#IranVotes: Political Discourse on Iranian Twitter During the 2016 Parliamentary Elections

by Rebekah Heacock Jones

Iran's elections in February saw voters decisively sweep away one of the most conservative parliaments in the Islamic Republic's history, and deliver a fresh legislature far friendlier to President Rouhani's political agenda. But how was this victory won?

Iran VotesOn June 22, Small Media launches a new report in partnership with the Internet Monitor project — #IranVotes: Political Discourse on Iranian Twitter During the 2016 Parliamentary Elections. The report, coauthored by James Marchant, Amin Sabeti, Kyle Bowen, John Kelly, and Rebekah Heacock Jones, delves deep into Iran's Twittersphere, engaging in network analysis and content analysis to test claims that online spaces formed a key battleground in the contest. What we found was a vibrant, political, and outward-looking online public engaged in a lively political debate about the country's future.

Twitter has been officially blocked in Iran since the 2009 election crackdown, meaning that Iranians need to make use of circumvention tools and VPNs to access it. With government estimates putting Twitter's Iranian user base at 4 million, it's clear that this policy hasn't been a great success.

Our study finds that when Iranian Twitter users are political, they're overwhelmingly reformist—around a fifth of the users in our network are members of reformist-leaning groups, compared to the 3% who are associated with conservative groups. Consequently, conservatives have found themselves squeezed to the margins, sharing the Twitter wilderness with the spam-bot armies of the exiled Mujahedin-e Khalq opposition group.

Twitter isn't all politics, however. We found that the Iranian Twittersphere is home to a large community of technology experts, bloggers, and entrepreneurs who sit at the beating heart of Iran's thriving tech sector. These tech communities exist alongside sprawling communities of cultural enthusiasts — poets, writers and filmgoers — along with plenty of other users who just want to chat, flirt, and share cat videos.

Given the ongoing restrictions on political and social activities, Twitter offered a valuable space to debate and campaign during the election period. Although it has been eclipsed by Telegram and Facebook in terms of its user base, Twitter continues to serve a valuable function to bridge the gap between Iran's citizens and the country's diaspora.

Our Key Findings:

  • Reformists dominate Twitter-based politics in Iran — around a fifth of the users in our network are members of reformist-leaning groups, compared to the 3% who are associated with conservative groups.
  • Twitter was a key election news source, but campaigning happened elsewhere — Although plenty of Iranian citizens used Twitter to share the latest election news, it looks like more popular platforms like Facebook and Telegram were host to more political campaigning.
  • Reformists are better campaigners on Twitter — The campaigns that did emerge on Twitter were mostly driven by reformists. Conservative campaigns were only shared within groups of diehard conservatives, whereas reformist messages spread throughout the network.
  • Twitter is an important bridge between the diaspora and Iran — Around a quarter of the network is composed of Iranians who state they are living in the diaspora. These members are very well integrated into both political and apolitical networks, rather than making up a separate group.

The full paper is available for download at SSRN: #IranVotes: Political Discourse on Iranian Twitter During the 2016 Parliamentary Elections

For more information, please contact James Marchant at james@smallmedia.org.uk or Rebekah Heacock Jones at rhj@cyber.law.harvard.edu

About Small Media

Small Media is a London-based non-profit that aims to increase the flow of information in closed societies by conducting research, providing training and supporting the development of technology solutions. Small Media is driven by the ethos that small media can bring about big change and consistently looks to support communities and individuals in advancing freedom of expression in closed societies. For more, see smallmedia.org.uk.

About Internet Monitor

Internet Monitor is a research project based at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Internet Monitor's aim is to evaluate, describe, and summarize the means, mechanisms, and extent of Internet content controls and Internet activity around the world. The project helps researchers, advocates, policymakers, and user communities understand trends in Internet health and activity through research, analysis, and data visualization. Internet Monitor is funded by the US Department of State and the MacArthur Foundation. For more, see thenetmonitor.org.