Gendered disinformation is a national security problem

Women lay flowers at a mural of the murdered human rights activist Marielle Franco.

The January 6th storming of the Capitol represented the culmination of a political movement grounded in extremism, fueled by misinformation, and cultivated over years online. Fortunately, a growing number of political institutions and regulatory agencies are now questioning the role of digital platforms in incubating the violence of January 6, and investigating how they may be held to account. But amid this reckoning, relatively little attention has been paid to the way in which misogyny also intersects with misinformation and violent extremism in the online world—and why addressing it head on is not only a priority for securing women’s rights, but also a key foreign policy and national security imperative.

Around the world, autocrats and their allies are increasingly deploying gendered disinformation to eliminate their critics and consolidate power. By placing gendered disinformation and the fight against authoritarianism at the center of the policy agenda to reduce online harms, the Biden-Harris administration has a chance to not only score a major victory for women’s rights but also to advance key national security and foreign policy objectives around preventing further democratic backsliding.

Defining the problem

As a growing body of research shows, women in politics are disproportionately targeted by gendered disinformation campaigns that feature fake stories and threats, as well as humiliating and sexually charged images. The goal of these attacks is to frame female politicians and government officials as inherently untrustworthy, unintelligent, or too emotional or libidinous to hold office or participate in democratic politics. Building on sexist narratives and characterized by malign intent and coordination, gendered disinformation both distorts the public understanding of female politicians’ track records and discourages women from seeking political careers.

The 2020 U.S. presidential primary provided stark examples of the harassment and abuse female politicians face online. Using data analytics from the nonpartisan firm Marvelous AI, a 2019 study concluded that accounts considered low in credibility, including bots and trolls, attacked female candidates in the U.S. Democratic presidential primary at higher rates than their male counterparts. Negative and sexist messaging barraged these female candidates at higher rates than male candidates. Attacks on female candidates compared to those on male candidates were typically more concerned with the candidates’ character than their policies. Vice President Kamala Harris encountered a program of disinformation and harassment throughout the 2020 election cycle that included attacks on her criminal justice record, as well as allusions that she got to the top of U.S. politics through favors from powerful men, among the most trite of allegations in the misogyny playbook.

Elsewhere in the world, women in politics face similar challenges. In Europe, Ukraine, and Brazil, women politicians’ morality and dignity have been tainted by fake stories and disinformation campaigns. This pattern tends to be even more pronounced for female political leaders from racial, ethnic, religious, or other minority groups, and for those who speak out on feminist issues. One recent study involving 13 female politicians across three countries and six social media platforms found that nine of them had been targets of gendered disinformation narratives. A majority of the 88 female politicians and experts interviewed for the 2019 report #ShePersisted. Women, Politics & Power in the New Media World reported being extremely concerned about the pervasiveness of gender-based abuse and disinformation in the digital space. They described it as a barrier for women who want to engage in politics and a serious disincentive for young women to consider a political career.

Gendered disinformation undermines women’s credibility, poses obstacles to their electoral success, and ultimately represents a significant reason why many women abandon political careers. On some occasions, hate and online threats fueled by gendered disinformation campaigns are followed by physical violence. Even in the milder cases, the abuse can cause psychological harm and waste significant energy and time. Pushing women out of the political arena is often only the first step of a broader, dangerous strategy to erode democracy and human rights. 

Authoritarianism, technology, and the suppression of women’s rights

While sexist attitudes are integral to understanding violent extremism and political violence, social norms per se don’t explain how attacks against women in politics have been weaponized for political gain and cynically coordinated by illiberal actors that take advantage of algorithmic designs and business models that incentivize fake and outrageous content. A new wave of authoritarian leaders and illiberal actors around the world use gendered disinformation and online abuse to push back against the progress made on women’s and minority rights. This movement seeks to push women politicians and activists aside, reignite gender stereotypes and misogyny, and strategically take advantage of technology as a tool in these campaigns. Vladimir Putin in Russia, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey are among the political leaders who have used gendered disinformation campaigns to attack women in politics, aggressively challenge feminism, and attack liberal values.

These efforts are part of a larger strategy to weaken the human rights system. According to the U.N. Human Rights Council, the erosion of women’s human rights “is a litmus test for the human rights standards of the whole of society,” and this tech-enabled backlash against women’s rights has broader ramifications for global peace and security.

State-aligned gendered disinformation campaigns are used as a deliberate tactic to smoother opposition voices, erode democratic processes, and silence demands for government accountability. Research has shown that women’s political participation 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. That’s why gendered disinformation has been used by some governments to silence demands for change and undermine calls for better governance. Particularly in countries where women are among the most outspoken critics of so-called ‘machismo populism’, gendered disinformation and hate campaigns are used to undermine political opponents, supporting the notion of politics as an inherently corrupt, cynical, and violent field, unfit for those who are not willing to play dirty.

These tactics have been embraced at the highest levels of politics and are increasingly becoming a centerpiece of authoritarianism globally. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has followed Twitter accounts responsible for rape and death threats against female politicians in his own government. Modi’s party has been accused of running a “troll army,” targeting political opponents, especially prominent female figures, with online harassment, abuse, and disinformation campaigns. In 2018, following the murder of Marielle Franco, a Brazilian human rights activist, a network of bloggers, prominent businessmen, and lawmakers close to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro carried out a gendered disinformation and smear campaign against Franco, claiming she had led an “immoral” life. Ms. Franco had been deeply critical of Bolsonaro’s language and policies. State-aligned actors in the Philippines and Poland have spread false, humiliating, and damaging narratives against female politicians aimed at shielding the ruling power, according to a recent study from Demos. In Western Europe, right-wing political actors have used gendered disinformation narratives against progressive female legislators, deeming them unfit for power. Russia’s 2016 campaign to meddle in the U.S. election deployed deeply dehumanizing and dangerous stereotypes against Hillary Clinton.

