a label reflects the volume of followers of that user account, and the various clusters are differentiated by color.

Click on the image to enlarge it.

Identifying the Clusters

As mentioned above, six main clusters were identified in the Twitter network. The characteristics of these clusters are displayed in Table 1 (below), which shows that the most significant and sizable clusters pertain to ordinary users, news agencies, and journalists. The majority of the ordinary users were identified to be inside Iran. Also visible is a separate cluster, which pertains to accounts linked to the Mojahedin-e-Khalgh (MEK) and which has the fewest connections with the other groups.

Table 1: List of characteristics of identified clusters
Cluster Color User accounts Number of followers (average) Number of accounts followed (average) Number of tweets (average) Level of participation in discussion on women/elections (average number of tweets) Notable user accounts
1. Ordinary users - majority inside Iran violet 510 1,915 646 18,464 10 -
2. Ordinary users - majority inside Iran dark green 174 1,175 244 19,066 9 -
3. Ordinary users - majority outside Iran red 170 1,472 298 13,013 14 -
4. News agencies, journalists, and political figures light blue 622 7,057 414 16,488 21 Manototv, BBCShoma, Rouhani_ir
5. Ordinary users (including government supporters) light green 221 2,008 651 25,376 18 AfsaranIr, khodnevis_org
6. MEK dark blue 213 1,494 1,494 17,658 19 Freedommesenger, Maryam_Rajavi_P

Three clusters were classified as ordinary users, which comprise the largest group of users within the network who were active in the discussion on elections and women. For the purposes of this analysis, these clusters were labeled as such to distinguish them from the professional clusters. From the information that could be drawn from these user accounts, more than half of them are clearly from inside Iran. These three clusters differ from one another as far as the prevailing language used within each one. The first two clusters contain a majority of users who live inside Iran, whereas in the third cluster, most users are based outside the country. Nevertheless, all three clusters have a large number of connections with one another. The discussions engaged in by these clusters primarily revolve around individual experiences and reactions to current events, and are at times marked by humor or sarcasm.



Another prominent cluster as far as elections consists of a set of user accounts pertaining to notable media outlets, journalists, and politicians inside and outside Iran. News production is the main characteristic of this cluster, which was distinctly active in the area of women and elections.

User accounts affiliated with the MEK accounted for the largest share of participation in the discussion on women, meaning that on average the members of this cluster published more tweets having to do with women and elections. As can be seen, this cluster is isolated from the other main Farsi-speaking Twitter clusters, which means the language adopted by its users to express themselves differs noticeably from that of the other clusters. Also, users within this cluster mostly follow individuals within their own group and have little connection with user accounts outside the cluster. Tweets by MEK users are characterized by the usage of hashtags, which inflated the share of the collected data accounted for by this group.

The other clusters consist of users who published on average two tweets about women within the time period of this study. (Refer to Table 2.)

Table 2: Cluster activity
Cluster Percentage of users (definitely) inside Iran Participation in discussion on women (total tweets) Participation in discussion on elections (total tweets) Participation in discussion on women (average tweets) Participation in discussion on elections (average tweets)
1. Ordinary users - majority inside Iran 51% 910 2,225 2 4
2. Ordinary users - majority inside Iran 56% 236 584 1 3
3. Ordinary users - majority outside Iran 39% 397 1,349 2 8
4. News agencies, journalists, and politicians 31% 1,838 7,072 3 11
5. Ordinary users (including government supporters) 70% 527 1,732 2 8
6. MEK 1% 1,947 3,125 9 15

The main discussions

Discussions among Twitter users regarding women were notably diverse and were tracked and categorized by identifying frequently recurring words and drawing out the connections between them.

What issue(s) did each of the various clusters find significant?

Figure 3 shows the network of words and tweets. In this image, tweets and the clusters of user accounts that generated them are displayed in one place. The color of a circle shows the cluster to which the user accounts publishing tweets belong. The size of a word reflects the extent to which it recurs. As can be seen, practically all the clusters express social, economic, and health-related issues, though the language used varies across the clusters, so it is not possible to ascribe one specific issue or concern to a particular cluster. As far as political topics, there is a clear disconnect in the language and discourse used by the MEK compared to the other clusters. There is also a visible difference in language among tweets by the community of journalists, particularly on elections-related matters.


Network of words and tweets related to

Figure 3

Click on the image to enlarge it.

The main discussions among clusters of ordinary users

Since the goal is to identify the demands of ordinary citizens--particularly those types of demands that perhaps receive less attention from politicians, political activists, and the media--the focus is on analyzing the content of the discourse within the tweets from clusters 1 to 3, i.e. ordinary users. Re-tweets, which are largely related to the news, were eliminated as a result. That set of tweets is generated by activists, media outlets, and politicians.


Network of tweets and words used by ordinary Iranian users

Figure 4: In this image, the size of a word reflects the frequency to which it recurs. The proximity of one word to another, or the distance between them, shows how often those words are used together. As such, the larger the size of a word, the more frequently it was used during the data collection period. Words that are seen close to each other were typically used together in tweets. Word clusters of a color therefore relate to a particular category or discussion.

Click on the image to enlarge it.

In this way, the demands expressed in the collected tweets were classified into several main groups.

