By Ana Blatnik
As it turns out, gender stereotyping and biases that have had a serious impact on women’s safety in the physical world now appear in our social media feeds. This may not be surprising in itself, but the severity of consequences brought about by these threats is. From the 2016 US presidential elections to a year-long Ukrainian smear campaign against a woman parliamentarian, we now have recorded examples of gendered disinformation campaigns that successfully framed public debates about politicians and, terrifyingly, influenced voters’ views. As such, this article focuses on highlighting the threat to democracy posed by online gendered disinformation campaigns targeting women politicians and explores potential solutions.
What is gendered disinformation?
To begin with, two main differing terms co-exist under the umbrella of what is colloquially known as fake news: misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is the word used for “false information shared with no intention of causing harm.” Disinformation, on the other hand, contains the intent to harm in some way. Because a growing body of research shows that false information is directly used with the intent to negatively impact the person concerned, especially when it comes to gendered falsehoods, this article uses the term disinformation throughout.
Disinformation is gendered if it targets women on the basis of their identity as women. Research shows at least one of two contrasting approaches is usually taken when it comes to online attacks on women politicians. First, there is the presentation of women leaders as enemies and, secondly, as victims without agency. In doing so, rather than directly attacking the policy decisions women make, as is the case with male politicians, gender stereotypical characteristics (like being emotional or polite) and physical appearance are used instead to challenge female politicians. Such disinformation may come in different forms, from harmful graphics to conspiracy theories. A known example of graphics usage is the case of Ukrainian parliamentarian Svitlana Zalishchuk who, following a pro-women’s rights UN speech, experienced a year-long social media disinformation campaign consisting of fabricated sexualized information and images. Sadly, this is just one of many examples, with research showing that nearly 42% of women politicians have seen “extremely humiliating or sexually charged images of themselves” online. A well-researched instance is the 2016 US presidential election, when Hillary Clinton was demonized through fabricated evidence of involvement in trafficking scandals and misconstrued videos about the state of her health. In either case, the disinformation focused on objectification and reinforcement of gender stereotypical characteristics.
What does it mean for women?
As highlighted above, a common result of disinformation campaigns is that the female politician’s fitness to lead is undermined. An obvious consequence of such is that negative public debate surrounding her is either initiated or amplified and that the woman politician concerned will find it harder to work effectively. Another devastating consequence is that women who observe these attacks happening to others may hesitate entering politics in the first place. This kind of effect has been seen in the Georgian pre-election period when several female politicians signaled their intention to run and became targets of a smear campaign filled with fabricated intimate videos. One research study that interviewed over eighty women politicians and experts shows gender-based abuse and disinformation in the digital space presents a serious “barrier for women who want to engage in politics and a serious disincentive for young women to consider a political career.” Therefore, the direct negative consequences for the women targeted also confirm this chain effect as a challenge for women pursuing a political career.
What does it mean for democracy?
Any disinformation campaign that targets politicians should also be of utmost concern because of its serious implications for democracy. As part of a democratic society, voters can participate in public debates as well-informed citizens and have full freedom of expression in doing so. In facilitation of these rights, voters must have access to impartial, fact-based sources of information so they can form their opinions in the first place. When people are disinformed, however, this is not possible, and so the democratic process is directly impeded. In many cases, this kind of influence on people’s minds can also be seen as election interference – a goal of many state-sponsored disinformation campaigns. The risk of having disinformed voters can hardly be ignored when online campaigns usually target marginalized groups, such as women, and where stereotypes and biases are more often than not already present in voters and therefore easily amplified and abused.
What are the possible solutions?
When it comes to moderating information available online, there are ongoing debates about the most productive and ethical approach. The first and milder form is information regulation, where the content flagged as false is accompanied with fact-checked information. Certain social media platforms have experimented with this system during Covid-19: any mention of the pandemic on the platform would include a link to a credible source of information. An alternative to platform-led regulation is co-regulation, where requirements for posting of fact-checked information are mandated by legislative and regulatory bodies. At the same time, however, it is important to note that some research suggests corrective techniques have questionable effectiveness because people are often “resistant to information correction.” This has proven to be especially relevant when it comes to psychological biases, such as gender bias, and suggests other methods need to be considered as well.
Mandated removal of disinformation is a potential alternative in cases where the addition of fact-checked information is not deemed to be productive. In such cases, the legislative and regulatory bodies set the parameters for social media platforms or independent bodies to carry out the regulations. Governments in countries like France, Germany, and Canada have attempted to adopt this approach. Their efforts range from empowering authorities, removing false information, and imposing fines on platforms for not removing the deceptive material. For gendered issues specifically, however, training would also be necessary to ensure the programs and individuals responsible for spotting false information take into account the fact that gendered speech has become the norm on many platforms. At the same time, this process requires clear proportionality boundaries between the impact of any piece of false information and preservation of free speech, which is subject to ongoing debate.
At the same time, the effectiveness of gendered disinformation campaigns is fully dependent on the impact it has on voters. If every person used critical thinking when engaging online, the prevalence of such campaigns would likely decrease. As such, states and social media platforms must also focus on awareness-raising and the critical involvement of informed citizens. In fact, several countries have implemented cyber education initiatives. For example, Belgium has invested in projects that inform people about disinformation and include them in finding solutions. The UK’s education secretary announced in 2019 that online safety, including about false information, will be taught in schools. Ahead of the latest European Union elections, the Dutch government launched a social media campaign with the goal of increasing users’ awareness about false information. If such initiatives reach enough people, they can become a powerful tool in ensuring that voters are equipped to spot the disinformation online when other options for correction or removal have been exhausted.
What about a gendered lens in solutions?
However, it is important to point out that these initiatives rarely include considerations of gender, despite the fact that identity-based attacks have specific working mechanisms. Given the presence of subconscious biases, many voters may already hold some of the beliefs being perpetuated by such disinformation. In a similar vein, social media platform moderators may fail to spot the disinformation because stereotypes and biases about marginalized groups have not been adequately flagged in their systems. For these reasons, it is all the more important that the issue of disinformation and the potential solutions start to be analyzed through a gendered lens at the policy making level and within social media platforms.
For that to happen, raising more awareness about the unique dangers faced by women politicians online needs to occur, and more pressure must be put on social media platforms to ensure moderation mechanisms spot gendered disinformation in the first place. While the US Democratic Women’s Caucus, along with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and over a hundred women politicians across the world, sent a letter urging Facebook to do their part in curbing gendered disinformation campaigns already, by no means should this be a battle fought only by women politicians. As this article and much of the research looking at the impact of gendered disinformation makes clear, the campaigns also infringe on voters’ rights and can have lasting impacts on democracy. As such, curbing gendered disinformation online should be everyone’s concern.
What you can do today:
- Find fact-checking websites relevant to your region and topics of interest. For example, if interested in the European Union politics, EU Fact Check looks at the accuracy of political statements made about current issues.
- If available, always check multiple sources on the same topic when reading the news.
- Look into and, if possible, support organizations that recognize gendered disinformation is a problem and advocate for solutions. An example of such is the EU Disinfo Lab, which has studied and written about gendered disinformation campaigns to highlight the issue.
- Research the ways in which you could bring up the issue to relevant authorities in your country of residence and challenge your public representatives on what they have done to address disinformation and to support women politicians who are the targets of disinformation campaigns.
- Most importantly, continue to educate yourself about gender stereotypes and biases so you can recognize them when interacting with news about women politicians online, especially in election periods. The WIIS website has a Resources page that may be a good starting point in that regard.
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