In this article:
- Gendered disinformation combines old sexism with new technology.
- This type of online gender-based violence uses fake news to discredit women and drive them away from public spaces, often to preserve existing political networks.
- In the form of fake stories, images, and videos, gendered disinformation has risen in recent years alongside the rise of authoritarianism around the globe.
- Though women leaders and advocacy groups have launched initiatives to help address the issue, much and more can still be done both by social media platforms and governments in the fight for women’s rights and for democracy itself.
In the Philippines, a sitting senator is not allowed to use electronic devices, see her son graduate, or leave her jail cell. Her name is Leila De Lima, and she was arrested five years ago on trumped-up drug charges — on the word of self-confessed drug lords whose cases were later dropped.
Her real crime? Calling for an investigation of extrajudicial killings in the country’s sham of a drug war, which turned a blind eye to drug lords but killed thousands, including children.
While the drug accusations were inflammatory, the thing that helped President Rodrigo Duterte ensure De Lima was jailed was, of all things, a sex tape.
And it wasn’t even of her.
It’s been five years, but the memory of the misogynistic campaign against her, both in Congress and on social media, is chilling. According to Duterte, the alleged video supposedly featured her and her driver-turned-lover, who was also involved in illegal drugs. The video was later revealed to be fake, but his words had already done the damage intended.
De Lima, whose track record in justice and human rights work is commendable, was condemned as “an immoral woman” and made fun of online. Worse, lawmakers even joked about showing the video in Congress, but, to add further insult, complained that the people in it were ugly.
But when it comes to the real threat of fake news against women, she’s far from alone.
That same year, Svitlana Zalishchuk, a Ukrainian member of parliament, had given a speech at the UN on the impact of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict on women. Almost immediately afterward, a screenshot of a fake tweet supposedly by Zalishchuk started making rounds online.
In it, she supposedly promised to run naked through the streets of Kiev should the Ukrainian army lose a key battle. Like De Lima, the allegations also came with fake images of her naked.
That same trick — a gross mix of old sexist attitudes and the anonymity and speed of social media — has worked time and again around the world. Online abuse against women in general and women political leaders, in particular, has been documented in places like the United Kingdom, India, and Zimbabwe.
It’s so common that this specific intersection of fake news and sexism has gotten its own name: gendered disinformation. But even as more and more people talk about the problem of disinformation, why it works, and how, there is less attention paid to how disinformation furthers ingrained misogyny and fuels violent extremism online.
Understanding Gendered Disinformation
For all our progress on gender equality, our world is still one where women are paid less for the same work, are excluded from media and the crews that make it, are at higher risk of natural disasters, and have limited options.
It’s also a world where women are regularly attacked in public spaces — both physical and, increasingly, digital.
Gendered disinformation is defined as, “a subset of online gendered abuse that uses false or misleading gender and sex-based narratives against women, often with some degree of coordination, aimed at deterring women from participating in the public sphere.”
Moreover, gendered disinformation has all three of the characteristics of disinformation, namely: falsity, malign intent, and coordination.
In the form of fake stories and embarrassing or sexually charged images, gendered disinformation is designed to make women seem, according to the Brookings Insitution, “inherently untrustworthy, unintelligent, or too emotional or libidinous to hold office or participate in democratic politics.”
The end goal, then, is to push us out of public spaces — making gendered disinformation not just an issue among women, but an issue of democracy.
Fake News, Real Women in Public Spaces
For many, it may seem inevitable that politicians get some form of online abuse. They’re public figures, after all, and online public spaces aren’t exactly places of rainbows and butterflies.
But slowly, studies are revealing what many women know to be true: Women in politics are disproportionately targeted by fake stories and sexually charged imagery. Gendered disinformation works to distort their image, distract from their advocacies and track records, and drive them away from politics and leadership.
For instance, a study that analyzed online conversations around 13 women leaders in three countries in 2020 found that 12 out of 13 experienced gender abuse, while nine of them were targets of coordinated gendered disinformation efforts. These were often sexual in nature, as well as racist and transphobic.
A 2019 study, meanwhile, found that female politicians were targeted more often by right-wing and fake news accounts than male politicians.
The kind of attacks are gendered, too: Where men are criticized for their policies and professional achievements (or lack thereof), women are more often attacked on the basis of their character, physical appearance, and sexuality. Women are also more likely to be sent threats of sexual violence.
For example, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, whose case is explored in both studies, is often portrayed in these narratives as someone who got where she is by sleeping her way to the top — one of the oldest tricks in the misogynist’s playbook.
In the Philippines, dubbed patient zero of political disinformation, spliced videos are also used to discredit women like Vice President Leni Robredo. These videos cut and paste different parts of interviews to make her and women like her seem stupid.
These fake stories and videos have real-world power. They undermine women’s credibility even when the stories are debunked, keep women from doing their work well, and can encourage many women in the public eye to pursue other careers for their own safety.
These stories incite hate and online threats, and can be followed by physical violence or, as with De Lima, wrongful incarceration.
Plus, these stories carry on even if you’ve paid the ultimate price, as in the case of Marielle Franco, a black, openly gay city councilor in Brazil who fought for the poor and marginalized and was shot dead in 2018.
Following her death, a coordinated disinformation campaign went on to malign her character and discredit her life’s work.
These cases highlight how gendered disinformation tends to be worse when you happen to be not white or not straight. The research points to how female public figures from racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual minority groups tend to get the worst treatment.
Journalists are not spared, either.
