International Women's Day and citizen engagement on social media

Stefan Wallaschek, Kavyanjali Kaushik, Monika Verbalytė and Aleksandra Sojka highlight how gender equality campaigns, especially around International Women's Day, are only effective by adapting their messages to the national contexts. These campaigns must incorporate initiatives that allow more citizens to mobilise and take action

Across Europe, progress towards gender equality has met with resistance from ultra-religious, anti-gender movements and right-wing populist actors. The conservative backlash in countries like Hungary, Germany, Poland and Italy has resulted in legal bans and heated debates on the teaching of gender studies, use of gender-sensitive language, abortion rights and LGBTQI* equality.

But ideological, political and social conservatism also causes direct harm. It emboldens both physical attacks and hate speech on social media platforms against feminist activists, journalists, scholars, celebrities, politicians and the public. Such gender conflicts affect many countries across Europe but are rarely discussed beyond the nations where they originate. Social media is a unique space where conversations and debates can be studied transnationally to detect common patterns in pro- and anti-gender equality discourses, and actors who advance them.

Ideological, political and social conservatism emboldens physical attacks and hate speech

Our recently published study analyses the online dynamics of gender conflicts across three countries. It compares their mobilisation patterns for and against this core democratic value. We look at Twitter debates in Germany, Italy, and Poland, collecting data using popular terms related to gender equality in the period before and after the 2021 International Women’s Day (IWD). Amid the Covid‐19 pandemic, large rallies and marches barely occurred in 2021. Online mobilisation and debates have therefore become even more relevant. Such heightened public attention enables supporters to affirm their endorsement of equal rights. However, it may also attract anti-gender activists to occupy or even hijack the debate with their positions and discourses.

IWD 2021: how is gender equality mobilised online?

Debates on gender issues remain confined to their national Twitterspheres, the online public space where Twitter users interact. Issues raised in one country rarely generate the same kind of attention in others. Nonetheless, common themes do emerge across the three countries, such as equal rights, equal pay, LGBTQI* issues, and feminism.

Users in Germany diverged from the other two nations by discussing the broadest range of topics during IWD2021. They raised interconnected issues of climate, sex workers, diversity and minority rights in relation to gender equality. Italian users tweeted the most on IWD2021, but the volume did not result in a higher diversity of issues. Italian tweets stand out as having much greater focus on health-related issues, ranging from impact of the pandemic to femicide. Finally, Polish users discussed the narrowest range of topics. They mostly tweeted symbolic celebrations of the IWD event, rather than about issues related to gender equality. Thus, Twitter discourse during IWD2021 was rather issue-specific and shaped by its national context.

IWD2021 Twitter discourse was issue-specific and shaped by its national context

Content analysis of the tweets demonstrates that public discourse is predominantly pro‐gender equality. It supports empowerment, fighting patriarchy and speaking out against gender-related violence. But we also detect the presence of anti‐gender discourses across all three online public spheres. This discourse denounces claims on LGBTQI* and feminism as ‘gender ideology’, challenging LGBTQI* rights and using hateful expressions such as ‘Feminazis’.

IWD 2021: who is mobilising?

We found that although citizens strongly engage in social media debate, they do so in a more acclamatory way. This stands in contrast to the fewer but more politically mobilising tweets from political representatives and media actors. Many Twitter users simply tweeted ‘Happy International Women’s Day’, without mentioning any issue related to gender equality. They demonstrated awareness of the date but remained reluctant to persuade others why it was important.

Citizens often engage in a more acclamatory way, and their involvement does not automatically translate into visibility

Yet, citizens' public engagement does not translate automatically into high visibility and reach on Twitter. In terms of the number of interactions (likes, quotes, retweets and replies), Twitter users with an institutional affiliation, celebrities and influencers receive more attention than regular citizens simply because they have more followers.

Key lessons from the 2021 IWD campaign

Our study highlights four main takeaways. First, while the character of IWD mobilisation has potential to be transnational, direct implementation of the campaign may be nationally oriented and adapted to the most important issues in different countries to achieve citizens’ engagement. For instance, we expected the pandemic to shape the digital debate in 2021. However, only in Italy did a significant number of tweets link the gender equality debate to the Covid-19 crisis, highlighting the stronger impact of the pandemic on women.

Second, generic campaign themes such as the 2021 hashtag #choosetochallenge may fail to engage their target groups. They mobilise primarily those already aware of the campaign. While Twitter is inherently a transnational public space, campaigns should use issue-specific hashtags to raise awareness and engage citizens more widely.

Third, the institutionalisation of IWD as a specific global day of action creates a unique window of opportunity to mobilise on gender equality. This is a chance to address current challenges and set the public agenda with more emancipatory and empowering messages. The #MeToo movement is an example of the mobilisation of people in different countries for a common cause. Gender inequalities were successfully denounced, and patriarchal structures exposed, on a global level.

Finally, non-institutional users engage with gender equality issues. However, they do not receive many interactions and have low digital visibility because they tend to have few followers. Hence, we need new and more interactive formats. Perhaps celebrities and influencers, who often enjoy popularity across national borders, could address their followers. They may empower users to engage during the IWD period, make their voices heard, and politicise gender equality.

These are essential steps to reach new social groups. Thus, they can make the central statements of the women’s movement more visible and more impactful – nationally and globally.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Stefan Wallaschek Stefan Wallaschek Postdoctoral Researcher, Europa-Universität Flensburg More by this author
photograph of Kavyanjali Kaushik Kavyanjali Kaushik PhD Candidate, University Carlos III of Madrid More by this author
photograph of Monika Verbalytė Monika Verbalytė Research fellow, Europa-Universität Flensburg More by this author
photograph of Aleksandra Sojka Aleksandra Sojka Assistant Professor / Juan de la Cierva-Incorporación Fellow, Department of Social Sciences, University Carlos III of Madrid More by this author

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