Defining the Problem
All over the world, women in politics and journalism experience relentless volumes of online abuse, threats, and gendered disinformation campaigns on social media – and things are even worse for women facing intersectional discrimination and bias on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, and other factors. These campaigns are designed to discredit, devalue, and delegitimize women’s political standing, with the goal of ultimately undermining their ability to participate in civic life.
Because of online abuse and disinformation, many women decide against running for office, self-censor, or refrain from speaking out, while illiberal actors become bolder in their use of social media as a tool to silence opposition, roll back women’s rights, and erode democratic institutions.
Sexism on the campaign trail is sadly nothing new – yet the way digital platforms are designed exponentially increases misogyny to the point of weakening social norms of inclusion and civil discourse, and normalizing abuse and impunity for its perpetrators.
Social media algorithms change behavior by incentivizing fake and sensationalized content – over-supplying it to users in the name of profit. This makes it much easier for gendered disinformation campaigns against women to be organized, amplified, and cheaply financed, reaching millions of people and changing the course of history.
Gendered disinformation is the spread of deceptive or inaccurate information and images against women political leaders, journalists, and female public figures. Following story lines that draw on misogyny, and gendered stereotypes, the goal of these attacks is to frame female politicians and government officials as inherently untrustworthy, unintelligent, unlikable, or uncontrollable – too emotional to hold office or participate in democratic politics. Building on sexist narratives and characterized by malign intent and coordination, gendered disinformation both distorts the public understanding of women politicians’ track records and discourages women from seeking political careers.
The definition and understanding of gendered disinformation are evolving as evidence is gathered about both the role of technology to accentuate hate and bias, and the ways that these tools can be weaponized for malign intent.
Read more about gendered disinformation here.
Decades of research around gender bias in politics indicates that women leaders are held to higher standards compared to their male counterparts. They must be more likable to be seen as qualified and are judged more harshly on their appearance and personal lives. These pre-existing biases serve to organize and amplify gendered disinformation, bringing into the mainstream attacks that often originate in the dark corners of the internet.
Sexism in politics is made worse by a social media environment where image-based, fact-void content often becomes viral.
Available data analytics from political campaigns both in Europe and the United States show that not only are women politicians more likely to be targeted with higher volumes of online abuse and disinformation, but these attacks are more likely to be steeped in sexism, often focusing on their character and sexuality. These attacks permeate the public discourse, and often negatively impact their perceived likeability. According to our own research and interviews, we believe that the same is true in many other regions of the world. Much more resources should be devoted to further understanding these dynamics.
Read more about how online abuse specifically targets women here.
Sexism on the campaign trail is sadly nothing new. Yet, what is new is that digital technology has made it much easier for gendered disinformation campaigns to be organized and amplified, and cheaply financed, reaching millions of people and changing the course of history. Harmful narratives are boosted and amplified through algorithms that make such content sticky and often viral, serving companies’ commercial interests at the expense of society. Through cross-channel repetition, coordinated sharing and means of simulating artificial topic momentum, attacks to undermine women can easily be taken to scale.
Read more about technology’s role in amplifying gendered disinformation here.
Despite a great deal of attention paid to disinformation and its impact on democracy, relatively little consideration has been given to the way in which misogyny intersects with misinformation and extremism online, creating insecure environments ripe for the consolidation of power that leave women by the wayside.
As women have been among the most outspoken critics of populist authoritarian political leaders in many countries, state-led gendered disinformation campaigns have been used to silence and deter them, stifling their calls for better governance.
These types of attacks do not only represent a threat to the women they target. Weaponized by malign foreign and domestic actors, these attacks threaten democratic institutions and have important ramifications for global peace and security and the broader human rights system.
Find out more about how gendered disinformation is used as a tool by authoritarian leaders to silence outspoken women critics and the need for a new digital social contract to prevent it here.
Unadulterated freedom of expression is a privilege of the powerful. The truth is that today, there is no freedom of expression for the millions of women all over the world who are doxxed, threatened, and vilified online. Evidence shows that as a result of the abuse they experience or witness online, young women report being discouraged from seeking leadership roles, exercising self-censorship, or totally disengaging from social media, resulting in a chilling effect of freedom of expression for women, including journalists, and particularly women of ethnic minorities, or members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Stronger platform standards are a condition for true freedom of expression for everyone – not only the powerful and the bullies.
Most social media platforms’ recommender systems are built to maximize attention, and because lies bring more engagement than truth, the spread of disinformation is automated for profit. Harmful narratives are boosted and artificially amplified through algorithmic preferences that make such content sticky and often viral.
The evidence trail is growing, as multiple Facebook/Meta whistleblowers have spoken out about their experience of Facebook prioritizing profit over protecting both users on their platforms and democratic systems.
Watch a campaign here where women ask Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to #HaveOurBack.
Without increased attention and resources directed specifically towards combating gendered disinformation, women’s political involvement will continue to be undermined and democratic institutions will, in turn, continue to weaken.
We’re making change by creating global frameworks to prevent gendered disinformation, establishing social media standards that remove current platform incentives, and providing women leaders the tools necessary for digital resilience.
In absence of strong digital platform regulation, civil society and philanthropy must rise to the challenge and confront the threat that undermining women leaders poses to democratic values.
Read more here about how you can support our work!
Over 4 billion people utilize social media and the internet as a key source of information around politics and governance. Social media platforms represent an essential space for democracy, political campaigning, and civic engagement. For women in politics, it often offers a rare platform where they can drive their own narrative. As the world shifted even more online during the COVID-19 pandemic, social media has become one of the only and most important ways to reach constituencies.
Read more here about how, despite its harms, social media, if properly regulated, could provide some invaluable opportunities for women in politics.
While some point to the importance of media literacy to build public immunity against misogyny and promote critical thinking, it’s unclear that it can represent a viable solution to most of the disinformation and hate that are proliferating online. This is even more true for misogynistic and racist content, which taps into emotionally loaded implicit bias against women and minorities in power. Fact-checking and media literacy have little impact on altering this type of content, or its emotional effects on people.
Instead, reform should be centered around social media platforms and refining our collective understanding of online harms and gender bias. Read more about our recommendations for regulatory solutions here.