#IWD2018 (4/5): Six lessons on research from women’s rights activists in the Pacific

It’s blog post writing day and time for my contribution to Volte-face’s coverage of International Women’s Day (IWD) #IWD2018.

The Pacific

Papuan women
Toothy grins from Papuan Women

Going on a regional theme started by my fellow bloggers, I thought I’d take a step out of my comfort zone and cover a geographical area that I don’t know much about when it comes to new media, activism and development: the Pacific. Now I’ll say right from the start the Pacific is vast and I use the term ‘cover’ VERY loosely! In fact, I suppose what I’m really talking about is the South Pacific (south of the equator) and I’ve deliberately decided to exclude South America and Australia and New Zealand from the search too – the former because the context is so very different culturally and the latter due to their Western-ness (if you catch my long shore drift).

Even then, there are just too many small island states out there to do a proper search justice, so, instead of defining a sub-region such as Melanesia, Polynesia etc, I thought I’d let the content online do the talking.

Let me say right now, my experience conducting this search was really revealing!

The processes I went through, and lack of finding out much about what I’d set out to, demonstrated that research is never an innocent process and the lessons I learned here, I hope will be useful for other researchers in new media and activism.

My pre-existing biases and ‘knowledge’

Coming at this research question with the target of ‘mapping #IWD2018 in the pacific’ already in mind presented problems from the get go. I wasn’t coming at the issue with my mind as a blank slate; there were a few things I knew, or thought I knew, about the pacific from a development perspective already (albeit on a very general level). These included:

  • Domestic violence and violence against women and girls is high in the region
  • Internet penetration is generally also high
  • Other issues affecting the region include: climate change and sea level rise; conflict / post conflict; colonisation / imperialism; fair tourism; water scarcity and water equity; natural resource depletion;
  • The region is super diverse

What this meant was that almost instantly, my mind starting conjuring up all sorts of images of what I thought I would find… perhaps:

  • Surges of tweets with the #IWD2018 passing across the pacific like a giant tsunami, each with their own distinct island community colours and vibe;
  • Viral images of strong pacific women under palm trees with afro hair and flowers, standing behind banners and placards etc.

It turns out – these biases would set me up to fail.

So – my search got underway….

My fellow blogger drew my attention first of all to ‘Trendsmap’ (a platform that maps tweets geographically via hashtag data). I thought this would be a good place to start and I’d be able to actually visualise my tweet tsunami as it makes it way across the Pacific!

I centred in on the South Pacific and begin clicking through the days from 00:01 on the 6th March (a couple of days before IWD) and waited for the wave of tweets to appear… I clicked and kept clicking… 6th March 6am I get my first ‘bite’! #girls is hashtagged in Fiji by the Fiji Womens Rights Movement…not quite the one I was looking for but close enough…

Search on Trendsmap

I keep clicking and there it is at 7am: Fiji National University tweets with the hashtag #IWD2018 – the first time it appears in my search! But hang on – this isn’t exactly activism of the sort I was expecting. It’s really an advertisement for the university’s medicine and health science degrees. I click away – it’s clearly not what I was after. A few moments later I realise the error of my ways and my first lesson is learned:

Lesson Learned #1: just because you don’t find what you’re looking for doesn’t mean it’s not important!

Looking at the image again, I see that it uses a picture of pacific-looking women in white lab coats, safety glasses and clinical masks carrying out what appears to be an intricate medical procedure.

Tweet from Fiji National University about
Tweet by Fiji National University using the #IWD2018 hashtag about their medicine and health sciences degrees. Not what I was expecting – Lesson #1!

When this didn’t meet my stereotype of what I was expecting to find (i.e. the grass-skirted women with the flowers standing under palm trees) I clicked away. But this is in fact a very useful bit of information. From this we can see how its not just activists using the campaign hashtag but that institutions in the Pacific are also capitalising on what they anticipate to be a popular theme, so as to tap in to their target market more successfully. I note this and continue my search on Trendsmap.

