Gendered disinformation online silences women in the public sphere. The disinformation and democratization expert Nina Jankowicz explains how.
Nina Jankowicz in conversation with Claudia Rothe and Georg McCutcheon
Georg McCutcheon (GM): Your research focuses on gendered disinformation. For many readers, however, this might be an unclear term, located somewhere between online harassment and gender-based violence. What would you describe as the distinct features of gendered disinformation?
Nina Jankowicz (NJ): First, I think it is important to underline that disinformation in general often uses preexisting societal cleavages in order to be successful. Gendered disinformation is something that I started studying originally in the context of Russian disinformation, because I kept meeting women in countries like the Republic of Georgia and Ukraine, who had been targeted by Russian disinformation that was incredibly sexualized and gendered, and attempted to shame women from participating in the public sphere. I did further research into this phenomenon in the context of the US elections in 2020 with the Wilson Center in a report called Malign Creativity: How Gender, Sex, and Lies are Weaponized Against Women Online. What we found during our research was, that gendered disinformation is a subset of online abuse or online gender-based violence that uses false narratives, malign intent and coordination in order to silence women and keep them out of public life. Usually, these false narratives have a gendered or sex-based connotation. For example, during the US presidential election, a narrative gained traction that Vice President Kamala Harris had “slept her way to the top”. That is the sort of thing that you would not see ascribed to a man.
Overall, our research shows three overarching narratives of gendered disinformation: Sexualized narratives, such as the one I just described about Vice President Kamala Harris; transphobic narratives, claiming that women in power are secretly transgender; and racialized narratives, claiming, for example, that Kamala Harris is not black. In particular, we found that women with intersectional identities, namely women who are also women of color, gay, or living with disabilities, receive far more gendered abuse and disinformation than their white, straight, and able-bodied counterparts.
GM: Why are women disproportionately targeted by disinformation and what is the motivation behind this? Who have you identified as the main perpetrators behind the organized dissemination of gendered disinformation?
NJ: Clearly, misogyny and online misogyny do not stop at Russia, Iran, and China. That is one of the reasons it is so effective, right? Unfortunately, misogyny is still endemic to the public discourse in many countries. I think there is a deep-seated fear among men who believe that women are encroaching on spaces that they've occupied for a long time. As a result, the aim of gendered disinformation is often to silence women and keep them out of public life. When we look at gendered disinformation campaigns, we see that there are follow-on effects to women's political participation up and down the ballot and across all ages. Here, I like to give the example that when Kamala Harris took the oath of office as the first female vice president of the US, this certainly was a defining moment for many women in the US. But, if you look at the replies to her tweets, if you look at any discussion of her online, I would hate for any woman to be exposed to that. Because the calculation then becomes: What will happen if I use my voice? What will happen if I am involved in public life? Am I going to be subjected to those same narratives as well? Therefore, we see that the ramifications of gendered disinformation go beyond the violent effect that this has on the target of the abuse, in that it has considerable follow-on effects to women's democratic political participation across the board.
These attacks about women’s fertility or our parental status, age, appearance, and mental stability, are not launched against men to nearly the same degree, but for some reason it is okay to describe women that way. When I was pregnant, men were making disparaging comments about my weight and some acne that I had – both are entirely normal during pregnancy. It is something that I think is a reflex for many people, and even journalists and politicians tend to fall into these old tropes when they themselves are not subject to them. Let me offer another example from the 2020 presidential inauguration. It was an extremely cold day and we spent a lot of time talking about what coats the women were wearing. Meanwhile, Senator Bernie Sanders showed up in his now famous utility coat and mittens, looking very scruffy. The moment became a meme and it was endearing. However, if a woman showed up looking that way, she would be absolutely ridiculed, no matter her political positions.
As for the perpetrators, we do see this used as one of the cleavages that foreign actors manipulate, but frankly, this is not something that legitimized domestic actors shy away from. In Germany, we saw Annalena Baerbock being targeted by gendered narratives during the last election and the same sorts of narratives continue during our midterm elections in 2022. We observe this not only with online influencers at the fringes of the political spectrum, but we see our own elected politicians reproducing these narratives. President Donald Trump famously used a lot of gendered language to describe reporters and political opponents. We see members of Congress doing this to this day, and in fact, I have been on the receiving end of such attacks from members of Congress. I think this sets a very problematic example, insinuating that this is something that is okay in politics.
Claudia Rothe (CR): The online reader of which this interview is a part of, is focused on press and media freedom in Europe. How would you describe the particular threat experienced by women and gender minorities in journalism and other media professions, especially those facing intersectional discrimination? What needs to be done to protect them from these threats?
