Introduction. Why is it important to talk about gendered disinformation?
One can say that fake news is old news, and so are misogyny, sexism, and gender stereotypes. What has changed in the digital era is the ease of coordinating, financing, and propagating disinformation campaigns. However, there is also increased awareness about the topic and its real-life consequences, as women – especially those in positions of power and visibility – are unduly targeted by online disinformation.
Gendered-based disinformation (GBD) cripples the representativeness of democratic institutions and poses a security threat, since online harassment can sometimes inspire offline aggression. The practise has a silencing effect on practically half of the world population, as women are drawn to disengage from the conversation, censor themselves, and avoid careers in politics and other male-dominated occupations.
Over time, GBD becomes a cautionary tale, an invitation to discretion as a safety measure that potentially leads to the acceptance of victim-blaming logic – as if targets have called the abuse upon themselves by voicing their opinions. Therefore, more needs to be done to prevent and eliminate this abuse, which may cast a long shadow over future generations, the victims and their families, eroding the right to equality and truthful information.
Definitions. What is gendered disinformation?
At present, experts have elaborated several working definitions of gendered disinformation. According to Judson et al., GBD concerns the creation and dissemination of content that encompasses gender-based attacks or weaponizes gender narratives to fulfil political, social, or economic goals. Di Meco emphasizes the short-term political gains this practise pursues through the representation of women as unreliable, incompetent, or insane. Digital misogynistic harassment comes in many forms, including explicit imagery, graphic comments, and manipulated materials that damage a woman’s reputation. For Jankowics et al., GDB entails falsity, malign intent, and some degree of coordination. The latter is certainly a relevant indicator of state-sponsored or state-aligned disinformation campaigns. Nonetheless, this situation should be understood as encouragement not to dismiss single instances of sexism and misogyny as isolated episodes, but to see them in a broader framework that ultimately deters women from participating in the public sphere.
Sobieraj identifies three dimensions which account for identity-based attacks online, including gendered ones. These consist of a combination of feminist values or noncompliance with gender norms, the occupation of previously all-male spaces (from politics to sports), and further discrimination deriving from affiliation with multiple marginalized groups. The latter feature highlights the multi-layered nature of disinformation and its ability to sow discord by exacerbating social divisions and controversy. In this regard, GBD negatively mirrors the intersectionality of fourth-wave feminism, given the exploitation of online spaces and various platforms, as well as the intensification of harassment targeting ethnicity, religion, disability or queerness. In the future, it will be crucial for activist definitions – used to strategically advance knowledge and engagement among participants – to overcome a strictly binary classification of gender in order to ensure recognition and protection of all identities.
Interdisciplinarity. What are the main problems in addressing gendered disinformation?
The existence of gendered disinformation at the intersection between disinformation and online violence complicates the isolation of the phenomenon. Content that is “lawful but awful” leaves open the question of whether gendered disinformation should be perceived as a negative consequence of the infosphere allowing for fake news to proliferate, or as a form of violence, leading to different responses.
Another issue confronts the relationship between online and offline dimensions: Although the two malpractices are not always connected, online radicalization can lead to in real life. As a result, the idea that digital spaces merely reflect societal views is unconvincing, as the algorithmic architecture of the Internet favors extremism, polarization, and negativity, shielded by anonymity.
Furthermore, GBD hinders the ability of its targets to exercise their freedom of expression. Therefore, it cannot be used to condone abuse: Hate speech is not free speech. Similarly, traditional and conservative values should never be invoked to justify anti-women disinformation. If internalized, the pretense that female emancipation poses a threat to national identity and cohesion risks consolidating exclusionary anti-democratic politics that normalize gender inequality and hostility.
A phenomenon on the rise. What recent evidence do we have of gendered disinformation?
Disinformation seeks emotional responses from an audience. This is even more true for gendered disinformation, which draws upon traditional social constructs of femininity. Its language is often hyperbolic or used to convey inaccurate, misleading claims, e.g. the anti-abortion rhetoric equating reproductive rights and infanticide. Gender-based attacks sound simultaneously ad hominem against the target, and overarchingly general, playing on stereotypes and bidimensional accounts.
In view of this, GBD suffers from a Madonna-whore complex. For instance, in the context of the pandemic, women have been portrayed either as mothers in distress, helpless little girls and older women, or turned into superficial, manipulative actors somehow responsible for the situation. During the recent German election, disinformation campaigns particularly targeted the Greens’ candidate Annalena Baerbock. The diffusion of manipulated nude photos suggesting she “was young and needed the money” sexualized her, while false claims that Baerbock never completed her studies or the attribution of a concocted quote providing a nonsensical explanation for climate change questioned her competence. Moreover, gendered hoaxes are often issue-based, whether presenting gender equality as an attack on motherhood or accusing feminist movements of lack of interest in their Afghani sisters.
