Tag Archives: #socialmedia

Women. Life. Freedom.: An Analysis of Iran’s Protests and Digital Democracy

While there have always been citizen movements and protests throughout history, the introduction of social media has added a new layer to these events. Notably, Iran has seen several protests since the Islamic regime took over in 1979. Iran’s Green Movement in 2009 marked the first widespread protests against the totalitarian regime. In recent months, nation-wide protests in Iran were catalysed by the tragic murder of 22-yeard-old Mahsa Amini who died at the hands of Iran’s “morality” police for simply failing to entirely cover her hair. Beyond the political aspect, these events raise the question: what tools are citizens using in Iran and how have they changed over the years? Could this not only reveal the democratization that digital media affords, but also mark the democratization of Iran entirely? This essay will argue that social media platforms create democratic spaces for dialogue. An analysis of Iran’s recent protests reveals the democratic digital space that plays a role in documentation and producing digital evidence, allows information to transcend borders, and how this can unfortunately be hindered by the government through censorship.

Firstly, social media plays a vital role in documentation and producing digital evidence. Gender inequality and the disregard for human rights have been inscribed in Iran’s legal system and decades of discrimination and oppression have led to several uprising movements against the horrific government. Social media’s role in the recent protests has been multi-faceted and while it is not necessarily a central driver in mobilization, it is certainly a helpful tool. Social media creates a democratic space where citizens can “[spread] awareness and solidarity” and offers “the ability to witness your fellow citizens and your fellow women taking a stand” which certainly creates an incentive to mobilize (Alterman, 2022, para. 6). Digital media helps document and circulate the injustices occurring which consequently fuels protests. This documentation creates a digital footprint and essentially archives this historic moment. So, while the democratization of digital media does not determine “the exact shape and form of protest, movements, or the eventual movement to democracy” (Alterman, 2022, para. 6), it does offer an opportunity to share information, critical updates, and news. According to Andrea Ratiu (2022), because traditional media is heavily biased and controlled by the Islamic regime, many Iranians turn to digital media for their news — Whatsapp, Telegram, Instagram, and Clubhouse being the most popular sources. For example, Clubhouse has become a powerful tool for Iranians to circulate opinions and document the recent events (Khalaji, 2022). Clubhouse allows users to join drop-in meetings and conversations virtually, creating a public sphere like space. Expect this “public sphere” is open to the underserved, including both men and women.

card queen of hearts cutting her hair in protest and crying. her hair is blue and the card is spades.

Moreover, digital media allows information to transcend borders and unites voices. Unlike traditional media, social media creates opportunity for dialogue and two-way engagement, both inside Iran and internationally. According to a Pew Research Center study, 86% of Americans get their news online through their phones and 53% get their news specifically from social media (Shearer, 2021). Twitter, for example, is used by 23% of Americans, and more than half of those users get their daily news on the app (Atske, 2021). These numbers point to the reliance on social media for news and the important role social media plays in circulating information. Iran’s nation-wide protests have not been solely confined within borders, but have traveled worldwide, with people amplifying Iranian voices. In this way, social media helps highlight the issue so that Iran is not isolated. Evidently, digital media is a critical tool for marginalized people around the world (Ratcliffe, 2022).

                   Artist: Mahdieh Farhadkiaei

For instance, many artists outside Iran have band together in solidarity for Iranian women’s freedom. Many Iranian artists are creating powerful pieces to spread awareness and fuel the conversation surrounding the tragic injustices Iranian citizens face daily. These brave people speaking out against the regime are part of a larger counterpublic: “a subset of publics that stand in conscientious opposition to a dominant ideology and strategically subvert that ideology’s construction in public discourse” (Fattal, 2018, p. 1). This counterpublic is manifested in forms of feminist Iranians, artists, singers, authors, activists, leaders, and many others that unite for the same reason: they are tired of this horrific regime that hinders their basic human rights.

Combines an image of the Azadi (Freedom) tower with Matisse’s dancers and the ‘women, life, freedom’ protest slogan.

This piece combines an image of the Azadi (Freedom) tower with Matisse’s dancers and the ‘women, life, freedom’ protest slogan. Artist: Jalz

Essay 1: Social Media is Capitalistic, Not Democratic

On February 2014, Facebook introduced an update called the real name policy (Bivens, 2017). This introduction increased gender identifications from 2 to 58 (Bivens, 2017). As an attempt of inclusivity, Facebook is perceived to be giving a democratic response to a growing concern of minorities in online spaces. More users can now choose who they identify themselves as without compromising their self-identity. However, after the policy has been implemented, many queer and LGBTQ members reported that they can no longer access their profile because their names do not fit with their supposed identity (Bivens, 2017). Facebook may be giving power to its queer users, but I argue that’s not the case. I argue that social media is capitalistic, not democratic. LGBTQ users’ names and genders are to fit in the heteronormative standard in order for marketers and the state to keep track of its citizens through surveillance and protection (MacAulay & Moldes, 2016). Non-binary users are always recoded back to the binary system, exposing the inauthentic gesture of Facebook as inclusive and democratic (Bivens, 2017). LGBTQ users’ fluid and changing experiences cannot be truly represented online. Thus, hindering their entrepreneurial pursuits and community building (Lingel & Golub, 2015).

