Understanding the Gender Dimensions of Disinformation

2. Significant Gendered Impacts of Disinformation

The next two sections of the guide further explore two significant gendered impacts of disinformation:

  • Silencing women public figures and deterring women from seeking public roles
  • Undermining democracy and good governance, increasing political polarization, and expanding social cleavages

2.1 Silencing women public figures and deterring women from seeking public roles

As the internet and social media have increasingly become major sources of information and news consumption for people across the globe, women in politics are turning to these mediums to reach the public and share their own ideas and policies as an alternative to often biased media coverage. Many women—typically having limited access to funding, small networks, little name recognition, and less traditional political experience and ties than men in politics—note that their social media presence is integral to their careers and credit these platforms with giving them greater exposure to the public, as well as the ability to shape their narratives and engage directly with supporters and constituents. However, they also often find themselves the subjects of alarming amounts of gendered disinformation aimed at delegitimizing and discrediting them and discouraging their participation in politics.

According to research conducted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union with 55 women parliamentarians across 39 countries, 41.8 percent of research participants reported that they had seen “extremely humiliating or sexually charged images of [themselves] spread through social media.” Not only do such experiences discourage individual women politicians from continuing in politics or running for reelection (either for concerns over their safety and reputation or those of their families), but they also have a deleterious effect on the participation of women in politics across entire societies, as women are deterred from entering the political field by the treatment of women before them.

“Research has shown that social media attacks do indeed have a chilling effect, particularly on first-time female political candidates. Women frequently cite the ‘threat of widespread, rapid, public attacks on their personal dignity as a factor deterring them from entering politics.’”

--(Anti)Social Media: The Benefits and Pitfalls of Digital for Female Politicians, Atalanta

Although there has been a recent increase in research investigating women politicians’ experiences with gendered disinformation in the digital information space and social media5, this phenomenon is also experienced by women journalists, election officials, public figures, celebrities, activists, online gamers, and others. Women who are the subjects of disinformation, hate speech, and other forms of online attacks may be discriminated against, discredited, silenced, or pushed to engage in self-censorship.

What may be even more impactful is the pernicious effects of these disinformation campaigns on women and girls who witness these attacks on prominent women. Seeing how women public figures are attacked online, they are more likely to be discouraged and disempowered from entering the public sphere and from participating in political and civic life themselves. The subtext of these threats of harm, character assassinations, and other forms of discrediting and delegitimizing signals to women and girls that they do not belong in the public sphere, that politics, activism, and civic participation were not designed for them, and that they risk violence and harm upon entering these spaces.

2.2 Undermining democracy and good governance, increasing political polarization, and expanding social cleavages

“When women decide that the risk to themselves and their families is too great, their participation in politics suffers, as do the representative character of government and the democratic process as a whole.”

--Sexism, Harassment and Violence against Women Parliamentarians, IPU

“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.”

--Lucina Di Meco, Gendered Disinformation, Fake News, and Women in Politics

Beyond its impacts on women, girls, and people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities as individuals and communities, disinformation campaigns that use patriarchal gender stereotypes or norms, use women as targets in its content, or target women as consumers undermine democracy and good governance. As scholar and political scientist Lucina Di Meco notes, inclusion and equal, meaningful participation are prerequisites for strong democracies. When disinformation campaigns hamper that equal participation, elections and democracies suffer.

Disinformation campaigns can use gender dimensions to increase political polarization and expand social cleavages simply by reinforcing existing gender stereotypes, magnifying divisive debates, amplifying fringe social and political ideologies and theories, and upholding existing power dynamics by discouraging the participation of women and people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.  These actions serve to exclude members of marginalized communities from political processes and democratic institutions, and in so doing, chip away at their meaningful participation in their democracies and representation in their institutions. Because the voice and participation of citizens are essential to building sustainable democratic societies, silencing the voices of women, girls, and people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities weakens democracies, making gendered disinformation not just a “women’s issue” and tackling it not just the mandate of “inclusion programming,” but imperative to counter-disinformation programming and efforts to strengthen democracy, human rights, and governance around the globe. A plurality of experiences and points of view must be reflected in the way societies are governed in order to ensure “participatory, representative, and inclusive political processes and government institutions.”