A recurrent disinformative narrative is that feminism implies misandry. This suspicion is embedded in the “honor cultures” that justify misogyny (but also homotransphobia and xenophobia) as the natural order of things. The accentuation of these beliefs feeds into rape culture, according to which defiant women need to be put in their place and punished through violent means, from the rape threats forcing Italian MP Laura Boldrini to have a police escort to the plot to kidnap US governor Gretchen Whitmer in retaliation for her decisions about Covid-19 containment.
Another GBD strategy is to gaslight victims of domestic violence, as the Mexican President has done by publicly disregarding the truthfulness of most emergency phone calls in this regard, or denying the escalation of domestic violence during the lockdown. Unrecognized and unaddressed, the problem endangers many lives.
Conclusions. What can we do to make things better?
A crucial first step is to analyze disinformation through an intersectional gender lens. So far, GBD generally refers to anti-women disinformation due to their greater visibility; but at some point, it is to be hoped that the strictly binary division will be overthrown.
Culture is key: Disinformation does not happen in a vacuum and one-size-fits-all solutions anchored in a West-centric perspective are doomed to fail. Triggering topics and existing fractures in communities need to be acknowledged; for instance, engaging local experts and GBD victims can help co-create context-specific strategies, while simultaneously enabling the latter to reclaim agency. Notwithstanding, cultural differences should never be weaponized to justify sexism or oppose the universality of human rights.
There is a consensus that digital and media literacy is not enough; yet civil society can play a meaningful role by encouraging allyship, fostering positive counternarratives, and supporting the victims of GBD. Language matters; therefore, the media should guarantee unprejudiced and factually correct coverage, without magnifying fringe narratives in an ominous.
The greatest responsibility lies with national governments and the EU to impose regulations and sanctions, and the platforms that need to be held accountable for their structural shortcomings. In this regard, the Digital Services Act offers an opportunity to overcome the present notice and takedown model. Among other things, this will ensure a proactive approach and a systemic risks assessment instead. Further actions need to be taken to fight hate-filled disinformation about women which reaps devastating consequences upon the functioning of our democracy.
Ten key resources for learning more
- Di Meco, Lucina & Saskia Brechenmacher (2020, November 20). “Tackling online abuse and disinformation targeting women in politics”, Carnegie, https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/11/30/tackling-online-abuse-and-disinformation-targeting-women-in-politics-pub-83331.
- Di Meco, Lucina & Kristina Wilfore (2021, March 8). “Gendered disinformation is a national security problem”, Brookings, https://www.brookings.edu/techstream/gendered-disinformation-is-a-national-security-problem/.
- EU DisinfoLab (2021, October 20). “Gender-based disinformation: Advancing our understanding and response”, https://www.disinfo.eu/publications/gender-based-disinformation-advancing-our-understanding-and-response/
- Jankowicz, Nina, Jillian Hunchak, Alexandra Pavliuc, Celia Davies, Shannon Pierson & Zoe Kaufmann (January 2021). “Malign creativity: How gender, sex, and lies are weaponized against women online”, The Winson Center Science Technology and Innovation Programme, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/uploads/documents/Report%20Malign%20Creativity%20How%20Gender%2C%20Sex%2C%20and%20Lies%20are%20Weaponized%20Against%20Women%20Online_0.pdf.
- Judson, Ellen (2021, July 9). “Gendered disinformation: 6 reasons why liberal democracies need to respond to this threat”, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union, https://eu.boell.org/en/2021/07/09/gendered-disinformation-6-reasons-why-liberal-democracies-need-respond-threat?dimension1=democracy#_ftn2.
- Judson, Ellen, Asli Atay, Alex Krasodomski-Jones, Rose Lasko-Skinner & Josh Smith (October 2020). “Engendering hate: The contours of state-aligned gendered disinformation online”, Demos, https://demos.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Engendering-Hate-Report-FINAL.pdf.
- Wilfore, Kristina (2021, October 29). “The gendered disinformation playbook in Germany is a warning for Europe”. Brookings, https://www.brookings.edu/techstream/the-gendered-disinformation-playbook-in-germany-is-a-warning-for-europe/.
- Scott, Victoria (2021, April 1). “Understanding the gender dimension of disinformation”, Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening, https://counteringdisinformation.org/topics/gender/0-overview-gender-disinformation
- Sessa, Maria Giovanna (2020, December 4). “Misogyny and misinformation: An analysis of gendered disinformation tactics during the COVID-19 pandemic”, EU DisinfoLab, https://www.disinfo.eu/publications/misogyny-and-misinformation:-an-analysis-of-gendered-disinformation-tactics-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/
- Sobierah, Sarah (2019, October 22). “Disinformation, democracy, and the social costs of identity-based attacks online”, MediaWell, https://mediawell.ssrc.org/expert-reflections/disinformation-democracy-and-the-social-costs-of-identity-based-attack
This explainer is published in the framework of the European-Israeli Forum for Technology and Society, a joint initiative by the Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI) and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Tel Aviv.
The opinions expressed in this text are solely that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI) and/or the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Tel Aviv.