For instance, Patrícia Campos Mello’s reporting on Brazil’s gendered fake news machinery has made her a target, too. Not long after her exposé on President Jair Bolsonaro’s connections to Franco’s murder was published, photos of Mello’s face were attached to pornographic images and circulated widely online. She was called a prostitute and sent all kinds of threats.
Fellow journalist Bianca Santana, who also wrote about Franco’s murder, was herself accused by Bolsonaro of spreading fake news. “Bolsonaro does not like being challenged by women,” she writes. “Especially black women.”
Gendered Disinformation and the Rise of Authoritarianism
When it comes to political violence, deeply ingrained sexism is only half of the story. The other half, as more and more studies reveal, is authoritarianism.
It’s no coincidence, for instance, that today’s wave of authoritarian, illiberal leaders across the globe has come with an increase in gendered disinformation and a general push back against women and minorities, erasing the progress we’ve fought so hard for.
And they’re doing it for a reason: Women are often at the forefront of protests against machismo populism. Moreover, research has pointed to women as challengers of corrupt practices and abuses of power, often led by male-dominated political networks.
What we’re seeing, then, is these same political networks taking advantage of both social media algorithms that incentivize outrageous, inflammatory content and good-old gender stereotypes to protect their interests and keep women political leaders — and critical journalists — at bay.
What Can Be Done About Gendered Disinformation?
In response to the rise of gendered disinformation, women’s groups and activists have been speaking out and launching campaigns to raise more awareness and push for solutions in recent years.
The U.S. Democratic Women’s Caucus, for example, urged Facebook to address online disinformation and violence against women, pointing to the algorithm’s preference for extremist content, in a letter signed by 100 American women lawmakers.
Other groups have launched similar initiatives, like the #BetterThanThis campaign in Kenya, #WebWithoutViolence in Germany, and #NotTheCost by the National Democratic Institute. These calls highlight the need for more than just band-aid solutions, and for different sectors to work together to protect women leaders, journalists, and public figures.
We’re used to thinking of tech innovations as democratizing, but the pressure is on social media companies to take a tougher stance on disinformation and misinformation, especially when these are used to harass women and racial minorities.
Platforms must proactively address how their spaces cause real-life harm against women, and to tweak algorithms accordingly, instead of just thinking about content moderation. This entails changes in product design and risk assessments, which should kick in before fake news stories about women are shared.
This step is as crucial as it is difficult: The business model of many platforms benefit from disinformation, hate speech, and online harassment since these tend to spread more rapidly. Higher engagement, with little regard for risk, equals more money, and less incentive for platforms to lift a finger.
Though, if they do want to find them, solutions are relatively simple. Social media platforms could tweak their algorithms so that users are less often nudged towards hateful content. They could also further develop algorithms for spotting gendered disinformation, and set up systems for reviewing and deleting this type of content.
Moreover, content moderation, which happens after the fact, needs to be more transparent. This can empower governments and civil groups to identify problems and find better solutions for ensuring safety in online spaces.
It should also be enforced more equally, as most efforts for tackling abuse are focused on the United States and Europe — leaving women in the Global South even more vulnerable.
Given the little incentive platforms have to solve the problem, governments must step up. Instead of letting social media companies play arbiters of online speech, world leaders can work on better regulatory frameworks that would force platforms to be more transparent about their algorithms and moderation practices.
Some countries, for example, have passed laws that criminalize and remove harmful online content. In the UK, the Crown Prosecution Service can prosecute internet trolls who circulate fake images, harass others, and create derogatory hashtags.
Mexico, meanwhile, passed a law that specifically addresses gendered online abuse and introduces the concept of “digital violence” into the country’s penal code. Alongside Bolivia, Mexico has also passed laws specifically addressing violence against women in politics.
These legal steps work best with dedicated resources and training for law enforcement, as women leaders often find that police don’t take threats and harassment seriously enough.
Moreover, other countries have passed laws designed to regulate social media companies — to mixed success. Germany, for instance, passed a law that imposes millions of dollars in fines for platforms that cannot remove hate speech or illegal content within a set amount of time.
The enforcement of this law is a little shady, and many have raised concerns about human rights and free speech. France watered down a similar bill over concerns about censorship before passing it into law.
Instead of these initiatives, advocates are pushing for more comprehensive regulatory frameworks that can help prevent harm from being done in the first place.
One key example is the EU’s Digital Services Act, which demands greater transparency about content moderation and algorithms from different social media platforms.
It also hopes to shift business models away from focusing solely on user engagement. This way, they’re less likely to make money from hate, and therefore might care enough about removing online abuse and gendered disinformation from their spaces.
Governments can also encourage further independent research into platform moderation and support digital citizenship education among the general public.
Why This Fight Matters to Everyone
Now, some might ask: Why does this matter to me if I am a man, or I am a woman but not running for office?
The answer, as highlighted by #ShePersisted Global, an organization tackling gendered disinformation around the world, is that: “Women’s rights are the litmus test for human rights and democracy, and wherever they are under attack, we know that democracy is really at risk.”
Women’s rights are human rights, after all. Democracy is meaningless if half of humanity is not well-represented — we’ll get there in 130 years at this pace, according to UN Women — and if that half is actively being shut out with modern technology used in archaic sexist ways.
The fight against gendered disinformation is a fight for women like Zalishchuk, Harris, Robredo, Franco, Mello, Santana, and De Lima. And it’s a fight for every girl and woman whose rights and welfare they fight for. It’s a fight we can’t lose.
And here, I’d like to take some inspiration from De Lima, who, despite being cut off from most of the outside world, has picked up her pen and passed at least 142 bills and 146 resolutions in the Senate for the last five years — all from behind bars. She persists, and we can, too.