"Social media is still in its infancy in Afghanistan, with a small and mostly homogenous user base of educated, relatively wealthy, predominately male users....But while small, it holds opportunity for engagement and expression."
By mapping Afghan influencers online and surveying users about their comfort with, reasons for, and use of social media, this Internews report paints a picture and offers a repository of data on the changing nature of social media in Afghanistan and how it may shape public discourse in the future. It details the issues of rights and harassment online, particularly for women. Beyond gender dynamics, it examines the development and influence of social media on open expression and social change in Afghan society. The power of still-nascent social media to effect social change, distribute information, and change traditional roles are among findings of the report, which was prepared by Altai Consulting for Internews with support from Counterpart International under the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded Afghan Civic Engagement Program (ACEP).
The report offers a current examination of the development and influence of social media on open expression and social change in Afghan society. Findings, which are explored more deeply in the report and accompanying data, include:
- Social media users represent approximately 9% of the Afghan population, and they are homogenous and concentrated on Facebook - Users are predominantly young, urban, and educated. Access to and use of the internet in Afghanistan reaches approximately 12% of the population, so internet access remains the main barrier to social media access. 95% of social media users have a Facebook account, compared to Twitter with a 6% usage rate, Instagram with a 10% usage rate, or Snapchat with 1% usage rate. More than 80% of social media users access their accounts solely through their smartphone.
- Social media is filled with current affairs, but users would rather engage with entertainment and sports topics - Media organisations have invested in social media as a new platform for their content, dominating the pages found online along with government, politics, and elections-related pages. The content that garners the most audience engagement, however, relates to sports, entertainment, or national pride.
- Social media is an extension of one's private network first and a source of information second - Interaction is primarily with existing family and friends, limiting direct engagement with individuals and ideas outside of established social networks.
- Awareness of content related to current affairs is high; mobilisation through social media is much lower - The practice of reporting wrongdoing through social media is common and is the most direct impact social media has on Afghan society. For example, 62% surveyed believe social media has had a positive effect on corruption, which is frequently reported on social media.
The study's findings suggest Afghan women have a complicated relationship with social media - they see the dangers, but also there is freedom for them on social media that simply isn't available elsewhere. For example, a group of young women, using the hashtag #whereismyname, started a public debate on the custom of not using women's names on invitations, in the market, and even on burial tombs and only referring to them as a wife or daughter of a man. It is asserted in the report that this discussion could not have taken place without the platform offered by social media.
Yet, for the majority of women who are more private users of social media, using the platforms not for advocacy but for simple social interactions and information gathering, fears of public shaming or harassment, along with norms of Afghan society, shape their use. Almost 20% of female respondents declare being Friends only with same-sex relatives on Facebook, and 35% of female respondents declare only being Friends with relatives on Facebook. This reflects the well-documented wariness of Afghan women to interact with individuals beyond their direct family on social media, as they are often targets of harassment. On the other hand, 67% of men declare being friends with a mixed-gender group of people that includes both friends and family. All that said, social media is perceived to have had an overall positive effect on social issues by all private users surveyed; women are more likely to perceive a positive effect than men. And when it comes to privacy, 69% think it has had a positive effect on privacy; again, women are more likely to think so. The report explains that this may be counter-intuitive, as women are wary of having their information available online and feel vulnerable to harassment, but it also means there is an avenue for individuals to interact with people without the scrutiny of one's family, for example.
In reflecting on the findings, the report offers some takeaways:
- "Debates, campaigns and reports of incidents on social media will not in themselves have direct influence on the national discourse, but they can trigger wider conversations. Discourse on social media seems to have less influence in shaping opinions on an issue than in generally bringing attention to the issue. Social media momentum builds up very quickly and if social media is incensed about an issue, it will be brought to light to a wider audience through television, radio, or word-of-mouth."
- "[S]ocial media coexists with traditional media. These interactions go further than media outlets having a Facebook page, as social and traditional media share content and share audiences....The Afghan media has not reached a stage of symbiosis between social and traditional media yet, as the population of users and infrastructure does not allow for frequent live interactions between the two, but it is headed in this direction."
- "[W]hile the population of users is indeed limited to a homogen[e]ous group, this group is representative of a generation of young Afghans hungry for change. They are now as much influenced by what they see on social media as they are by print, radio or TV and their involvement in some issues online will reverb[er]ate in other media through the interlinkages between social media platforms and the wider media."