Using Social Media Data to Protect Women’s Political Participation in Zimbabwe

Data2X March 06, 2023

It is estimated that over seventy percent of women have been exposed to or experienced online violence and harassment. Online harassment toward women is typically seen as a normal part of social media—but it greatly limits women’s ability to safely access the digital world. 

When women and gender-diverse individuals participate in politics, they face an even higher threat of online violence. The potential risk of violence limits women from running for political office safely and fairly against opponents who are men, affecting all women, their families, and their communities. Women political leaders greatly benefit society at large, and data collection is a first step in creating accountability for online violence against women.  

In Zimbabwe, deep-seated gender inequities and violence against women has led to fewer women running for office than men. To make a policy case for action against online violence, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) knew this problem needed to be accurately measured. They created the Violence Against Women in Elections (VAWE) Online Social Media Analysis Tool to count instances of hate speech against women. Their research directly impacted how Zimbabwe protects women’s political participation today. 

How did the VAWE Online Social Media Analysis Tool work?

The Violence Against Women in Elections (VAWE) Online Social Media Analysis Tool uses a software called “Brandwatch,” typically used to track online trends for consumer research. IFES researchers instead tracked hate speech directed at prominent women in politics.  

“We developed a hate speech lexicon, identifying words used on the internet to perpetuate hate speech and violence towards women,” says IFES Senior Global Gender Specialist Gina Chirillo, “From the lexicon, we could find public threats of physical, sexual and psycho-social violence towards women on social media platforms.”  

Once data was collected, IFES consolidated their data into an assessment report for relevant stakeholders in Zimbabwe.

How did the tool lead to direct action in Zimbabwe?

Using the VAWE tool, IFES discovered that over 60 percent of abusive and violent online political discourse was toward women from 2013 to 2018. Women only make up a third of Zimbabwe’s National Assembly members.  

By presenting this data, IFES made a compelling case for action at the national level in Zimbabwe ahead of their 2018 elections. Law enforcement declared zero tolerance for electoral violence and committed to prosecute online harassers of women in politics.  

Setting Up Future Work 

The case of Zimbabwe is proof that this data is important to provoke action, and IFES has identified improvements to the tool for future use. According to Gina Chirillo, the experience of using the VAWE tool has spring-boarded future work to combat online harassment in other countries. Researchers now know that the tool requires significant time investments and a deep understanding of how VAWE manifests itself in different political contexts. Refining the dataset that the tool is trained on or upgrading the underlying algorithm could further improve the results but would require both funding and the commitment of resources from the international community and private sector. 

In the meantime, IFES continues to study and work to prevent and mitigate both online violence against women in politics. It has pivoted to using online violence data collection tools like surveys, focus group discussions, and key informant interviews to collect information in a way that is most time effective and cost effective to better inform programming.  

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