The concept of gendered disinformation is as old as humanity. It was disinformation when Satan told Hazrat Hawa (Eve) that the apple was good to eat when she took a bite. Disinformation is the use of false or misleading information with a malign intent. It has grown lethal. In contemporary times, it is increasingly becoming a weapon of political influence and conflict and is used to disrupt peace. In this technological era, its role, effect, and targets have broadened to include arenas like digital platforms, harassment, and abuse hurled at women.
What is Gendered Disinformation?
Gender and sexuality have been for centuries used to debate that woman are ill-suited to positions of power. Women leading a public life in any field including activism, academia, political, journalism and beyond pay a heavy cost and carry a huge burden for such life.
Gendered disinformation is manipulated information that weaponizes gendered stereotypes for political, economic, and social ends. It’s a coordinated campaign targeting specific people. It is also the spread of inaccurate and deceptive information against women in public domain that insults, humiliates, discredits, or disempowers them.
These stereotypical thinking are drawn along misogynistic and social lines. The misleading narratives and gendered abuse against women are commonly conducted through online and social platforms. (Council on Foreign Relations, n.d.) Online disinformation includes malign creativity: coded language, context-based visual and textual memes etc.
Types of Gendered Disinformation
Three overarching types of disinformation narratives are common: sexual, transphobic, and racist. Transphobic narratives were those in which users stressed that these were, in reality, transgender women. For the subject’s gender deception, such claims were frequently supported by a photograph or video as proof.
Jacinda Ardern and Kamala Harris
For instance, a video of Jacinda Ardern circulated after a pleat in her dress was interpreted as evidence of male genitalia. Kamala Harris is also alleged that her former identity was a man named Kamal Aroush. The narrative roots in the thought that the power and influence held by these women is result of such deception and male characteristics. The misogynistic assumption that woman can only gain such authority with trickery is used to justify their political success.
Another victim of racist digital violence is Kamala Harris who is South Asian woman.
Sexualized narratives are the major form of narrative associated with women. The targets are alleged with a scandalous sexual past to humiliate them. Kamala Harris has been accused of using sex to further her career. This has resulted in a number of derogatory nicknames with abusive keywords.
Radicalized and racist narratives are manifested through online gender abuse. US Representative Ilhan Omar is a Muslim Black. Her identities were weaponized to portray her as a dangerous foreign “other”. The religious and ethnic abuse has been displayed through multiple ways. She has been numerous times characterized as terrorist and political saboteur due to her history as a refugee and connections with Somali immigrants. A sexualized narrative is that she immigrated illegally by marrying her brother. Photoshopped images of many of the politicians have been shared widely on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Many users cross-posted calls for imagining scenarios on Reddit of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in indecent and vulgar acts. One user went as far as to conjure up situation of about ‘Trump raping Ocasio-Cortez and his aides file the rape to use as blackmail in the future. This demonstrated how young women in politics can be sexualized and fetishized online. This trend to demean her credible reputation as a serious politician.
On social media platforms such deceptive narratives are easily spread through derogatory and insulting terms such as Gretchen Whitmer had the keywords including “Whitler” and “Gestapo Gretchen” due to her strict COVID-19 lockdown measures. Each of the subject mentioned has her own various and multiple names.
Cases in India
In India the female journalists and politicians of the country also have highly faced such organised campaigns. Malign foreign actors are engaged in ad hoc campaigns to silence women when they courageously stand up for the wrong. They discourage them from participating in politics and public discourse
CNN reported on “an organized army of far-right trolls on Indian social media,” which they refer to as belonging to the ruling party, to attack women in politics. Activists and religious minorities are particularly subject to coordinated disinformation and campaigns, noted participants engaged in monitoring, citing the Pinjra Tod movement and historical persecution of Muslims.
Leta Hong Fincher
Leta Hong Fincher, an American journalist who called out Chinese media’s twisted display of interracial marriages between Han Chinese and Uyghur ethnicity. The case study demonstrated how malicious state and non-state actors drove a false, gender-based narrative about alleged beliefs on the said topic. She faced personal and sexualised threats and insults with creation of fake accounts impersonating her.
