Addressing Online Misogyny and Gendered Disinformation: A How-To Guide

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

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The internet is a tool that can simplify and encourage democratic engagement, but the rise of online disinformation challenges even the world’s most robust democracies. While the most recognizable disinformation campaigns are related to national politics, disinformers frequently employ narratives targeting women’s gender and sexuality in order to disrupt democracy. This is often then amplified by media agents and the general population, who may not have the intent to drive disinformation nor the capacity to discern it. NDI’s robust research in this field concludes that gendered disinformation is the use of false information to confuse or mislead by manipulating gender as a social cleavage to attack women and/or to sway political outcomes. It has three primary goals: to keep women out of politics; to change the views of women and men about women’s political participation; and specifically to change party policies or political outcomes. In short, it aims to undermine women’s free and equal participation in politics to the detriment of inclusive, resilient democracy.

NDI has released two landmark studies on Online Violence Against Women in Politics (Online VAW-P): “Tweets that Chill” (2019), which measured similar violent phenomena experienced by women engaging in politics online across three countries; and “Engendering Hate” (2020), which examines the role of gendered disinformation as an intentional tactic by certain actors which can be unintentionally amplified by others within the media and the general public. In the former case, this is often a political tactic to deliver specific political outcomes. The reports highlight how some words and phrases generally representative of Online VAW-P are being reclaimed by women; emphasize intersectionality and local expertise in identifying and rooting out gendered disinformation; and encourage policymakers to cooperate with women in crafting solutions to the problem in order to create positive, empowering, and equitable online environments.

Ultimately, NDI sees gendered disinformation as a form of Online VAW-P. As the below diagram illustrates, not all instances of hate speech, threats, or gendered attacks against women and gender diverse individuals are instances of gendered disinformation, but they all fall under the umbrella of Online VAW-P. Forms of Online VAW-P can be used by bad faith actors for the purposes of disinformation which influences how men and women view particular issues and engage with political discourses and processes in order to change political outcomes. When state-based actors utilize online violence to conduct disinformation campaigns that target politically active women, they consciously and purposefully undermine the freedom and integrity of the political information space and ultimately threaten democratic processes. In those states with illiberal or authoritarian contexts, state-based gendered disinformation has the purpose of furthering the agenda of the regime in power. Reflecting the permeability of our media environments, this gendered disinformation can in turn be used either by non-state-based actors to pursue Online VAW-P to their own ends or be unintentionally amplified by media professionals and citizens who are not able to discern its lack of integrity. State-Based Gendered Disinformation is a unique phenomenon and subset of gendered disinformation as a form of Online VAW-P.  

Based on research conclusions, this paper outlines recommendations for NDI, its partners and those working globally to mitigate the democratic harms of disinformation, to ensure women’s safe participation and leadership in politics, and to monitor the social media and information environment in elections. These recommendations include:

  • Serve as a trusted conduit between partners and social media platforms; 

  • Integrate into programming training on protecting one’s personal information and mitigating psychological trauma from online disinformation;

  • Build better organizational structures for women affected by gendered disinformation;

  • Establish support networks of women who have been targeted by such campaigns;

  • Adopt organizational human resources policies supporting women subject to gender-based abuse and disinformation;

  • Maintain databases of abuse and reports against women employees and affiliates, and share them regularly with platforms;

  • In legislatures, adopt rules against the sharing of disinformation or manipulated media, and allow elected officials to moderate gender-based attacks on their online profiles;

  • Invest in training on platform reporting and moderation tools for partners who may be subject to gendered disinformation;

  • Proactively interface with women in politics and their teams, including by naming specific local points of contact responsible for gender issues in each country/region;

  • Invest in on-platform awareness building campaigns to deter gendered disinformation; and,

  • Build societal awareness of gender-based disinformation campaigns and their effects, including in the media, so that individuals might avoid engaging in or amplifying such campaigns in the future.

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