NJ: Journalists are often on the front lines because of the reporting that they do. For example in Brazil, a study by Reporters Without Borders said that eight out of 10 female journalists changed their reporting in order to protect themselves from attacks. Importantly, these are not just online attacks, they often spill into the offline world. In a profession in which the internet is so important, the boundary between online and offline blurs quickly. Women in journalism are frequently doxed, which means the release of their private information, including their address and phone number. Journalists are also sometimes swatted, where a fake call is made to the police about a threat at their home, and a SWAT team shows up at their door ready to eliminate the threat, which gravely endangers the resident. Additionally, violent threats are made online, and I can say from personal experience that this makes you question if it is worth to continue this work, whether it is writing about things that are politically inconvenient or that make an opposition party or extremist political group angry. It makes you think about how you engage. Many women in public life, particularly journalists, will think twice about pursuing a certain story. That is a restriction of freedom of the press, and it is a restriction of freedom of speech.
In terms of protection, newsrooms are becoming a little bit savvier about safeguarding their reporters, particularly women and those of intersectional identities, but it is still not enough. Every reporter’s contract should stipulate that the newsroom will support them if they are subject to threats as a result of the reporting that they do, for example if they need to relocate or if they need help with operational and IT security. This should be standard practice and that is unfortunately not the case yet. Especially the protection of freelancers, who are crucial to the media industry, but are often not covered by many of the same things that staff reporters are, need better protection. This applies to any institution that asks someone to be its public face.
CR: In your book you draw on the example of Kamala Harris – among others – as well as your own experience and provide advice on how women and gender minorities should deal with online harassment, abuse and disinformation. What are the most important steps these groups – and all of us – can take to protect themselves online?
NJ: It is a multifaceted problem. I do not think that the solutions I propose in the book are a panacea, but they are a way to protect your online space so that you can preserve your voice. To me, that is the most important thing. One of the most difficult things about the harassment that I have experienced is that, especially when I was still in the government, I was not allowed to speak and I felt like I was just rolling over to the people who were attacking me. I am not giving that space up again, and that was one of the big reasons that I left the government because they would not allow me to defend myself.
The most important and very basic thing that you can do to keep your private life and information secure, is setting up two-factor authentication and complex passwords on all of your devices and accounts. The second thing is to understand that those who are trolling you often want you to engage with them because this amplifies their message. Remember that you have the power to block or mute those individuals. Also, while reporting accounts might not always yield the results that you want, it does give the platforms important information about who is out there and what they are doing. Thirdly, having a community that you can rely on is key. The first time I was harassed online, I was shocked that people close to me, including my husband and my mom, did not understand it. Some of my friends said, “Just turn off the internet, do not look at the comments, do not engage with the trolls”. But, when your research and your work is online, that is incredibly difficult. Luckily, I had a community of women writers who I talk about in the book and many of them have gone through this before. The internet is a terrible place, but you can find real friendships and support networks there too, whether that is colleagues who are in your line of work or people whose work you admire. As a bystander online, be active: If you see someone who is being harassed, call that behavior out if you can without amplifying the troll and block that person.
GM: Lastly, we would like to foreground institutional responsibility. How would you evaluate existing legislative approaches to target these issues, and do you have recommendations for how to appropriately account for the gendered dimension of disinformation in legislation, particularly with regard to social media platforms?
NJ: First of all, very few western democracies have functional hate speech legislation, particularly as it relates to the internet. Germany has made a couple of attempts, but I would say that while they are going in the right direction, they are not fulsome yet. Australia's eSafety Commissioner is an interesting example. They have robust laws for non-consensual image sharing, illegal content, content that targets children, and also online harassment and defamation, with violations carrying significant fines. Crucially, there seems to be political will to enforce this legislation. An apt comparison in my opinion, is if you had a crowd of hundreds of people surrounding you on the street shouting slurs at you, you would be able to get a restraining order against the organizer. Online, no such protection exists, even though this has very real-life effects.
I do not think it is necessarily important to address gendered disinformation as a specific subset of the broader online gender-based violence phenomenon. However, we do need to have a conversation about online gender-based violence, just as we have had conversations about sexual harassment in the office. In any legislation that goes forward, I would love to see real consequences for those who are involved in online harassment and hate campaigns. Further, I would like to see more oversight of the platforms, who should invest in content moderators with the subject matter expertise necessary to create policies that they are actually going to enforce.
All of the main platforms have anti hate speech policies that include subsets against gender-based hate speech – they are just not enforced. Part of the reason for this is likely a lack of political will, or the fact that the emotional vitriolic content that we see online keeps people coming back, making it part of the business model. A key element though, is also a lack of expertise. In focus groups that I have conducted, I have heard over and over that slurs were reported by women and women of intersectional identities, but the platforms often did not take action because the people on the other side of the screen did not recognize them as a slur or hate speech. Without context and an understanding of meme culture, the picture of an empty egg carton to insinuate infertility, may not be recognized as misogynistic abuse by a content moderator.
CR and GM: Thank you for the interview!