On Facebook’s Help Center, there is a section that acknowledges names on Facebook (Facebook, 2018). Aside from the things to keep in mind, the standards specify that the name should appear on and ID or part of their ID document list (Facebook, 2018). This means that an expected first and last name must be created for the user. This may not necessarily reflect on queer identities and that already causes conflicts. 

The PEW Research conducted a survey on 1197 self-identified LGBT adults 18 years or older asking about their online use (PEW, 2013). Eighty percent of respondents use sites such as Facebook and Twitter, but the survey shows prohibiting behaviours online (PEW, 2013). Fifty six percent of surveyors said that they have not revealed their sexual identities online, and 83% do not regularly discuss LGBT issues online (PEW, 2013). LGBT groups experience different treatment in these online spaces, but still continue to use it. With Facebook’s real name policy, there was an attempt to be inclusive. Facebook is now in support of these minorities, and empowering them through their profiles. But as seen in MacAulay & Moldes, Bivens, and Lingel & Golub’s works, Facebook is driven by capitalistic notions, disguising their authentic gestures to mask its market driven responses.

MacAulay & Moldes acknowledges that Facebook uses the real name policy to justify legal precedents and cite harmful actions towards others such as harassment, impersonation and trolling (2016). While these seem legitimate concerns, they find that they’re less interested in protecting them rather than making the users ‘transparent to the market and the state’ (MacAulay & Moldes, 2016). A key concept they identify stemming from queer theory is normativity (or heteronormativity). This is described as a regulatory system that naturalizes sex and gender (MacAulay & Moldes, 2016). This process of normativity means that agents and groups take the effort to impose and force individuals to fit into existing systems to keep order or regulate easier. Heteronormativity then entails that binary systems (male and female) are the correct and only way to follow due to economic and legal precedents. This means that anyone who deviates from it are not ‘performing correctly’ (MacAulay & Moldes, 2016). Data collection is another issue that they bring up because this forces users who actively avoid as part of Facebook’s marketer aggregation. They have to choose between binary choices that will not fit them, and that can result in their accounts being banned or ultimately not use the service anymore. A democratic practice in social media will allow any individual to self-express and create within their own public spaces, but the notion of heteronormativity does not give that space to queer users. It simply favours what funds the company running the service. They also cite the increase of market shares that occurred in 2014 after the real name policy was introduced. Market shares in 2011 decreased to 19.82 USD after reports of fake users on Facebook surfaced and after the real name policy was implemented, the shares rose to 78.02 USD in December 2014 (MacAulay & Moldes, 2016). The theory of normativity serves as a great interest to what can be marketed and how that affects minorities who want to use Facebook. And these experiences continue to exist.

Bivens examined Facebook’s gender coding system and found that when coding the genders, females were assigned 1, males were assigned 2, and the ‘undefined’ were assigned 0 (2017). This undefined category has been the standard for coding non-binary genders and how that allows Facebook to include so many gender options. On one hand, the number 0 allows for the existence of non-binaries, but does not exactly fit into the binary code (Bivens, 2017). Bivens found that later updates to the code see that newly assigned genders and their code will default to the undefined because the codes were not established since creating it (2017). The 56 additional genders are now, in the back end, defaulted to 0 even if it is given a defined gender (Bivens, 2017). This allowed Facebook to easily aggregate data that can be sent to marketers who are only interested in the binary genders (Bivens, 2017). The nuances and multiple gender identities have been devolved to 0 and continuously will not receive the technological support on Facebook. These regulations are masked as authenticity, and it does not seem democratic. Rather, it forces its users into shaping to what is acceptable online and what numbers can be easily assigned to them so that it can be quickly shared and sold online. 

It does not support the lives and work of other members of the community too. Drag users are greatly affected by restricting user information flexibility to fit with their fluid and changing personalities to continuously be entertaining drag queens (Lingel & Golub, 2015). Online identity work has become an extension of their own work, and that continuity allows them to stay connected with their fans and fellow queens. It supports them in a capitalistic sense that allows them to advertise their shows and market their identities, but it does not allow multiple identities (Lingel & Golub, 2015). This, again, falls into the notion of normativity where they are forced into one trackable identity. Facebook acknowledges an inclusivity of users, but does not acknowledge multiple and fluid online identities (Lingel & Golub, 2015). Instead, it advocates a unifying and unitary profile (Lingel & Golub, 2015). While drags do not represent the majority of the LGBTQ community, these collective experiences contribute to a shared, limited, and constrained online experience that does not allow the desired expectation to freely express themselves. Rather, they have to fit the normative mold to appease Facebook’s marketers and regulators. The real name policy is just another example in online social spaces that operates to generate revenue. Facebook acts for money, not for its users.

Reference

Bivens, R. (2017). The gender binary will not be deprogrammed: Ten years of coding gender on Facebook. New Media & Society, 19(6), 880–898. https://doi-org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/10.1177/1461444815621527.

Facebook (2018). What names are allowed on Facebook? Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/help/112146705538576?helpref=faq_content.

Lingel, J., & Golub, A. (2015). In Face on Facebook: Brooklyn’s Drag Community and Sociotechnical Practices of Online Communication: IN FACE ON FACEBOOK. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 20(5), 536-553.

MacAulay, M., & Moldes, M. (2016). Queen don’t compute: Reading and casting shade on Facebook’s real names policy. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 33(1), 6-22.

PEW Research Center (2013, June 13). A survey of LGBT Americans: LGBT adults online. Retrieved from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/06/13/a-survey-of-lgbt-americans/.