#Iranvotes: Political Discourse on Iranian Twitter During the 2016 Parliamentary Elections
51 Pages Posted: 23 Jun 2016
Date Written: June 2016
In this study, we map and analyze the content and structural features of the Iranian Twittersphere as exhibited over the course of the 2016 legislative elections in order to identify the communities that developed around various political, social, and cultural issues and to assess the influence of online political campaigning that emerged on the platform over the course of the election campaign. Given Iran’s ongoing efforts to control and restrict freedom of expression in public spaces, we are interested to assess how users make use of the uncensored space provided by Twitter to speak out about various contentious issues. We achieve this by engaging in network analysis and content analysis of tweets and media content posted over the course of the election period.
Although Twitter remains blocked by the Iranian authorities, the widespread use of circumvention tools by Iranian citizens has allowed them to make use of it as a free and open space for public engagement around contentious and divisive political and social issues. Using a mixed-methods approach combining social network analysis with qualitative content analysis of election-related content of the Iranian Twittersphere during the elections, we identify and analyze 46 clusters of users ranging from human rights activists through to reformist and conservative political commentators, technology advocates, and literature enthusiasts. In addition to these interestbound clusters, we also observe that the network is home to extensive networks of everyday users, who share jokes, idle chatter, and flirtatious messages. Although the Twittersphere hosts a significant volume of political content, it is by no means a purely political space.
The intense online activity of the Iranian diaspora and the extent of its engagement with digital networks of activists and journalists inside the Islamic Republic is another major feature of the Iranian Twittersphere that we explore in this study — we observe that the level of interconnectedness between diasporic and domestic networks is remarkably high, indicating that the Iranian Twittersphere offers more than just an uncensored space for activists inside Iran, but provides Iranians in exile with the opportunity to engage with the development of political and social discourses inside the country.
We find that the scale of Twitter activity amongst diaspora Iranians and more liberal segments of Iranian society has had two major impacts upon the political makeup of the Twittersphere: firstly, a general politicization of the Twittersphere; and secondly, the squeezing out of politically divergent voices — especially from conservative factions, who appear to have found their home on alternative (unblocked) social networking sites. Although it does not necessarily hold a hugely politically diverse or representative chunk of Iranian netizens, the Iranian Twittersphere does function as an important bridge to connect the country’s vast diaspora networks to politically engaged, reformist-leaning citizens living inside Iran.
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