Stealthy Protest: Collective Identity and the Affordances of Social Media

CGCS Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Emad Khazraee discusses his research project with Alison Novak on socio-political activism and women’s rights in Iran, featuring My Stealthy Freedom as a case study. Emad and Alison will present their project at the ICA on May 25, 2015. 

It is likely most Facebook users have come across a Facebook page supporting a socio-political cause. The popularity of these pages reinforces the need to better understand their affordances for socio-political activism. In an effort to address this issue, a recent research project I undertook with Alison Novak[1] studied campaign pages on Facebook advocating for women’s rights in relation to the dress code in Iran. One of the pages we analyzed, My Stealthy Freedom, acts as a strong case study. My Stealthy Freedom’s (MSF) page was created in April 2014 by Masih Alinejad, an expat Iranian journalist based in the United Kingdom. In an effort to digitally protest hijab laws that restrict women’s right to choose their own cover, Alinejad first shared a photograph of herself online, riding in a convertible without hijab, and then encouraged women inside Iran to share pictures of their own “stealthy freedom.” Soon women from inside Iran shared their own photos taken in a public space without hijab. These photos were often accompanied by a message providing the background stories, grievances, or opinions of the user. In the weeks that followed, MSF became an internationally recognized page and was followed by 500,000 users on Facebook, resulting in reactions both outside and inside Iran.

The support Alinejad’s page received through likes, comments and thousands of shares on Facebook show solidarity with those advocating women’s rights in Iran, as the page represents a collective platform for protesting hijab laws. But how do social media pages such as MSF contribute to the formation of a collective identity among protesters?

Previous work by Melucci (1985, 1995) identifies a framework for studying collective identity. This framework, when applied to this case, reveals how MSF contributes to: 1) achieving shared meaning and relationship with the environment; 2) defining boundaries; and 3) creating solidarity and bond among supporters of women’s rights.


Shared Meaning and Relationship with Environment

Storytelling acts as a mechanism to achieve shared meaning. Shared meaning is part of the process that creates a shared identity through the creation of shared frames. The goal of MSF is to mobilize public support regarding the issue of women’s rights, hijab law, and the female body. MSF asks users to disclose a secret in the public sphere; transforming something “stealthy” into something public with risks. This is a paradoxical situation that encourages the audience to contemplate the circumstances of women in Iran. Those who contribute to MSF share their experience and frustration with dress code laws. These shared experiences and stories become the basis for the formation of a collective identity by defining the relationship of the members with the environment and achieving a shared understanding of a situation. Social media creates the necessary public space with rich visual affordances. The sharing of experiences is performed by presenting visual embodied practices that focus around the values associated with the female body. Melucci argues that in many social movements “the body in its different significations becomes the cultural locus of resistance (Melucci, 1980, p. 221).”

MSF brings to surface a severe latent tension between women’s movements and the conservative groups controlling power in Iran. This tension can also be seen in recent controversies regarding restrictions on birth control and higher education for females in Iran. This tension is understood as a conflict over cultural patterns (Touraine, 1985). MSF gives women a chance to tell their stories; they can talk about the oppressed ethical values of a major part of society. It thus gives a voice to the voiceless. An important aspect of the use of social media as a platform for a campaign such as MSF is that the discursive framing process in this movement is formed around an emergent narrative which is the result of incremental contribution of every member of the group. These narratives are not created through a top-down process by the administrators of the page or movement entrepreneurs, but collectively constructed through engagement of users.


Defining Boundaries

Collective identity needs to both distinguish the collective self from the ‘other’ while being recognized by those ‘others.’ Collective identity is a reflexive process of understanding users’ relationship with the context and field of action (Melucci, 1995). The boundary work requires protagonist and antagonist framing (Hunt et al. 1994). The boundary work of MSF is focused on defining a liminal space between the internal discriminative environment and the international sanctioning atmosphere. There is an element of performance on the page which works to portray an image of Iranian women that contradicts popular representations of Iranian women in western media as either women under veil or the very Westernized elite youth in Iran.  MSF can be seen as an attempt to create a realistic image of Iranian women by distancing itself from both images. To this end, MSF needs to create a new collective identity which is formed around the under-presented aspects of females’ lives in Iran. MSF does this visually, using the abilities of social media to share images of everyday practice of stealthy freedom by Iranian women.


Solidarity and Bond

Flesher Fominaya (2010) argues that creating a sense of one-ness is necessary to create a collective identity. Such campaign pages create a sense of “one-ness” or “we-ness” of Iranian women. Shared histories and memories can generate bonds between activists and sustain movements. MSF successfully used stories and affective ties to create bond and a shared identity among the group members. Members feel connected to stories posted on the page because they have similar experiences. The shared feeling of risk gained from participating on the MSF page, even through liking and commenting, works as another mechanism for creating solidarity among members. Gamson (1991) argues that, “public demonstrations of commitment under conditions of risk help create solidarity and strengthen it” (p. 46). Users on the page openly discuss the risk they make by participating and praise the courage of other users. These publicized fears and support bonds the group together.