In addition, her previous research and work was heavily criticised with state media unleashing employees with coordination to poorly review them on Amazon and other websites. All of this was done to protect China’s reputation and vilify Hong Fincher. These examples underline both the offline toll that online abuse takes and its association to national security.
Case of Russia
Russia’s misogynistic, sexist, and gendered narratives are commonly known to occur. Constantly, women’s participation in public and political processes is undermined. There are numerous examples of gendered disinformation. A Ukrainian parliamentarian, Svitlana Zalishchuk, faced an onslaught of Russian backed disinformation. False images and claims soon spread online.
This was during Russian-sponsored war in Ukraine. There are many other examples of high-profile politicians facing Russian online attacks. Hilary Clinton during her presidency campaign in 2016, Nicole Perlorth, Tamara Chergoleishvili and many others. The online gendered harassment stems out from Russia employing gendered stereotypes that women are less intelligent than males, less qualified and creatures just for breeding.
Social media platforms need to regularly update platform classifiers or keywords to reflect and root out malign creativity, improve automated detection methods, and introduce nudges or friction to discourage users from posting malign or hateful content. Incident reports should be introduced so women can report multiple abusive posts at once to provide a more holistic view of trauma.
Law makers need to create clear legal standards that prohibit the use of gendered, sexualized insults and disinformation. In addition, improve understanding of the problem and introduce accountability of women’s online protection in social media regulation bills. Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) should be reauthorized and include provision against online gender-based harassment and platform transparency. Moreover, Employers should develop policies for employees facing online harassment including mental health services support. Clear mechanism for targets to report such campaigns should outlined.
The problem of gendered and sexualised abuse with the issue of disinformation online is not considered important and hasn’t received much attention. It is sprawling, and as witnessed, the detection, research, and analysis within this area and topic are met with hurdles. It also becomes an obstacle in women’s path for taking part in different public domains particularly in male-dominated areas.
Beyond the ramifications of digital violence and disinformation the phenomenon is closely linked with national security. Addressing the issue becomes more difficult when met with the challenges of detecting or reporting such cases of online abuse, harassment and disinformation. Nonetheless, collective efforts of different actors of the society can present some hope in tackling this problem.
An aspiring female politician, civic servant, journalist, academician, scholar or activist should not not need to give up her ambition with a lifetime if online abuse. Moreover, the study has demonstrated that even women with historic firsts or women at prime ministerial level are not safe from the subject of gendered and sexualized attacks or worse gendered and sexualized disinformation campaigns that are fueled by malign creativity. The effects of such attacks and activities are widespread and far-reaching.
For every incident in which the online gendered abuse narratives, targeted at high-profile female politicians are unaccounted for and allowed to proliferate, a thousand other women see this and consider whether to engage at all, or worse, whether to fear aspire.
Council on Foreign Relations. (n.d.). Gendered Disinformation, Fake News, and Women in Politics. [online] Available at: https://www.cfr.org/blog/gendered-disinformation-fake-news-and-women-politics#
EU DisinfoLab. (2021). Gender-Based Disinformation: Advancing Our Understanding and Response. [online] Available at: https://www.disinfo.eu/publications/gender-based-disinformation-advancing-our-understanding-and-response/
Brechenmacher, L.D.M., Saskia and Brechenmacher, L.D.M., Saskia (2020). Tackling Online Abuse and Disinformation Targeting Women in Politics. [online] Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Available at: https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/11/30/tackling-online-abuse-and-disinformation-targeting-women-in-politics-pub-83331.
Main findings of the research are based on this report conducted by Wilson centre:
moonshotteam.com. (2021). Malign Creativity: How Gender, Sex, and Lies are Weaponized Against Women Online – Moonshot. [online] Available at: https://moonshotteam.com/resource/malign-creativity-how-gender-sex-and-lies-are-weaponized-against-women-online/.
The writer is an undergraduate student of Peace and Conflict Studies, National Defence University, Pakistan. She has published works on national and international platforms. Her pieces include analysis and work on US-China conflict, Spatial warfare, nuclear proliferation and some domestic issues.