Stereotypes

I keep going, clicking forward in time, hour by hour… and keep going…click, click… finally – the next tweet using #IWD2018 appears at 1AM on the 7th March – again it comes from Fiji but this time it hits more of my stereotypes: an image of pacific women sitting on palm leaf mats with flowers in the background and proud afro hair on display.

Fijian women discussing and mobilising
Tweet by @diva4equality using #IWD2018

But who is this group ‘Diva for Equality’, who issued the tweet? Their Twitter bio reads:

Sexual rights and South Feminist Development Alternatives #divafiji and #diva4equality Note: a ‘follow’ does NOT equal an endorsement/agreement

I am ashamed and embarrassed to say I wasn’t expecting to see an activist group from the Pacific overtly fighting for ‘sexual rights’ within an academic framing such as ‘South Feminist Development Alternatives’. Why not? My stereotyping had clearly got the better of me…

 

Lesson Learned #2: stereotypes lead to unconscious bias which influences the research process and approach

Context

The next Tweets don’t appear until IWD itself, and again appear in Fiji – this time #IWD2018 is accompanied by #pressforprogress and #internationalwomensday.

‘#gender’ appears shortly afterwards via a video from a man with white hair – it’s Antonio Guterres – again, not exactly the image I would have associated with women in the pacific – but the thematic area is along the right lines. However, it’s kind of ironic that one of the first Tweets in the pacific on the theme of IWD is coming from a white, European, grey-haired, middle-aged man not in the pacific!

Lesson Learned #3: context varies across spatial scales

Hashtag hegemony

With not many more new themes appearing on Trendsmap around the #IWD2018 throughout the rest of the day, I try and verify what I’m finding via the advanced search function on Twitter, defining the location as Fiji, the hashtag #IWD2018 and the time period, 24hrs over 8th March. Searching in this way revealed a lot more tweets with the hashtag covering a wide range of themes from videos of marches in Suva to poems about women and promotional posts by development agencies. Some of these confirm my stereotypes, others destroy them! Changing the location to other areas in the Pacific reveals rich new seams of information. If I hadn’t have cross-referenced my sources and just focussed on the Trendsmap visualisation, my results would have been massively skewed.

Lesson Learned #4: Cross-referencing your results can help reduce skew

Unconscious associations

With all this lesson learning, I was starting to feel uneasy about my research techniques! It occurred to me that I’d made another big assumption by having ideas in my head before I started. Remember my vision of the tsunami of tweets? Why did I assume Twitter was the platform used in the Pacific by activists campaigning under IWD hashtags? It is quite possible that this reveals a tendency for me to associate hashtags with Twitter more generally. If this is the case, it has serious implications for researchers in online activism and researches in general! I had momentarily forgotten that hashtags also play important roles across many other digital platforms – a key error!

 

In fact, it appears that Facebook is by far the most popular social media messaging platform in the pacific as these great infographics by Kepios, in partnership with Hootsuite and We Are Social, show. Searches on Facebook using #IWD2018 produced a wealth of results and considerably more content, both in terms of quantity and diversity, than I was able to recover from Twitter.

Kepios infographic illustrating Top Messenger Apps by Country. Blue indicates Facebook Messenger – the South Pacific is predominantly blue!

Lesson Learned #5: using multiple sources whilst keeping one variable constant (in this case the search term #IWD2018) improves accuracy, quantity and quality of results

The perilous life of a researcher

Through these five lessons alone I’ve learned a lot! I’m going to stop now before I loose all confidence in my research capabilities and having failed to present any conclusive results on activism as it appeared in the Pacific around the hashtag #IWD2018. Well, as I said, it is a big, diverse region and this topic was hugely ambitious for a blog post. But perhaps before I wrap up there’s one more lesson that this process has revealed:

Lesson Learned #6: Critical self-reflection by the researcher throughout the research process is perhaps just as important and worthy of consideration as the results and findings of the research!