Webinar: Gender Dimensions of Disinformation in Elections, Politics and the Digital Information Space
Prominent women and other individuals who challenge traditional gender roles by speaking out in male-dominated spaces have long been subjected to biased media reporting, character assaults, harassment, abuse and threats. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced electoral campaigning and events to be held online, leading to an increase of gendered disinformation in the cybersphere with the potential for long-term global repercussions such as the regression of women’s political participation.
The International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ (IFES) Regional Europe Office (REO) dedicated the eighth installment of the Democratic Resilience in Europe During a Pandemic webinar series to the ever-growing issue of disinformation, particularly as it impacts women and other marginalized genders. The webinar took place on February 24, 2021, with 196 participants, and featured an all-women panel moderated by IFES Senior Program Officer for Europe and Eurasia Daria Azarjew. Simultaneous interpretation into seven languages (Albanian, Armenian, Georgian, Macedonian, Russian, South Slavic language and Ukrainian) was provided.
The webinar was opened by IFES Center for Applied Research and Learning Senior Research Officer Victoria Scott. Scott framed the issue from IFES’ perspective and emphasized the need for approaching all programming and research through a gender lens. Scott recently wrote a chapter titled “Understanding the Gender Dimensions of Disinformation” for a forthcoming digital guidebook on countering disinformation that will be launched this spring. Scott highlighted that all disinformation has gender dimensions because all people’s experiences differ based on their gender. She noted that women, girls and people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities experience more online and technology-facilitated harassment and abuse than men and boys in normal times, but that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, recent research has shown a significant increase in gender-based violence. Scott also explained that combating gendered disinformation will require thinking beyond the perceived scope of counter-disinformation programming to include gender-transformative interventions to strengthen resilience and protective factors against the threat of gendered disinformation.
The first webinar panelist, Lucina Di Meco, an expert on gender equality, spoke about the striking similarities between gendered disinformation and abuse. The violence and damage incurred in both acts are fueled by an obsolete notion that women are untrustworthy, weak, stupid and “too sexual” to ever hold positions of power. Not only do these false narratives erode progress made for women’s rights and democratic institutions, but they also seek to eliminate opposition and push women out of politics completely. Di Meco presented some examples of this behavior from recent elections where headlines were focused on a women’s perceived character, and not on her platform or experience.
Next, the audience heard from Central Election Commission (CEC) of Bosnia and Herzegovina Member Irena Hadžiabdić. Hadžiabdić provided poignant examples of gendered disinformation that women in Bosnia and Herzegovina faced in the 2020 local elections. This included an attack on her CEC colleague by the Bosnian Serb president, who is also the presidency chairman, after the CEC decided to annul elections in two municipalities due to proven allegations of fraud. Hadžiabdić’s colleague, who represents the Serb people on the board of the CEC, was falsely accused of being partial to Bosniaks because she was previously married to a Muslim Bosniak. This accusation was an insult to her religious beliefs, family and professional integrity. With respect to the pandemic, Hadžiabdić stressed that the COVID-19 crisis has had terrible consequences for women, especially minorities and marginalized groups who are already isolated.
The third panelist, Ukraine Crisis Media Centre’s Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group Head Liubov Tsybulska, spoke about gender politics and its implications on the Russian electoral process. Tsybulska identified how Russian media and the Orthodox Church weaponize disinformation to promote a return to “traditional values.” These narratives, full of sexist and homophobic sentiments, have implications far beyond the borders of Russia where any country susceptible to Russian influence is at risk.
The final panelist was Wilson Center Disinformation Fellow Nina Jankowicz. Jankowicz spoke about her extensive research of online gendered disinformation campaigns against women in public life and how to best inform policy responses. She studied platforms such as Twitter, Reddit, 4chan, and Parler in the fall of 2020 and saw that online conversations about women fell under the categories of gendered abuse or gendered/sexualized disinformation. Jankowicz found that gendered abuse, which she defined as the use of derogatory terms aimed at degrading or insulting women based on their gender, is more common than gendered and sexualized disinformation. The latter is a specific subset of online gendered abuse that uses false or misleading gender- and sex-based narratives against women to keep them out of the public sphere.
While gendered disinformation is increasingly prevalent, it can be stopped. Though many election management bodies are already conducting reactive damage control, they should plan to engage in preventative work as well. Increasing media literacy so citizens will be able to identify dis/misinformation and untrustworthy sources is an important step in the right direction. Other preventative solutions include knowledge sharing across regions, establishing case management mechanisms, promoting counter-speech and organizing gender-transformative programming as part of a long-term effort to shift norms and false ideas about women.
Published on March 8, 2021.