Establish institutional and organizational protocols
Several recent research studies7 investigating the prevalence and impact of online harassment and abuse of (women) journalists in the United States and around the world have found that many subjects of such attacks do not report these incidents to their employers or other authorities out of concern that nothing can or would be done in response, or for fear of personal or professional repercussions from reporting. In cases where they do report these incidents to their employers, the organizations may not take action or may handle reports inconsistently and inadequately. A key recommendation that surfaced from these findings is to establish institutional and organizational protocols, including specific policies and practices to support those attacked and to address reports of attacks.
Based on this research and work in the area of online gender-based violence, donors and implementers should support institutions and organizations such as political parties or campaigns, EMBs, news and media outlets, and activist or advocacy organizations to establish comprehensive institutional protocols to prevent attacks and respond to reports, including:
- Providing appropriate digital safety and security training and education about online harassment
- Establishing clear and accessible reporting mechanisms that ensure the safety and protection of survivors of online violence and gendered disinformation, as well as their ability to freely participate in digital spaces
- Ensuring systematic and consistent investigation of reports of attacks and referrals to appropriate authorities
- Establishing a variety of responses that institutions will offer to support their staff or members who are subjects of attacks (e.g. screening and documenting threats, reporting to platforms and/or authorities, coordinating counter-messaging, and sharing guidance and providing support to staff or members who choose to block or confront the perpetrators of their attacks)
- Providing appropriate resources and referrals following a report, such as physical security, psychological support, legal support, and personal information scrubbing services
In order to determine what protocols are needed, and to be responsive to the lived experiences of women and people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities at work, programming should allow time and funding for institutions to survey their staff about their experiences and involve staff in decisions about the protocols, policies, and practices.
This approach can be adapted from the journalism and media industry to other organizations and institutions where gendered disinformation attacks are prevalent, installing policies and practices to ensure supportive, consistent, and effective responses to direct attacks. This intervention can contribute to combatting the impunity of perpetrators of gendered disinformation attacks, as well as the silencing, self-censorship, and discouragement to participate in the political or public spheres by the subjects of these attacks.
Coordinate prevention, response, and risk mitigation strategies and establish appropriate case management and referral pathways
Gendered disinformation, much like gender-based violence, is a challenge which requires the involvement of stakeholders across multiple sectors and at multiple levels. Prevention and response efforts to address gendered disinformation depend on cooperation between the public and private sectors, including technology firms and media outlets (especially social media and digital communications platforms), law enforcement and justice authorities, civil society, psychosocial and mental health providers, and other health providers in cases where technology-fueled disinformation efforts may result in physical harm. Further, gendered disinformation risk mitigation efforts also depend on cooperation and information sharing between these stakeholders and international- and national-level policymakers (to inform legal and regulatory reform), civil society actors (to advocate for appropriate, effective, and sustainable interventions), the education sector (to inform curricula related to critical thinking and analytical skills, media and information literacy, digital safety), and the security sector in cases where incidents of gendered disinformation may be part of a coordinated campaign by malign foreign or domestic actors.
Donors and implementers should look to the robust experience of the humanitarian aid sector, specifically that of gender-based violence (GBV) prevention and response coordinators and service providers, to develop a coordinated approach to gender-sensitive disinformation interventions. Specifically, funders and implementers can adapt and draw guidance from the Handbook for Coordinating Gender-based Violence Interventions in Emergencies and model national-level coordination networks and protocols on relevant elements of the approach detailed in this handbook to implement gender-sensitive responses to disinformation.
Two important elements of a coordinated approach to GBV interventions in emergencies to carry over when adapting this approach are case management and the establishment and use of appropriate referral pathways. Establishing appropriate case management in this scenario might entail: 1) the stakeholder who receives a complaint of gendered disinformation (for instance, a social media platform or local police) conducts a standard intake process with the person reporting; and 2) the stakeholder who receives the complaint or report uses an established referral pathway to refer the reporting party to a local civil society organization (for instance, local women’s organizations that are experienced GBV service providers) for case management and additional referrals as appropriate. Referring the reporting party to an established case manager that is trained to work with targets or survivors of gendered disinformation and networked with the other stakeholders can streamline supportive services for the reporting party by establishing one primary point of contact responsible for interfacing with them. The case manager organization would be responsible for communicating the various response and recourse options available, providing referrals to appropriate service providers in the referral network and referring cases to appropriate members of the coordination network for follow-up, and (in cases of a direct attack) providing support to the target or survivor of the attack.
