from Women Around the World

Gendered Disinformation, Democracy, and the Need for a New Digital Social Contract

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris addresses the media after participating in an event with women small business owners in Rhode Island. Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

May 6, 2021 1:01 pm (EST)

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris addresses the media after participating in an event with women small business owners in Rhode Island. Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

This post was coauthored by Melanne Verveer, executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and former U.S. ambassador for global women’s issues, and Lucina Di Meco, cofounder of #ShePersisted Global Initiative.

Addressing the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in March, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris remarked that “the status of women is the status of democracy” and provided a strong message to the international community about America’s renewed commitment to gender equality and human rights.

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Twenty-five years after Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton’s historic “women’s rights are human rights” speech in Beijing, important progress has been made in terms of women’s representation in decision-making, but new challenges to women’s rights and democracy have risen and remain largely unaddressed.

Technological innovations, initially celebrated for their democratizing potential, have come under increasing scrutiny for their harmful effects on democracy, social cohesion, and women’s rights.

While being part of a global online community has helped female activists rally against repressive governments, raise awareness on injustices, and call out sexual abuse through global movements like #MeToo, #NiUnaMenos and the Women’s March, women’s rights activists and some of Silicon Valley’s most astute critics are increasingly calling out social media platforms for enabling sexism, misinformation, and violence to thrive, concealed by premises of freedom of speech and inclusivity.

Although online harassment against women manifests across the globe, it is particularly pernicious in the Global South. According to a recent analysis from the Economist Intelligence Unit, over 90 percent of the women interviewed in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East experienced online attacks—with misinformation and defamation as the most common tactics.

Women in politics and journalists, particularly women of color, have experienced relentless, overwhelming volumes of online abuse, threats, and vicious gendered disinformation campaigns, framing them as untrustworthy, unintelligent, too emotional, or sexual.

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In the United States, a coordinated campaign of disinformation and harassment was at work against then-Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris throughout the 2020 election cycle, disseminating lies about her record as a prosecutor and claiming she used sex to gain power—per the oldest, tritest tune in the misogyny playbook.

What happened to Harris is not an exception—it is the norm, as large social media companies often do not grant public figures with the same (already very small) level of protection from abuse granted to other citizens. Loopholes in platform guidelines have allowed some authoritarian world leaders to use social media to “deceive the public or harass opponents despite being alerted to evidence of the wrongdoing."

While most women restrict their online activity as a result of social media’s toxicity, silence does not grant protection, as First Lady of Namibia Monica Geingos stated in a powerful video released on International Women’s Day: “When there was a clear social media campaign of anonymous WhatsApp messages specifically targeting me in the most disgusting ways, and I was told not to respond but to ignore and I did. But it was a mistake, your silence will not protect you; the insults just got worse and the lies became a lot.”

The consequences are far-reaching.

The disproportionate and often strategic targeting of women politicians and activists discourages women from running for office, pushes them out of politics, or leads them to self-censor and disengage from the political discourse in ways that harm their effectiveness. The psychological toll on them and their families is incommensurable.

While sexist attitudes are integral to understanding violent extremism and political violence, they are just a part of the story. Research has shown that women’s political leadership often represents a challenge to entrenched illiberal and autocratic political elites, disrupting what are often male-dominated political networks that allow corruption and abuse of power to flourish.

As women have been among the most outspoken critics of populist authoritarian political leaders in many countries, state-led gendered disinformation campaigns have been used to silence and deter them, stifling their calls for better governance. Vladimir Putin in Russia, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey are just some of many leaders who have used gendered disinformation campaigns to attack political opponents and erode liberal values and democratic principles all together.

Building on sexist narratives and characterized by malign intent and coordination, gendered disinformation has also been employed by Russia to exercise influence and undermine foreign elections. The targeting of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, and, more recently, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Belarus and Svitlana Zalishchuk in Ukraine are prominent examples.

These types of attacks do not only represent a threat to the women they target.

Weaponized by malign foreign and domestic actors, these attacks threaten democratic institutions and have important ramifications for global peace and security and the broader human rights system. Yet while authoritarian leaders have heavily invested in troll factories that cynically take advantage of a technology that is particularly good at spreading misogyny and lies, female politicians and activists have largely been left to fend for themselves in an online world that is increasingly toxic and violent. America has a crucial role to play in promoting a new digital social contract that upholds  democratic values and promotes women’s rights, through a three-pronged strategy.

First, we need better standards for digital platforms that take into account the real-life harms and abuses that women face and to proactively address them from a product design and risk assessment perspective—as opposed to content moderation only. Convening the National Task Force on Online Harassment and Abuse, proposed by President Joe Biden on the campaign trail, will be an important milestone in that direction.

Second, we must make sure that women leaders and activists are deeply involved in the conversations on establishing new internet and social media standards and regulations, and that their unique perspectives are reflected in key fora like the Summit for Democracy. Similar to how women’s participation in peace negotiations is essential for successful outcomes, women’s leadership in designing a new digital social contract between tech companies, governments, and citizens will be key in building an online world that works for everyone.

Third, we must buttress women in politics and journalism, particularly those who are working in fragile democracies and often become targets of vicious state-sponsored disinformation and hate campaigns as a result of their engagement, such as Maria Ressa in the Philippines. Women working in politics and journalism must be provided with the tools, information, and the support network they need to respond to gendered disinformation campaigns.

In many fragile democracies, women are the beacons of liberal values. Ensuring that the internet is not used as a tool to defame, silence, threaten and de-platform them must be a priority for anyone who seeks to advance democracy, peace, and security.

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