Our report, with U.S.-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), outlines a new framework for understanding how disinformation is being used online to exclude women from public life, in the first major study into this threat to democracy.
The report has found that online spaces are being systematically weaponised to exclude women leaders and to undermine the role of women in public life. Attacks on women which use hateful language, rumour and gendered stereotypes combine personal attacks with political motivations, making online spaces dangerous places for women to speak out. And left unchecked, this phenomenon of gendered disinformation, spread by state and non-state actors, poses a serious threat to women’s equal political participation.
In this research, we investigated state-aligned gendered disinformation in two countries, Poland and the Philippines, through an analysis of Twitter data. The research found evidence of disinformation campaigns which attacked women and used gendered narratives to undermine women who oppose or criticise the state.
For the first time, researchers identified core themes of gendered disinformation, and common strategies used by those engaged in it, finding that campaigns relied not just on false information, but used highly emotive content to try to undermine their targets politically.
The report found that gendered disinformation is parasitic on news events, existing rumours, and underlying social stereotypes, and can be extremely successful in reaching a broad audience to reshape public discourse in a way that harms women.
Demos is calling for systematic improvements to be made to how platforms operate in facilitating, promoting and moderating online speech. Existing responses to disinformation, such as fact-checking, while important, are ineffective in solving this problem.
Commenting on the findings, Ellen Judson, Senior Researcher at Demos and co-author of the report, said:
“People often think of disinformation primarily as false information. But gendered disinformation is not that simple: it involves facts, lies, emotions, values, stereotypes, and rumours, and packages them together to undermine women in public life. We focused on Poland and the Philippines in our analysis, but we can see these patterns across the rest of the world: we only have to look to the upcoming election in the US to see how a supposed ‘strong-man’ advances his own political agenda through denigrating his women opponents.
“Dealing with systematic, targeted disinformation and abuse should not be the cost of admission to public life for women. We have to recognise these patterns of behaviour that are occurring online, or else we risk overlooking a significant force that threatens to undermine the core tenets of democracy.
“It is a matter of urgency for platforms to get to grips with gendered disinformation and recognise it as a widespread phenomenon that requires its own solutions: a ‘one-size fits-all’ approach to the problem of disinformation will not be successful. Our new framework for how this type of disinformation functions can help platforms reflect on how to better tackle this issue.”
Commenting on the report, Moira Whelan, Director for Democracy and Technology at NDI, said:
“Gendered disinformation is an extension of violence against women. To participate in public life, women face the weaponization of information that directly impacts their opportunities for leadership and participation. If the digital ecosystem is not safe for women, it is not safe for democracy. The evidence has shown us that empowering women to have a level playing field in the digital landscape can benefit countries and communities. That’s why NDI has been on the forefront of research and practical approaches to overcoming violence as one of the barriers to women’s equal and active political participation and empowerment.”