By Nabamallika Dehingia1, Lucina Di Meco2, Anita Raj1
To mark the 30th anniversary of the annual international campaign, 16 Days Of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (25 November to 10 December 2020), we place the spotlight on online violence against women in politics (OVAW-P)- an emerging and pervasive form of violence deserving of priority global attention.
On November 17, 2021 in the US, Republican Party Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona was censured by the House of Representatives, for posting a photoshopped anime video online. The video showed him appearing to kill Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and attacking President Joe Biden. While the censure resolution indicates a strong condemnation of violence and misogyny by Congress, this is not the first case of OVAW-P in the country. It is yet another addition to a grim and growing roster of cases in the US, as well as globally.
Delivering her remarks on this incident at the House debate on the censure, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez noted that “these depictions are part of a larger trend of misogyny, and racial misogyny “. Incidentally, this is not the first time she has had to call out the blatant misogyny in US politics. In July 2020, she gave a powerful speech emphasizing the culture of violence against women, in response to being called a “f***ing b***h” by her male colleague Rep. Ted Yoho on the steps of the US Capitol.
While misogynist attitudes and regressive gender norms deriding women’s political participation are at the heart of the issue of OVAW-P, the critical role of social media platforms in exacerbating this culture of misogyny must not be underestimated. Instances of gendered disinformation campaigns on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms, are many. Often, these disinformation campaigns are sexually charged, or they try to discredit the professional achievements of women by spreading fake stories about their personal lives. In August of last year, US House Chair Nancy Pelosi, along with many other female leaders from the US and other countries, sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg; the letter called for action to protect the ability of women to engage in democratic discourse on its platform. This letter was sent after Facebook refused to take down a fake video of Speaker Pelosi that depicted her as being intoxicated.
OVAW-P is made worse by the intersections of gendered disinformation campaigns with the violent extremism that exists and thrives on social media platforms. For example, the kidnapping plot against Governor of Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitman in 2020, was preceded by days of online campaigns spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories about her. In recent years, policymakers and activists have expressed concerns over the role of social media websites, more specifically, the role of their recommendation algorithms, in artificially amplifying such harmful narratives. Disinformation and extremism get more engagement, and thus bring in more profit for the social media giants. The recent Facebook Files from the Wall Street Journal, whistle-blower Frances Haugen’s testimony, and whistle-blower Sophie Zhang’s account demonstrate the ways in which Facebook prioritises profit over protecting both users on their platforms and democratic systems.
Online political violence against women can push them out of politics, as well as have direct impacts on their electoral outcomes in certain cases.
In Germany during the September 2021 elections, top-runner Annalena Baerbock received much more harassment online than her two competitors, both men. According to experts, this harassment might have undermined her campaign. Similar results have been noted for many other countries, most recently in Uganda in the run up to their January 2021 general elections. In the US, during the 2020 presidential campaign, abusive tweets were far more likely to be directed toward women candidates, making up more than 15% of the messages directed at these women. Furthermore, these online attacks and harassment on Facebook and Twitter often disproportionately target women of color and younger women.
We need better policies to protect women, and democracy
For years, women’s rights organizations have asked social media companies to do better. Earlier this month, they issued a series of policy recommendations, focused on user policy and hate speech; disinformation, defamation, and promotion of extremism; enforcement and transparency for survivors of harassment and hate; and internal platform policy and culture. We discuss a few recommendations here.
Social media companies need to be transparent about their guidelines on what constitutes violence/hate speech/harassment as well as disinformation. The companies also do not share information on implementation of these guidelines, and research has shown that on social media, false news reaches more people than the truth.
Social media companies should include misogyny, misogynoir, and transmisogyny in their hate speech rules, given its well-documented connections to gun violence and other extremist acts. In many instances, disinformation campaigns targeting women politicians might not include blatantly abusive content. They might instead cover sexist information, or fake stories targeting them based on their gender, race, religion etc., which would not necessarily flag the current hateful content identification protocols. To that end, social media companies should include gendered, racialized, and religiously bigoted disinformation in their hate speech rules, and such content should be removed or banned.
From a global perspective, one important task for social media companies is to establish hate speech and disinformation removal protocols for content in all languages, and not just for English. Moderators and algorithms should be trained for different languages, taking into account the different cultural nuances associated with each language.
And political actors must be held accountable for what they do
In many instances, gendered disinformation campaigns or violent content directed at the women politicians originate from their political competitors. In the case of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, it was her Republican colleague who posted the photoshopped video. In her speech, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez calls out her colleagues for refusing to condemn the incident, and advancing the argument that “this was just a joke“. Political parties, and the government, definitely have the responsibility to hold political actors accountable in such situations where the perpetrators are within their institutions. We need legislations that can tackle online violence and gendered disinformation campaigns against women and girls.
The setting up of The National Task Force on Online Harassment and Abuse, proposed by President Biden during his campaign, could prove to be an important step towards addressing OVAW-P from a policy and legislative perspective. This task force is expected to provide recommendations for preventing and improving the response to technology-facilitated gender-based violence, and the use of the internet as a tool of abuse to intimidate and silence women, including women politicians, journalists, and activists.
Social media platforms represent an essential space for democracy, political campaigning, and civic engagement. As they are currently structured, however, they are facilitating the proliferation of OVAW-P, gendered disinformation and hate, with the potential to push women out of politics. In this 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence 2021, we must prioritize ending of OVAW-P, gendered disinformation, ending misogyny, and holding social media accountable for change.
About the authors:
Nabamallika Dehingia is a PhD Candidate in Public Health at San Diego State University and University of California San Diego. Her research is on gender-based violence, with a focus on online misogyny.
Lucina Di Meco is a gender equality expert and women’s rights advocate, recognized by Apolitical as one of the 100 Most Influential People in Gender Policy for her work on gendered disinformation. She is the co-founder of #ShePersisted, a cross-national, feminist initiative to tackle gendered disinformation and online attacks against women in politics.
Anita Raj is a Tata Chancellor Professor of Society and Health at UC San Diego. She is a Professor in both the Departments of Medicine and Education Studies, and the Director of the Center on Gender Equity and Health (GEH).