Four young Afghan women look at a cell phone in one of the girl's hands.

In Study of Social Media in Afghanistan, Women Report Mixed Feelings

January 8, 2018
The power of still-nascent social media to affect social change, distribute information, and affect traditional roles are among findings of a new wide-ranging report on digital engagement and expression

Wedding invitations in Afghanistan don’t bear the names of the women invited – they are only invited under the name of their husbands, or male relatives. In markets, women’s names are not spoken. Even on burial tombs, a woman may be referred to only as the wife or daughter of a man, not by her own name.

With the hashtag #whereismyname, Tahmina Arian and a group of friends – young, newly graduated Afghan women – rallied attention to this common practice last summer on Facebook and Twitter, starting a conversation in the country and protesting the Afghan custom of erasing women's names.

Screenshot of Facebook post showing a woman's hands holding a smart phone. Underneath it says, "Where is my name? Afghan women seek right to identify."Social media is still in its infancy in Afghanistan, with a small and mostly homogenous user base of educated, relatively wealthy, predominately male users and only hundreds of Afghanistan-based public Facebook pages and Twitter accounts.

But while small, it holds opportunity for engagement and expression. Without any trappings of traditional power or social capital, the group of young women started a public debate they would otherwise have no means to convene, without the platform offered by social media.

These opportunities are among the findings revealed in a new report, Social Media in Afghanistan: Users and Engagement, prepared by Altai Consulting for Internews. By mapping Afghan influencers online and surveying users about their comfort with, reasons for, and use of social media, the report paints a picture and offers a deep repository of data on the changing nature of social media in Afghanistan and how it may shape public discourse in the future.

Women’s Rights and Social Engagement

Tahmina and the women behind #whereismyname are new to protests, but activists with years of experience have found similar power in expanding their advocacy online. Wazhma Frogh, a women’s rights activist, member of the High Peace Council, and the director of the Research Institute for Women, Peace and Security, uses Twitter not only to bring to light women’s rights issues in Afghanistan, but to share her views on other current events in the country with her 97,000 followers.

She started using Twitter during 2013’s Open Jirga, when citizens could use their Facebook and Twitter platforms to submit questions for the televised debates. Wazhma said that in 2013 political representation was still scant on Twitter, but since then she notes that all relevant political stakeholders in Afghanistan have grown accustomed to using Twitter, an observation backed up in the report, which identifies Twitter as a more “official” channel dominated by politicians and media accounts.  

For Wazhma, this means that her words carry weight and legitimacy; other members of the peace council are aware of the reach of her voice on social media. It can be difficult to enumerate how social campaigns affect change directly, but they can create conversations that with momentum can translate to real life interactions. Indicative of the nascent relationship between online and traditional media in Afghanistan, Wazhma can point to TV and radio interviews that have resulted because of topics she’s posted about online.

Harassment and Violence Online

At the same time, the opportunities for women’s engagement online run parallel to a harsh reality for women in Afghanistan – intense harassment is prevalent for women, shapes their interactions online and offline, and shows little sign of abatement.

Social media users in Afghanistan routinely make derogatory, discriminatory or even violent comments in reaction to certain content. Tahmina of the #whereismyname campaign receives lurid messages from strangers constantly and has been groped in the street. Wazhma regularly receives threats.

They aren’t the only women to experience online harassment – it is so prevalent that women in universities do not share their real names in class, as they do not want men to harass them or find them again online, where social media is routinely used to question a woman’s integrity and respectability.

And 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.

Chart showing by sex who you are friends with on Facebook.Indeed, 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 targets of harassment. On the other hand, 67% of men declare being friends with a mixed-gender group of people that include both friends and family.

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.

Bar chart: Do you ever share photos of yourself on Facebook?Bar chart: Social media gives you the opportunity to say things you wouldn't otherwise say in person, radio/print/TV?

Social media is perceived to have had an overall positive effect on social issues by all private users surveyed, but perhaps surprisingly, women are more likely to perceive a positive effect than men.

When it comes to privacy, 69% think it has had a positive effect on privacy, and again women are more likely to think so. This may be counterintuitive, 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.

A Wider Snapshot of Social Media in Afghanistan

Beyond gender dynamics, Social Media in Afghanistan: Users and Engagement is an unprecedented current examination of the development and influence of social media on open expression and social change in Afghan society.

Findings, which can be explored more deeply in the report and accompanying data, include:

Social media users are homogenous and concentrated on Facebook
Users are predominantly young, urban and educated. Internet access remains the main barrier to social media access. 95% of social media users have a Facebook account. More than 80% of social media users access their accounts solely through their smartphone.

Bar chart: Types of social media accounts by popularity

Social media is filled with current affairs, but users would rather engage with entertainment and sports topics
Media organizations have invested in social media enthusiastically 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; mobilization through social media is much lower
Mobilizing users through social media for a specific cause faces many hurdles, but 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.

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Social Media in Afghanistan: Users and Engagement was produced by Altai Consulting for Internews, with support from Counterpart International under the USAID-funded Afghan Civic Engagement Program (ACEP). Laura Lindamood is Internews Director of Communications.


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