Gendered discrimination is a problem worldwide and is only getting worse, often targeting women who are public figures and/or from marginalized communities. These attacks often blur the line between online and offline consequences, and need to be addressed, writes UN Special Rapporteur Irene Khan.
“First, I am attacked for being a journalist. Second, I am attacked for being a woman.”
That is how Maria Ressa, the 2021 Nobel Peace laureate, described the orchestrated online campaigns of millions of tweets and hundreds of thousands of Facebook posts and comments targeting her. Ressa was targeted by threats of rape and death. She was attacked with disinformation, with racism, sexism, misogyny, and other homophobic abuse. The aim was to intimidate, discredit and destroy her.
Rana Ayyub, an Indian Muslim woman journalist, is known for her critical reporting of the Modi government’s policies and treatment regarding the Muslim minority in India. Ayyub has been attacked viciously with online violence, hate speech and disinformation, threatening her physical safety, mental health, and professional integrity.
When Erika Hilton, the first black and transgender woman city councilor in São Paulo, Brazil, put forward her candidacy for election, she was confronted with racist, misogynistic, and transphobic online attacks and disinformation.
Earlier this year, Sigrid Kaag resigned from her post as Finance Minister and head of a major political party in the Netherlands. Explaining her decision, she cited the impact of threats, online violence, and hate messages against her on her teenage daughters.
Dangers of Gendered Disinformation
As the annual worldwide campaign of 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence draws to a close, action against gendered disinformation deserves more attention.
Gendered disinformation is a strategy to intimidate and silence women and drive them out of online spaces and public life. While women in all walks of life confront disinformation, the more visible the women, the more likely they are to be targeted. The most virulent attacks are reserved for those from minority or marginalized communities. Often the boundaries between disinformation, hate speech, and violence and between online and offline consequences become blurred.
Malicious coordinated online campaigns peddle falsehoods or half-truths, laced with sexual innuendos, threats, and misogynistic language to undermine women’s credibility and portray them as weak, incompetent, and incapable of leadership. The perpetrators—state sponsored or private groups—are driven by extremist ideologies, religious convictions, anti-rights and anti-feminist views, homophobia, transphobia or other political or financial objectives. Increasingly, inflammatory and misogynistic statements by senior political figures, government officials, or religious and community leaders are creating a toxic environment encouraging online violence and gendered disinformation.
What makes gendered disinformation particularly alarming is its weaponization and reaffirmation of gender biases, stereotypes, sexism, misogyny, prejudices, and patriarchal values. The aim is not only to attack individual women but also to push back on gender equality.
The proliferation of digital technology makes gendered disinformation particularly potent. Social media enables disinformation to reach the scale, speed, and reach unimaginable in the past. Deliberately or inadvertently, some traditional media also reinforce, legitimize, and spread gendered disinformation online and offline.
Over the past two years I have met many civil society organizations, women’s groups, representatives of LGBTQI communities, and survivors of online violence and disinformation from various regions of the world. They had one common message: governments and companies are not doing enough to address this threat.
Many governments have adopted “fake news” laws or overly broad social media regulation that do little to fight disinformation and much to restrict criticism of government policies. The platforms claim that they address harmful speech through their community standards, but the lived experience of women and girls prove otherwise.
Combating Gendered Disinformation
So, what should states and companies do?
First and foremost, ensure that strategies to fight disinformation are firmly grounded in international human rights law. Freedom of expression is vital for women’s progress. Laws to make digital spaces safe for women must not restrict freedom of expression beyond what is permitted under international law.
Second, invest in women’s empowerment and agency, not censorship and paternalistic policies. States must accelerate efforts to eliminate the structural and systemic barriers to gender equality. Political, religious, and community leaders have a vital role to play in setting the tone for inclusive public discourse where women’s voices are heard on an equal basis.
Third, close the gender digital divides and promote meaningful connectivity and digital and information literacy for women and girls. Women’s unequal access to the internet and limited digital literacy means that they are more vulnerable to disinformation and less equipped to counter it.
Fourth, the lack of trustworthy, verifiable information on gender issues increases the risk of disinformation. States have a duty to proactively provide factual, verifiable data on gender issues, and to promote independent, free, and diverse media.
Fifth, at the root of gendered disinformation—indeed, all disinformation—lies the business model of social media platforms. Content curation, automated advertising, and amplification of disinformation—including gendered disinformation—are intimately connected. Disinformation is a lucrative business.
State regulation of social media should focus on robust data protection and on ensuring that companies are transparent and accountable, not on content as such. Governments should conduct due diligence to meaningfully assess and mitigate systemic risks and harm to human rights and gender equality.
Companies, for their part, must bring transparency into their algorithms, advertising and community standards and align them with international human rights law and standards.
They must do more to better understand the specific factors that increase the risk of gendered disinformation in different contexts, improve their content moderation and make their complaints procedures more responsive and accessible to their women users.
Sixth, it is imperative that States, companies and civil society work together to combat gendered disinformation while upholding freedom of expression.
There must be no trade-off between women’s right to be safe and their right to speak out.
The article was first published in the Diplomatic Courier.