What is gender-based online disinformation — and what can we do about it?
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Silhouette drawing of a head with bombs coming out of its mouth and a megaphone in place of a brain. The bombs are angled towards a drawing of a woman working on a computer with her back to the head.

What is gender-based online disinformation — and what can we do about it?

At a recent workshop on digital gender justice organized by WACC and the World Council of Churches (WCC), Lucina Di Meco, co-founder of #ShePersisted, shared research on gendered disinformation and online abuse against women in politics.

She also shared suggestions for action during her presentation, as part of “Tackling Online Sexual and Gender-Based Violence,” an event for young church leaders held in December 2023.

A specific kind of gendered cyberviolence

Di Meco began by explaining what gendered disinformation is, and why we should be concerned about it.

The most immediate motive behind this kind of disinformation — which occurs across the globe — is to alter public understanding of female politicians’ track records and to discourage women running for office.

At a deeper level, however, gendered disinformation undermines women’s rights, human rights, and weakens democratic institutions.

“We have a majority of women who report either witnessing online violence against other women or being targets of violence themselves,” said Di Meco. “One of the most common forms of harm that women experience online has to do with misinformation.”

She says a line is drawn between gendered disinformation and other types of online harms encompassed under the broad definition of tech-facilitated gender-based violence.

“Gender disinformation is a specific type of harm, intentionally weaponizing misogyny to undermine women political leaders who are at the forefront of important democratic and human rights battles,” she said.

She offered examples of disinformation campaigns against female politicians in Tunisia, India, Brazil, Italy, Hungary, Germany, Canada, Australia, and Peru.

“This field isn’t necessarily super old but has a lot of evidence,” she explained.

The case studies she spoke of largely were cases analyzed in the research series “Monetizing Misogyny,” which refers proclivity toward profit-making, including by incentivizing and rewarding the most outrageous and harmful content.

How gendered disinformation silences women

Di Meco asked participants to consider what happens when a disinformation campaign targets a woman.

In the face of targeted disinformation, “women often self-censor or limit their online presence, even when this might reduce their opportunities for visibility and for having their voices heard,” said Di Meco. “We see a violation of women’s freedom of expression right there.”

In the case of women in politics, this might reduce their effectiveness. “When you are being asked about the latest fake story about you, it’s very hard to be successful and push the agenda you stand for,” she said.

Oftentimes, online disinformation expands offline — through the media or through posters visible in public places, posing a threat to women’s reputations and even safety.

“Something very important to point out is that not all women leaders are attacked in the same way,” she said. “Through our research, we found that disinformation also often surrounds women who stand up for immigrant rights and minority rights,” she added.

The responsibility of social media platforms

Di Meco explained how social media platforms play into the monetization of misogyny.

“Social media platforms are curators of content,” she said — and their digital platform algorithms reward and amplify hate for profit.

Currently, social media platforms are not having to comply with many standards when it comes to their users. “They say they do certain things like eliminating hate speech, that they are against dis-informative and harmful content — but it keeps coming up,” said Di Meco.

She underscored the need for a global framework to regulate social media platforms and prevent disinformation — a framework that holds social media platforms accountable for the harms that their products cause to their own customers.

“They are private companies that have consumers, but who is protecting their consumers from the negative effects of what they experience online, and its impacts on democracy and social cohesion?” she asked.

Part of the problem is how social media platforms are designed. “They are, in large part, to blame for what we see online — and that has repercussions for what we see offline,” she said.

The responsibility of civic and religious groups

Di Meco believes that calling out the misogyny in these attacks is vitally important.

“We believe absolutely women in politics as well as men in politics should be held accountable for what they say and do as policymakers. Yet, there is a substantial difference between a criticism that happens in the context of a civil debate, and the type of sexist attacks that women are targeted with, which often include rape and death threats, as well as false and defamatory claims, doctored photos, and fake obscene videos,” she said.

“Sexism and misogyny are weaponized as a way to undermine women leaders because of their strong impact and highly emotional resonance,” she added.

Because of pre-existing sexism and bias, said Di Meco, “people can see a fake story [against a woman leader], and that story often already reinforces a belief that they already had,” she said. “Maybe they were on the verge of overcoming it, but now they are being reinforced.”

Sadly, religion can also be used as a weapon to undermine women political leaders.

“Through our research, we found that women leaders who belong to religious minorities or those that advocate for the rights of those minorities are often attacked viciously online, through fake stories aimed at putting into question their integrity, morals, patriotism, and loyalty.”

Women leaders who speak out to promote women’s rights and gender equality issues are often viciously attacked with false, fear-mongering narratives, which quickly spread online and reach a broad audience, including religious groups and parents.

“Often religion is instrumentalized to spread hate, and some groups calling themselves religious are part of the problem,” she said.

She wants to hear more from religious groups wiling to call out gendered hate and disinformation.

“I believe that you as religious leaders have such an important role in reminding people of the importance of promoting civil debate and tolerance, even in the context of heated political debates,” she said. “Religion cannot justify spreading hate against political opponents. I wish I would see more religious groups and leaders condemning these strategies.”

#ShePersisted has developed a toolkit promoting digital resilience for women in politics, as these women are often marooned in a swamp of disinformation.

A group of 10 young people from around the globe stand in a semi-circle, leaning in towards each other and with one hand together in the middle

Participants in the December 2023 WACC–WCC workshop on digital gender justice. Photo: WCC

Creating coalitions to counter misinformation

But how can churches combat misinformation — without entering into the cycle of hate themselves?

“There is power in creating broad coalitions—even though I understand it’s very hard to do,” said Di Meco. “Ultimately, I don’t believe we’re going to get to a very good place in the world by attacking back and increasing the level of violence.”

Unfortunately, we live in a world where hate incites people. “That’s why it’s used so often by politicians,” she said.

As WACC Deputy General Secretary Sara Speicher observed: “This session was sobering in its analysis but inspired us to form coalitions of support and action.”

Di Meco encouraged that kind of forward-looking thinking.

“I see growing awareness of this problem, and more efforts to hold digital platforms accountable through legislative action like the Digital Services Act in Europe. It is my hope and belief that we won’t be in the same place ten years from now,” she said.

The multi-day workshop “Tackling Online Sexual and Gender-Based Violence,” held on 11–12 December 2023, was co-organized by WACC and the WCC. The learning event was supported by the German Federal Foreign Office.

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