Bennett and Segerberg (2012) introduced the notion of connective action. They argue that the  personalized content sharing across media networks is fundamental to formation of connective action. They add connective action is characterized by self-motivated action, diversity, and inclusiveness of frames (personal frames). Therefore, personalized public engagement is necessary for connective action. We argue that MSF is by its nature a site and exemplar of connective action. As mentioned, the personalized public communication started to create an organization and a kernel for collective identity, one that is “more derived through inclusive and diverse large-scale personal expression rather than through common group or ideological identification.” (Bennett & Segerberg, 2011, p. 744)



Visual and discursive affordances of social media pages (e.g. on Facebook) support the formation of collective identity in rather decentralized approaches. Storytelling capabilities in addition to visual representation of embodied forms for protest create a powerful means through which diverse groups can collectively and incrementally form and shape a movement narrative. In this process, the movement narrative and collective identity formed through many individual contributions. Individual contributions of movement participants gradually define the boundaries of the movement and its shared frames. Visually presented individual stories are strong means for creating bonds and solidarity among movement members. All members can make a personal connection with situation both through the story and the image. These elements together support the formation of a movement collective identity by a large group of dispersed participants. MSF is a great example which reveals how a movement collective identity can be formed through diverse personal contributions on a social media page.


Emad Khazraee is a Post-Doctoral research fellow at the Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his Ph.D. in Information Studies form College of Computing and Informatics, Drexel University. His research is formed around the interplay between social and technical phenomena, and his doctoral research focuses on knowledge production processes in data-intensive, collaborative and multidisciplinary communities of practice.

In another research trajectory, he is looking at the cultural differences in new media use and the relationship between social change and repressive cultural environments. Relying on socio-technical approaches to social media studies and conceptual frameworks developed in Science Technology Studies (STS), he is exploring the role of Social Networking Sites (SNS) in the creation of virtual public spaces.

Emad also received his Master’s Degree in Architecture from the University of Tehran. In addition to practicing as an architect in Iran, he worked in the preservation of historical monuments and sites before joining the Encyclopaedia of Iranian Architectural History (EIAH) in 2006, where he was the director of the ICT Department (2006-2009), with the goal of creating infrastructure for meaningful integration of information technology into cultural heritage practices.


Alison N. Novak is a visiting assistant professor at Temple University in Media Studies and Production. She received her Ph.D. from Drexel University in Communication, Culture, and Media. Her research focuses on youth civic and political engagement online and across cultures. She is currently co-editing the volume, “Defining Identity and the Changing Scope of Culture in the Digital Age.”



Bennett, W. L., & Segerberg, A. (2011). Digital media and the personalization of collective action. Information, Communication & Society, 14(6), 770–799.

Bennett, W. L. (2012). The Personalization of Politics Political Identity, Social Media, and Changing Patterns of Participation. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 644(1), 20–39.

Flesher Fominaya, C. (2010). Collective Identity in Social Movements: Central Concepts and Debates. Sociology Compass, 4(6), 393–404.

Gamson, W. A. (1991). Commitment and Agency in Social Movements. Sociological Forum, 6(1), 27–50.

Hunt, S. A., Benford, R. D., & Snow, D. A. (1994). Identity Fields: Framing Processes and the Social Construction of Movement Identities. In E. Laraña, H. Johnston, & J. R. Gusfield (Eds.), New social movements: from ideology to identity (pp. 185–208). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Melucci, A. (1980). The new social movements: A theoretical approach. Social Science Information, 19(2), 199–226.

Melucci, A. (1985). The Symbolic Challenge of Contemporary Movements. Social Research, 52(4), 789–816.

Melucci, A. (1995). The process of collective identity. In H. Johnston & B. Klandermans (Eds.), Social movements and culture (pp. 41–63). Minneapolis, Minn: University of Minnesota Press.

Touraine, A. (1985). An Introduction to the Study of Social Movements. Social Research, 52(4), 749–787.


[1] Visiting Assistant Professor, Media Studies & Production, Temple University


Featured Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by Please! Don’t Smile.

  1. El president iranià treu importància a la protesta a Facebook d’una dona contra el “hijab” a la televisió francesa · Global Voices en Català

    […] S'esperava que en el viatge a França de Rouhani, els caps d'estat discutissin matèries importants, com el tracte nuclear signat a Viena al juliol o el conflicte sirià. De fet, aquest viatge ha estat una fita important en la diplomàcia de l'Iran i la cooperació amb Occident. No obstant això, les reaccions moderades del president a les preguntes sobre el hijab han provocat reaccions diverses, especialment la de Masih Alinejad, una periodista iraniana que viu a Nova York. Alinejad és la creadora de la pàgina de Facebook que s'ha descrit com un nou moviment social per als drets de la dona a l'Iran. […]

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