Women’s rights

“Women’s rights” is one of the most commonly-used phrases in tweets related to women, where these words are seen abundantly. However, it is not immediately clear which rights users have in mind, or rather, it is unclear whether all users equate this phrase with equal rights for women and men. Nevertheless, it can be surmised that public demands for realizing women’s rights are expressed mostly by women themselves. These come across sometimes as bitter irony, sometimes as a kind of war of words between women and men: “Misery is the only place where women’s rights are observed”, “Go help your mom clear the dishes from the table instead of advocating for women’s lost rights”, or “How can you watch Shab Kook [an Iranian television singing competition] when the voice of the half of society that women make up is forbidden? I want to know how you can deal with yourself”. Some reactions to calls for equal rights for women were marked by ridicule and dismissal of these demands as excessive: “I don’t know why we have a neighborhood called Mir Damad [Groom of the King] but not a Mir Aroos [Bride of the King]. They’re trampling on the rights of our women.”

Social issues

Social issues related to women received the most attention from ordinary users, who discuss these appreciably more than they do any other topics, in terms of both variety and quantity. In Iran, official media does not engage in open discussion on certain topics, in particular regarding women or relations between women and men, or it does not address all sides of the story. This void is filled to a large extent by social media, where Iranian users express their viewpoints. Sexual issues, female breadwinners, social harms to women, and the problems and negative experiences of women in society are among frequently recurring topics in tweets related to women. Words such as “gender”, “society”, “breadwinner”, “hijab”, “violence”, “children”, “family”, “man”, and “rape” are some of the most repeated ones in ordinary users’ tweets about women. In addition, the high usage of terms such as “sexual harassment”, “veiling”, “violence against women”, “rape”, “sexual issues”, “acid attacks”, “sexism”, “infidelity”, and [public] “insecurity” speak to the extent and depth of problems facing women, or to society’s concerns about them.

Hijab

Veiling is one of the most prominent social issues related to women. While within the main segment of users, the issue is whether hijab should be compulsory or voluntary, for a small portion of users, the question is still what kind of covering women should wear (full chador vs. simple headscarf). Opposition to compulsory hijab likewise does not necessarily equate to opposition to hijab itself: “We live in a land where preserving women’s hijab is more important than preserving honor and dignity and chastity and even the very value of women themselves”, or “In classes where everyone was a woman we would take off the headscarf. Albeit our professor was a reformist and a women’s rights activist so of course we were more laid back too.” Meanwhile during the data collection period, news about the results of a survey, which claimed that the chador is the predominant form of veiling among Iranian women, sparked much debate and discussion.

Sport

Sport as it relates to women is another topic that is approached noticeably differently in tweets than it is by official media. The successes of women athletes or the failures and obstacles in the way of their advancement are reflected and discussed in tweets much more so than they are in society broadly, particularly within official channels. Ordinary users, in a variety of ways, repeatedly protested against inattention to women’s competitions or the lack of coverage and broadcast of them, and most significantly of all, against the ban on women in stadiums.

Healthcare

Healthcare is also among the issues addressed by women, though it is not particularly conspicuous. Among the relevant tweets, there is significant mention of treatment of women’s diseases, sexual health, harm reduction, pregnancy, depression, and mental disorders. “An irregular heartbeat, which is caused by the arrhythmic contraction of the atrium, is a bigger threat to women’s health than to men’s”, “Research in Iran suggests that women are more vulnerable to mental disease and more likely to show symptoms than are men. Particularly pregnant women.”

Politics

After social issues, political topics make up a notable segment of the discourse on women among general users. For the most part, these issues are formally addressed by news agencies, political organizations, and political forces, while ordinary users, particularly inside Iran, are less likely to approach them head-on. Some political issues are reflected within this discourse through humor and satirical language. Given that the tweet collection period was near the elections, political issues relating to women in these tweets were highly influenced by the elections. The disqualification of women candidates for Assembly of Experts and Majles elections and debate on whether or not to participate in the elections represented the focal point of political discussions. The word “repression” mainly accompanied circulation of news about trials of women, crackdowns on female civic activists, and female prisoners, and it became one of the themes that connected women directly to politics. International political issues relating to women were also reflected noticeably within the Iranian Twittersphere, one such case being women’s issues in Saudi Arabia. As far as politicians, President Hassan Rouhani and Vice President for Women’s and Family Affairs Shahindokht Molaverdi were targeted by users more than any other figures were.

Economics

Women’s economic issues also drew some attention. Tweets made frequent mention of issues such as women’s employment, female breadwinners, women’s wages, the right to work, and working hours for women. “Without proper access to training, culture, communications, employment, the market, competition, etc. for half of society, meaning women, balanced and sustainable #development will not take place in Iran”, “...[although] on one hand these women need employment to make a living, the work environment is not so secure for them because employers and co-workers’ views of them change.”

Conclusion

In order to follow through on the demands of social groups, their grievances and concerns must be identified. In Iran, there is limited possibility to conduct field surveys to gauge public opinion. As a result, it is not easy to grasp the demands of groups that have less of a voice in society. In addition, official mass media does not provide adequate and impartial coverage of challenging demands, particularly of topics specific to women. Even if the conditions came about for conducting surveys, people in such societies are inclined to misrepresent their demands. In these circumstances, social networks are one way to listen to the voices of ordinary citizens. Tracking the demands and the unheard voices of social groups on social media has its own limitations too. Amidst the noise and the lack of geographical, political, and social boundaries in social networks, random sampling is impossible, so this requires its own special methods. Twitter users presumably represent a particular segment of Iranian society that strives to get its message across despite many obstacles, such as government filtering. An analysis of the active community of Twitter users though shows that this group is very multifaceted and expresses a clearly diverse set of demands and concerns.

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