Q&A on Disinformation and Gender between Ambassador and Gender Expert

Our Keep It Real Ambassador Natasha Sutton (image on the left) asking questions about gender and disinformation to ARTICLE19 Head of Gender and Sexuality, Judy Taing.

Question 1

Disinformation and gender-based violence represent two serious challenges in today’s world. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated both issues: while on the disinformation front we see an increasing number of conspiracy theories over the pandemic and the vaccination programmes, the UN Secretary General António Guterres defined the stark increase of gender based violence a ‘shadow pandemic’.

However, is there a relationship between the two and does online disinformation disproportionally impact women?

Unequivocally, there is a direct relationship between disinformation and gender-based violence. The culture of misogyny that fuels gender-based violence is underpinned by the minimisation of women’s voices, the skewing of so-called “feminine” traits as weak, endemic gaslighting that consent is subjective, and constant discrediting of women’s experiences – such as not believing survivors of sexual assault.

A few of the horrible outcomes of the disinformation campaigns around the Covid-19 pandemic are a confused and divided public, the loss of faith in science, and an increase in racist scapegoating – all to serve those in power, to deflect from their inability or disinterest in effectively responding to the public health crisis, and to further reinforcing an oppressive patriarchal status quo. When we couple this with the fact that women are typically at the forefront of the care sector, and bearing the full brunt of an unfettered pandemic – the gender dynamics could not be clearer.

Studies have also shown that alarmingly during the pandemic, women have more heavily left the work force, which translates to less women in formal decision-making spaces – which is again a minimisation of women’s voices. Plainly put, disinformation, particularly when online with speedy dissemination and wider audiences, reinforces a culture of misogyny and patriarchal power structures that enable gender-based violence to occur with impunity.

Question 2

The Research shows that politics is one of those areas in which women are most targeted with “gendered disinformation”. What could be done to encourage more women to consider a career in politics given the high levels of disinformation and abuse they are subjected to online?

There needs to be a multi-stakeholder response to ensure that women in politics are not experiencing and responding to this in isolation.

Three of my colleagues and I co-authored the OSCE Resource Guide “Walk the talk, what key actors can do to for the safety of female journalists online”, which includes comprehensive recommendations for States, judiciary and legislative bodies, law enforcement, internet intermediaries, civil society and inter-governmental institutions that also apply to women in politics. ARTICLE 19 has also produced three policy briefs that include recommendations for States and technology companies on how to ensure the right to freedom of expression for women, one of which focuses on conducting effective investigations of online harassment and abuse. These are just a handful of reports from many. In the last five to seven years, there has been growing research on online harassment and abuse of women, with consistent and clear-cut recommendations. The question now is – will there be follow through by those in power? Does society care enough?

Political parties are also critical actors for women in politics – firstly they should promote more women onto their platforms, and secondly, they are powerful narrative creators and should invest in dispelling gendered disinformation around their women candidates and elected officials.

The key here is that gendered disinformation and online harassment and abuse should not be seen as standard elements of the job for women in politics, but rather as a biased and harmful phenomenon that must be addressed if we value democracy and diversity.

Question 3

We are seeing a movement for change at global level advocating for protection of women targeted by online harassment, including ‘fake news’. While all these campaigns are ultimately contributing to much-needed change, do you believe that a global approach is the way forward taking into consideration the right to respect for people’s cultures and beliefs? 

Just as the approach needs to be multi-stakeholder, it also needs to be multi-layered. The global approach is necessary because this is a global issue, it is not confined to a particular region of the world, or a particular country, and it is important to recognise it as such. For example, whatever decisions technology companies they are making from the hallways of Silicon Valley or other tech hubs have widespread and global impact. Also, the global movement places pressure on States that do not prioritise women’s rights, or States that claim that women’s rights contravenes their “cultural values”.

But as your question suggests, a global approach alone is insufficient. Gender disinformation and online harassment and abuse are constructed from existing social and political narratives that are hyper-contextual and hyper-personal, and the effectiveness of combatting such requires the same level of nuance and understanding. While we should view this as a widespread global problem, each region, country, province or town will need its own tailored responses that address its own reality of discrimination and misogyny. The solutions, particularly on a case level, must be rooted in the local context, and the needs and consent of the women who are being targeted.

The women who have experienced this must be at the very centre of decision-making around it, and their experiences must be heard and believed.