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Voices from the Field features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development, diplomacy and security challenges. This post is authored by Lucina Di Meco, Global Fellow, The Wilson Center.
As we approach the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, we are far from achieving the equal participation of men and women in politics that was envisaged then. Women today hold an average 24.3 percent of parliamentary seats globally. At this pace, the World Economic Forum estimates it would take more than a century to achieve gender equality.
As research shows more and more people use the Internet as a key source of information on politics and governance, it’s critical to analyze the role social media outlets are playing, consciously or unconsciously, in the promotion of more gender inclusive and participatory democracies – yet the intersection of gender, democracy, disinformation, and information technology remains understudied.
Further, because female politicians are increasingly turning to social media as a way to overcome marginalization and connect with their constituencies—a 2016 survey of female Parliamentarians from 107 countries found that more than 85 percent of them use social media and particularly Facebook, with younger legislators being the most active — it’s urgent to understand whether online platforms are a level playing field for political engagement, or replicate the same biases as traditional media outlets.
In writing #ShePersisted, Women, Politics & Power in the New Media World, I interviewed eighty-eight women leaders in politics, civil society, journalism, television and technology across multiple ideologies, countries, and regions of the world, reviewed over 100 publications, and worked with a data analytics company to identify gender trends in the 2020 Democratic Party Presidential primaries in the United States. Below are some of key takeaways:
On the one hand, social media seem to provide some female candidates with an increased ability to promote their political ambitions and equalize the political field (for example research shows they are able to generate more followers, likes, and user engagement than their male colleagues). Comfort Doyoe Cudjoe-Ghansah, a Member of Parliament and second Deputy Minority Whip in Ghana, told me that social media played a vital role in her political life: “It has been a major tool for me to showcase my projects to my constituents/followers and to also give them updates on several other things I do as a politician.”
On the other, there is overwhelming evidence that female politicians and political activists are often targets of online threats, harassment and graphic sexual taunts aimed at delegitimizing, depersonalizing, and ultimately dissuading them from being politically active. In a recent survey of women parliamentarians globally, 41.8 percent of the respondents reported having seen humiliating or sexual images of them spread through social media. The pervasiveness of gender-based abuse—ranging from insults to death treats—in the digital space has very real consequences, and the majority of female politicians and experts interviewed for this study reported being extremely concerned about this becoming a serious barrier for women who want to engage in politics.
Often, attacks come from armies of politically motivated trolls and bots. Analysis of the 2020 primaries shows that female candidates are attacked more often than male candidates by fake news accounts, and my interviews with female politicians in Ukraine, Italy and India suggest that the same phenomenon is happening in those countries too, with the deliberate goal to preventing women from taking part in the democratic process.
Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, herself a former member of parliament, minister and Vice President in South Africa’s first democratic government, expressed strong concern on this front: “When women suffer this violence online, the aim is no different than offline—to control, assert power over, silence, and keep women out of the conversation or from participating and benefiting equally from that space. The rapid spread of the Internet means that effective legal and social controls of online anti-social and criminal behaviors continue to be an immense challenge. And in the age of social media and ‘anywhere, anytime’ mobile access, cyber violence can strike at any time, and follow its targets everywhere.”
Yet, despite evidence of the existence of gendered disinformation campaigns and endemic online violence against women, almost no resources are dedicated to understanding how this phenomenon affects our democratic process.
There are best practices and innovations that, if implemented, would significantly contribute to addressing this issue, from increased trainings to the development of civil society friendly AI-tools and gender-sensitive digital literacy policies and practices. Yet, they are largely not being implemented.
The ones who are in power, when they aren’t behind the problem, often disregard it. Social media companies are only beginning to grapple with the unwanted effects of their products and they are not held accountable by those which should serve as watchdogs and advocates, as large international nonprofits, academic institutions, and philanthropic investors with deep pockets see online threats as a “women’s issue”, not a concern for democracy and national security.
According to Kristina Wilfore, campaign and election expert: “A new wave of authoritarianism seeks to push women aside and diminish progress on minority rights by controlling social media channels, attacking the press, and limiting freedom of assembly and expression. When social media platforms comply with strong-arm governments in order to stay operational in their countries and then turn around and use freedom of speech arguments in the West to weaken regulations that would prevent disinformation from spreading on their platforms, they are operating in an opportunistic, hypocritical and dangerous manner. Bottom line, they are not protecting and rooting out extremism targeted at women."
Women’s equal participation is a prerequisite for strong, participatory democracies and we now know that social media can be mobilized effectively to bring women closer to government – or push them out.
That’s why academic institutions, civil society groups, and philanthropists who aim to protect and foster democratic values have a responsibility to look into the gendered dimension of fake news and online violence against women in politics – and do it now.