Establishing referral pathways in this scenario would involve identifying or establishing appropriate organizations or institutions responsible for different aspects of responding to reports of gendered disinformation, ensuring all coordination network organizations and institutions have access to the referral pathways, enabling them to receive initial reports of incidents and refer reporting parties to a local case manager organization, and case managers informing the reporting party about available services and avenues to pursue different interventions or recourse. If the reporting party gives permission, the case manager should also connect them with relevant services in the referral pathway.
Donors should consider supporting:
- A mapping or sectoral analysis of relevant stakeholders
- A convening of practitioners and experts to discuss the gendered disinformation landscape and needs
- Providing training and sensitization to law enforcement authorities, legal practitioners, and policymakers on gender, online and technology-facilitated gender-based violence, and disinformation
- The establishment of a coordination network that includes social media and digital communications platforms, law enforcement and justice authorities, civil society, psychosocial and mental health providers, and other health providers
- The development of clear roles and responsibilities of network members, for example establishing case manager organizations with support from civil society and governments
- The development of response protocols to guide the coordination, management, prevention, and response efforts of the network, including the development of a case management methodology and referral pathway
This intervention can contribute to the delivery of a holistic, survivor-centered approach to gender-sensitive counter-disinformation prevention and response programming, as well as combat impunity for perpetrators by institutionalizing a consistent and systematic approach of reporting claims to platforms and law enforcement authorities for investigation and recourse.
Build networks and communities of supporters and deploy counterspeech
“Don’t feed the trolls” is a common refrain of warning offered to those who find themselves the subjects of gendered disinformation. Experts used to think the best way to counter direct attacks targeting someone due to their gender and exploiting gendered norms and stereotypes was to simply ignore the attacks. Yet, recently, the dialogue around this issue has begun to evolve.
While some still advise not to “feed the trolls”—in other words, to simply ignore or to block, report, and then ignore the harmful content hurled at and about them online—others who work with the subjects of these attacks, as well as those who have themselves been the subjects of such attacks, have begun to acknowledge the shortcomings of this approach. They point to the empowerment that subjects of gendered disinformation and those who witness it may derive from speaking up and calling out the attacks (or seeing others do so), and the need for outing misogyny when it rears its head in digital spaces. Research conducted as part of the Name It. Change It. project also indicates that women politicians who directly respond to sexist attacks and call out the misogyny and harassment or abuse they face online (or when a third party does so on their behalf) are able to regain credibility with voters who they may have initially lost as a result of having been attacked.
It is important to clearly state that, while there are ongoing and evolving discussions on this topic about how best individuals can or ‘should’ respond to gendered disinformation, it is not the responsibility of those who find themselves the subjects of such attacks to respond in any one way, if at all, nor to prevent the occurrence or take steps to mitigate the risks of these attacks. Those suffering gendered disinformation attacks should not be expected to shoulder the burden of solving this problem. Rather, it is the responsibility of a variety of stakeholders—including the technology platforms, government institutions and regulatory bodies, political parties, media organizations, and civil society—to establish and implement effective approaches and mechanisms to prevent and respond to gendered disinformation, as well as to work to address its root causes and to mitigate its long-lasting and far-reaching impacts. Nevertheless, best practice adapted from gender-based violence response programming indicates that when the subject of gendered disinformation reports an incident, they should be presented with information on the available options for response and recourse and any potential benefits and further risks associated with those options.
One such possible response to gendered disinformation is counterspeech, which the Dangerous Speech Project defines as “any direct response to hateful or harmful speech which seeks to undermine it,” also noting, “There are two types of counterspeech: organized counter-messaging campaigns and spontaneous, organic responses.” Individuals who have been targeted by harmful content online might choose to engage in counterspeech themselves, or they might choose to enlist the support of their own personal and professional community or an online network of supporters to craft and deploy counterspeech publicly on their behalf or privately with messages of support (for example via email or on a closed platform). The effectiveness of counterspeech is difficult to measure, in part because those who engage in counterspeech may have different goals (ranging from changing the attitude of the perpetrator to limiting the reach of the harmful content to providing the subject of an attack with supportive messages). However, emerging research and anecdotal evidence indicates that crafting and deploying counterspeech (whether by the subjects of these attacks, their institutions or organizations, or a broader online community of supporters) is a promising practice in responding to gendered disinformation.8
A variety of positive outcomes to counterspeech have been referenced, including:
- delivering a sense of empowerment back to the targets of gendered disinformation attacks, allowing them to take back their narrative
- increasing the likelihood of positive, civil, or “pro-social” comments and/or decreasing the likelihood of negative, uncivil, or “anti-social” comments
- drowning out harmful content with supportive counterspeech, both on public social media posts and in private communications
- demonstrating to those sharing harmful content that their language or message is not accepted