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Social media companies once promised their platforms would be democratising forces, serving as public fora for women’s rights and democracy activists to share ideas, communicate with one another and amplify their voices. However, like a modern-day Trojan horse, these platforms have become ever more dangerous weapons of attack wielded against those very voices they were supposed to bolster as they continue to undermine both the participation of (women) activists in the public sphere and democracy as a whole.
Disseminated with malign intent, gendered disinformation campaigns have a chilling effect on the women they target in every context identified
Over the last five years, we have interviewed and partnered with hundreds of women political leaders and activists all over the world. Over and over again, we heard that women leaders and activists have been facing large volumes of online abuse, with violence and threats aimed at them and their families. Most women leaders were targeted through gendered disinformation campaigns built on gender biases and sexist stereotypes designed and deployed in a coordinated manner to undermine at a personal level, as well as their civic or political agendas. Disseminated with malign intent, gendered disinformation campaigns have a chilling effect on the women they target in every context identified, often leading to political violence and hate, ultimately resulting in deterring young women from considering a political career.
Also on the Forum Network: Virtual Room of the OECD Forum Event – How to Prevent Online Gender-Based Violence and Disinformation from Silencing Women in Public Life. This event took place on 30 March 2023 but don't worry, you can still ► watch the replay!
Through in-depth research in five countries - Brazil, Italy, Hungary, Tunisia and India – our #MonetizingMisogyny research series shows the connection between gendered disinformation campaigns, efforts to backslide women’s rights and the undermining of democracy. Everywhere, primary targets of gendered disinformation are women who oppose strong male political leaders, and speak out in favour of women’s rights and human rights, particularly those of refugees, immigrants and ethnic, religious, or sexual minorities. The attacks are worst against women who come from traditionally marginalised sections of society, as they are the target of some of the most violent, vicious gendered disinformation and online hate campaigns with both racist and sexist undertones.
Gendered disinformation also represents a threat to national security, as it’s frequently employed by malign actors to exercise foreign influence. According to a recent bulletin from the U.S. Department of State: “Perpetrators of gendered disinformation targeting women comprise both foreign state and non-state actors […]. Foreign state actors utilize their media assets, control of the information environment, and sometimes state-backed troll farms to spread disinformation about women politicians, policy makers, journalists, and activists, and even policies targeted at women.”
Legislative frameworks like the European Union’s Digital Services Act, which compels social media companies “to tackle the spread of illegal content, online disinformation and other societal risks” must be seen as a landmark achievement – one on which we should build
While social media companies did not invent misogyny and authoritarianism, they are largely responsible for facilitating the malign use of their platforms through their refusal to take action on harmful content or to improve their standards. Big Tech continues to prioritise profit and engagement over the safety of women who are experiencing violence and abuse: algorithms amplify harmful content and narratives and facilitate their virality through recommender systems that are built to maximise attention and features that speed up widespread distribution. In the words of Swati Chaturvedi, recipient of the 2018 Prize for Courage for her reporting on politically organised trolling and online harassment, social media companies are responsible for enabling and even fostering sexist abuse and gendered disinformation on their platforms: “hate is their business model—they are weaponizing and monetizing hate, at the expense of social cohesion and democracy.”
Given the status quo, it is clear that the platforms’ self-regulation cannot represent a viable solution. Instead, legislative frameworks like the European Union’s Digital Services Act, which compels social media companies “to tackle the spread of illegal content, online disinformation and other societal risks” must be seen as a landmark achievement – one on which we should build to ensure that enough attention is being paid to harms such as gendered disinformation and online abuse against women leaders.
We cannot continue sacrificing decades of social and political progress– instead, we must act with urgency to fully address the threats hidden in this modern-day Trojan Horse. Not doing so would be hubris and could lead to the destruction of the democratic institutions and human rights principles we hold dear.
To learn more about we can prevent Violence Against Women, listen also to Truth Hurts, an OECD talk series featuring informal conversations with experts and practitioners working with survivors of gender-based violence:
And read the OECD report Eliminating Gender-based Violence: Governance and Survivor/Victim-centred Approaches