Locating Gender in the Disinformation Landscape

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Digital Rights Foundation, in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, conducted a series of focus group discussions with researchers from across the globe in order to deconstruct ‘gendered disinformation’, understand existing work on the subject and identify areas for future interventions. Employing feminist methodology on drawing from lived experiences, the resulting series of policy papers take these experiences to build to definitions, theories and policy recommendations from the ground-up.

Bushra Saleem

Defining Gender Disinformation

Social media has long been credited with allowing marginalized communities, particularly women, a platform to express themselves which they are otherwise denied. However, the patriarchal silencing of women that takes place in offline spaces is increasingly being translated online. Women have been targeted with online violence at a disproportionately higher rate than men, often through the weaponization of information. The duality of the role of online spaces in amplifying women's voices yet at the same time acting as a tool of their oppression has led to the characterization of social media as a “double-edged sword” for women.[1]

Gendered disinformation has emerged as one of the latest strategies being employed to silence female voices. Existing literature explains this phenomenon as similar to online disinformation, which involves the spread of false or misleading information with some degree of coordination and malign intent.[2] However, gendered disinformation makes use of sexual or misogynistic narratives against women which perpetuate a negative representation of women in society as either adversaries or victims. The goal of these campaigns, especially in targeting women politicians, journalists, or public figures, is to question their credibility, polarize their audience, and push them away from positions of power. In some cases, disinformation campaigns seek to undermine feminist movements at large. The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Spain, for example, was pinned on the 8M International Women's Day demonstrations taking place. At the same time as dialogue was being directed away from women speaking about their issues, women were also exploited as being the victims of the pandemic, in order to criticize governments or push other political agenda.[3] Thus, in addition to the spread of misogynistic comments or doctored sexual content, gendered disinformation campaigns also involve the representation of women in stereotypically inferior roles.

Literature Overview

This categorization of gender norms and stereotypes as gendered disinformation significantly obscures its definition by encompassing more than just the sharing of inaccurate information. In fact, such misleading content actually blurs the lines between gendered disinformation and misinformation.[4] While both these forms of online abuse involve the element of malign intent, misinformation is disseminated with the belief that it is true. Since this is also characteristic of stereotypes regarding gender identities, this form of content aligns with misinformation in intent and disinformation in effect. The identification of gendered disinformation is further problematized by “malign creativity — the use of coded language; iterative, context-based visual and textual memes; and other tactics”.[5] Research has found that gendered disinformation often goes undetected by platform content moderators because of the situational familiarization that it requires in such cases.

Gendered disinformation has also been categorized as a form of online gender-based abuse, which may differ in technique but is similar in its targeting of women public figures. In fact, gendered disinformation, which involves online gendered abuse and may even result in physical violence, has been categorized in existing literature not only as a threat to national security but also as a weakening of democratic processes, because of the motivation to exclude a significant part of the population.[6] This is further problematized when gendered disinformation is being disseminated by state or not state, yet state-aligned, actors that seek to silence all opposition from women against the state. The assistance of bots and troll armies in countries where women are at the forefront of opposition to ‘machismo populism’ magnifies the scale of gendered abuse by portraying the vocal women as involved in ‘dirty politics’.[7] Along with the role of the media in furthering sexist narratives, these actors are considered to be spreading gendered disinformation sponsored by the state, which only further complicates any attempt towards accountability.

Gaps in Existing Literature

Research on gendered disinformation has highlighted the ambiguities in the term's definition, while also mapping the effects and the actors involved. However, there is still a lot of room to include the perspectives of gender minorities in their experience of this form of online violence, in order to fully understand the extent to which the intent and effect of disinformation may be gendered in nature. Most literature on gendered disinformation also primarily focuses on women public figures as targets of these campaigns, even though women and gender minorities who are not in the public eye may also be affected by the spread of sexist narratives online. Hence, there exists a need to broaden the scope of gendered disinformation in order to include women and gender minorities at large.

To this end, Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) conducted a series of focus group discussions with researchers from across the globe working in this area in order to deconstruct ‘gendered disinformation’, understand existing work on the subject and identify areas for future interventions. Participants pointed out similar concerns regarding the falsity behind such information, resulting from the ambiguous intentions behind stereotypical narratives and other opinions. The importance of an intersectional approach to understanding gendered disinformation was also  emphasized,  particularly the implications of class, caste, and race in intensifying such instances of abuse.

Many participants lamented the lack of literature emanating from the Global South, which has resulted in the centering of Western-centric experiences. The nature and impact of gender disinformation are highly contextual, and unless voices from those contexts are not heard we cannot arrive at a truly intersectional understanding of gender disinformation.

Regarding possible responses to gendered disinformation, the focus group discussions highlighted a shared distrust in platform regulation, owing to the arbitrary nature with which content moderators often operate. The question of anonymity was also problematized as facilitating gendered abuse while also allowing for greater participation of women and gender minorities online. Rather than relying on social media platforms, the discussions supported community-driven approaches to countering gendered disinformation, emphasizing the need for a more gender-sensitive reporting in media and rejection of sexist narratives being disseminated, in order to have a wider impact on tackling gender biases in society at large.

Given that gendered disinformation was a nebulous term for many, the lack of definitional clarity is both a challenge and an opportunity. This report capitalizes on the opportunity to bring together narratives and perspectives that are hyper-local yet at the same time connect to the global conversation on gendered disinformation. Employing feminist methodology on drawing from lived experiences, the series of policy papers take these experiences to build to definitions, theories and policy recommendations from the ground-up.


This article is part of the policy paper series "Perspectives on Gendered Disinformation". You can download the full series here.


Literatur

[1] Meco, L. (2019). #SHEPERSISTED. Women, Politics & Power in the New Media World.

[2] Boberg, E. (2021). Digital misogyny: Why gendered disinformation undermines democracy. Retrieved from https://www.mediasupport.org/bIogpost/digital-misogyny-why-gendered-disinformation-undermines-democracy/   

[3] Sessa, M. (2020). Misogyny and Misinformation: An Analysis of Gendered Disinformation Tactics during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

[4] Jones et al. (2020). Engendering Hate: The contours of state-aligned gendered disinformation online.

[5] Jankowicz et al. (2021). Malign Creativity: How Gender, Sex, and Lies are Weaponized Against Women

Online

[6] Meco, L. & Wilfore, K. (2021). Gendered disinformation is a national security problem. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/techstream/gendered-disinformation-is-a-national-security-problem/.

[7] Meco, L. (2020). Why Disinformation Targeting Women Undermines Democratic Institutions. Retrieved from https://www.power3point0.org/2020/05/01/why-disinformation-targeting-women-undermines-democratic-institutions/.