Russia’s propaganda against women is felt even more strongly in the former Soviet countries. Last year, Russian propaganda and gendered smear campaigns attempted to discredit Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as “a teleprompter woman” who “cannot even put together two sentences without getting lost.” Playing on sexist ideas around women’s supposed weakness, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko tried to paint Tikhanovskaya as a Western puppet of Western countries. In Ukraine, women have faced similar attacks, such as when fake tweets claimed that Svitlana Zalishchuk, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, “promised to run naked through the streets of Kiev if the Ukrainian army lost a key battle,” as Nina Jankowicz reported in 2017.

Recommendations for the Biden-Harris administration

Building public immunity against disinformation through media literacy, critical thinking, and more accountable journalism can provide a speed bump to slow disinformation, but it is not enough to stop the deluge of disinformation targeting female political leaders. Because gendered disinformation represents a national security threat and undermines American foreign policy goals, a different response is needed. Biden’s agenda for women’s empowerment includes a commitment to support women’s leadership globally, breaking down barriers to women’s political empowerment around the world. Doing so requires addressing the gendered disinformation and abuse campaigns that are making it increasingly difficult for women, particularly women of color, to participate in the democratic process. In its first 100 days, the new administration must build an architecture of actors and institutions tasked with understanding how authoritarian leaders abroad (and authoritarian-like actors at home) are using social media to thrive by undermining women in politics and propose new regulatory frameworks and other solutions to address this problem.

First, the administration must convene as soon as possible the National Task Force on Online Harassment and Abuse proposed by President Joe Biden on the campaign trail. An effort to consider platform accountability and to study harassment, extremism and violence against women, the task force must be immediately established. Its mandate must include gendered disinformation and abuse against women in politics both in the United States and globally. The task force should work with academia, women’s rights organizations, and technologists to map disinformation campaigns and their connection to online abuse of women in politics. It also must ensure that women’s perspectives and lived experiences are represented, especially as new regulatory approaches are devised and transatlantic dialogues are held on the responsibility of online platforms and Big Tech.

Secondly, the newly instituted White House Gender Policy Council must consider addressing gendered disinformation a top priority. While this body has pledged to address gender-based violence, it must also tackle gendered online attacks that are growing pervasive and are highly damaging to women’s political participation and civic engagement in the United States and beyond, with attacks extending to even women poll workers as witnessed in Georgia. With representation from across government, the council has the ability to consider the national security and foreign policy dimensions of this problem and to provide it the gravitas it deserves.

Finally, the administration should move quickly to nominate a new ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues. The new ambassador will need to operationalize the president’s commitment to women’s political empowerment globally and the full implementation of the U.S. strategy on women, peace and security. Fighting gendered disinformation must be part of that strategy, and the ambassador must ensure it becomes a priority for the country’s technology and foreign policy agenda, and a primary topic of concern in global fora like the Freedom Online Coalition and the Global Democracy Summit.

As governments around the world consider reforms to technology oversight—such as establishing a “duty of care” as is being discussed in United Kingdom and the European Union or increasing transparency requirements—addressing gendered disinformation should be a bigger part of the policy agenda aimed at reducing online harms. Greater investments must be channeled towards research to study the impact of various inoculation strategies, technological innovations (like ParityBOT and Harmony Square), and citizen literacy programs targeting women. Women leaders who are at the forefront of democratization efforts and are therefore becoming the targets of disinformation must be provided with the tools they need to successfully respond to gendered disinformation in real time.

A strategic window of opportunity

In the summer of 2020, the U.S. Democratic Women’s Caucus sent a letter to Facebook urging the company to protect women from rampant and increasing online attacks and disinformation campaigns on their platform that have caused many women to avoid or abandon careers in politics and public service. The letter, signed by 100 current and former female legislators from 30 countries, stated: “Make no mistake, these tactics, which are used on your platform for malicious intent, are meant to silence women, and ultimately undermine our democracies.” This action represented the first coordinated global effort to hold social media platforms accountable for the harm they cause to women in politics, recognizing that women’s political participation is a prerequisite for strong, participatory democracies, and the promotion of human rights. Much more needs to be done.

While the events of January 6 are still fresh in Americans’ minds, the Biden-Harris administration has a window of opportunity to promote meaningful dialogue and active engagement with civil society organizations, philanthropies, and academia to explore solutions to the full range of harms enabled by digital platforms. So far, gender experts have been absent from many of the influential processes and debates shaping the technology and disinformation agenda. This must change.

Gendered disinformation is no longer a mere bug or minor inconvenience of social media. As recent events have made clear, the problem has instead gone mainstream and begun to intersect with violent extremism, with predictably tragic results. The Biden-Harris administration must rise to the challenge and confront the threat it poses to democratic values, at home and abroad.

Lucina Di Meco is a gender equality expert and advocate, working with global networks of women leaders to promote gender justice. Her research, #ShePersisted. Women, Politics & Power in the New Media World, investigates the relationship between women in politics and social media in 30 countries.

Kristina Wilfore is a global democracy activist, an adjunct professor with The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, and the producer and host of Fatima’s Hand, a podcast featuring women fighting for gender equality.

Facebook provides financial support to the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit organization devoted to rigorous, independent, in-depth public policy research.