Fake Nudes and Real Threats: How Online Abuse Holds Back Women in Politics

Female politicians face more personal online attacks than their male counterparts, researchers have found. That online abuse can escalate into violence.,

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— Julia Gillard, Australia’s first, and only, female prime minister, in a 2019 interview


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The first year that more than two women simultaneously served in the U.S. Senate was 1992. It was dubbed the “Year of the Woman.”

Decades later, women now make up nearly a quarter of that legislative body. But as female representation grows, so do efforts to undermine it.

Researchers have found that female politicians tend to face more personal online attacks than their male counterparts, with social media posts that double down on character and sexuality rather than the politicians’ work. A 2016 global survey of female parliamentarians found that 42 percent of the respondents had seen “extremely humiliating or sexually charged” images of themselves shared on the internet. And another study found that immediately following Kamala Harris’s selection as Joseph R. Biden’s running mate in the 2020 presidential election, false claims were shared about Ms. Harris 3,000 times per hour on Twitter.

“The social media environment is so gendered and full of vile material when it comes to women politicians,” Julia Gillard, Australia’s first and only female prime minister, said in a 2019 interview.

It has also become increasingly clear that what begins as disinformation — a photoshopped image, a skewed piece of data — can escalate into offline violence. And that combination of online disinformation and offline threats can make many women question whether they even want to enter politics in the first place.

“It affects women’s willingness to be in public spaces, speak freely and participate in public discourse,” said Lucina Di Meco, an expert on gender and disinformation.

Online attacks on women frequently reference tropes that existed long before the internet, depicting women as mentally unstable or hyper-sexual. “It’s all the same racist and sexist dog whistles now magnified and supercharged anonymously across social media networks,” said Arisha Hatch, vice president and chief of campaigns of the civil rights organization Color of Change.

In Brazil, when the country’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, faced impeachment in 2016, following allegations of corruption and manipulation aimed at covering up the country’s financial crisis, the tabloids ran unfavorable photos of her, with her fists clenched or mouth wide open, in a concerted effort to turn public opinion against her, according to Mona Lena Krook, a professor of political science at Rutgers University.

“The tabloids made it look like she was having a mental breakdown,” Dr. Krook said. “It plays into the idea that women are too emotional for politics.”

Another approach paints female politicians as hyper-sexualized. That was what former President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic of Croatia encountered when tabloids ran pictures of another woman in a bikini and falsely claimed it was her. The photo’s subject was later identified as Coco Austin, the partner of American rapper Ice-T — but the damage to Ms. Grabar-Kitarovic’s reputation was done.

“If people aren’t critical and willing to take a moment to assess whether a story or image is real, the effects end up getting magnified,” Dr. Krook said.

Other female leaders have also found themselves the target of fake nude photos, like the former Ukrainian parliament member, Svitlana Zalishchuk, and a Rwandan female presidential candidate, Diane Rwigara. “It is one of many tactics that has been used to silence me,” Ms. Rwigara told CNN in 2017.

Once the disinformation is out there, it is difficult to counter, says Dr. Krook: It is hard to ensure a retraction reaches everyone who saw the inaccurate post, and even if it is seen, it might not change minds. Disinformation spreads rapidly, Dr. Krook added, because it taps into and reinforces existing sexist beliefs about female political leaders.

With social media, attacks on high-profile women can occur at an unprecedented scale, often anonymously and with impunity. And only in recent years have policymakers begun to focus on the risks that women face because of these online attacks, by publicly addressing them and accounting for them in policymaking.

Last fall, federal and state authorities revealed a detailed plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan. Ms. Whitmer had become a target of right-wing and anti-government activists because of measures she had taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The group that plotted the kidnapping spied on Ms. Whitmer’s vacation home, met regularly for firearms and combat training, and made plans to buy explosives.

But the kidnapping plot didn’t start in the basement where they held their meetings; its flames were fanned on the internet, according to Kristina Wilfore, an adjunct professor at George Washington University. The plot was preceded by weeks of online campaigns spreading disinformation about Ms. Whitmer. Right-wing social media accounts created memes depicting her frothing at the mouth or as a dominatrix shooting lasers from her eyes. At the time, President Donald J. Trump had urged his supporters on Twitter to “Liberate Michigan!”

“It was a cynical way to make her the poster child of accusations of Covid overreach,” Ms. Wilfore said. “The fact that the plot was aimed at a female governor was no accident.”

Republican legislators in Michigan recently introduced a bill that would require Ms. Whitmer to provide detailed notice when leaving the state, which the State Senate approved despite security concerns raised by Democrats.

The plot against Ms. Whitmer made apparent the high stakes of online conspiracy theories. “This is a very clear example of how misinformation that is fueled by sexism can lead to real-life consequences for women, and women in politics in particular,” said Ms. Di Meco.

Ms. Di Meco added that the same link between online disinformation and offline violence was visible on Jan 6., when tens of thousands of Trump supporters rioted at the Capitol after weeks of sharing fraudulent theories on Facebook and Parler discrediting Mr. Biden’s presidential victory.

With a new administration in power, some experts say that the moment is ripe for a more concerted national effort to counter online disinformation, particularly its pernicious effects on women. The Biden administration has committed to creating a National Task Force on Online Harassment and Abuse, which would study the link between online abuse and violence against women.

And last August, 100 American female lawmakers, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Tammy Baldwin, along with current and former legislators from around the world, wrote a letter to Facebook urging the site to take action to protect female politicians from online attacks, including by taking down posts threatening violence and removing manipulated images or videos of female public figures.

“Make no mistake,” the letter read, “These tactics, which are used on your platform for malicious intent, are meant to silence women, and ultimately undermine our democracies.”

Representative Jackie Speier, co-chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus, a body comprising all of the Democratic women in the House, said signing the letter felt particularly personal to her given her “lifetime of experience” facing threats as a female politician: When she was focused on child support enforcement in the California state legislature, for example, she had to wear a bulletproof vest. “But it has ratcheted up so dramatically in the last few years,” she continued. “That has a lot to do with social media.”

She would like to see more regulation of social media companies and greater fines for violating their terms of service. “They have the responsibility not to be the purveyors of disinformation,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Facebook wrote in an email that the company is working to tackle the issues raised in the letter “in a variety of ways.” This includes “technology that identifies and removes potentially abusive content before it happens, by enforcing strict policies, and by talking with experts to ensure we stay ahead of new tactics.”

Ms. Speier and the Democratic Women’s Caucus also plan to call on the Biden administration’s Gender Policy Council to invest resources into countering online violence against women.

But no policy solution can fully account for the damage already wrought by online attacks on high-profile women.

Ms. Di Meco recalled the toll that online abuse took on her own mental health. While working as an activist in Italy for the Italian Democratic Party, her Facebook and email accounts were flooded with messages calling her “dumb” and threatening her with violence. She wondered whether to delete them or bring them to authorities, though she knew that the perpetrators were unlikely to be held accountable.

“It’s hard to overestimate the impact of gendered abuse,” Ms. Di Meco said. “Because this is the first generation of women that’s really trying to join public life and run for office, and right behind them there’s an effort to limit their potential just as it’s starting.”

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