9th February 2021
By Eisha Maharasingam-Shah & Cécile Guerin
For International Women’s Day, we look at how the implications of online gender-based abuse and disinformation threaten gender equality in a post-COVID world. ________________________________________________________________________
During the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, political responses to the crisis featured prominently in the news. As countries scrambled to deal with mounting infection rates, some leaders received praise for their handling of the pandemic. They acted decisively, communicating fact-based public health information effectively and acting as “voices of reason”.
These leaders were all women. Holding only 7.2% of Heads of State roles in total, female leaders such as Jacinda Arden (New Zealand), Katrín Jakobsdóttir (Iceland), Erna Solberg (Norway), Angela Merkel (Germany) and Tsai Ing-wen (Taiwan) were all recognised as demonstrating best practise in how leaders can effectively guide a country through a public health crisis.
While women have demonstrated strong leadership in handling the pandemic, COVID-19 has also disproportionately affected women around the globe. It has fuelled a rise in domestic and gender-based violence and threatened to reverse trends towards greater gender equality around the world. This is because women are more likely to be affected by job losses, redundancies, workplace discrimination and the need to shoulder childcare during lockdowns.
A less documented obstacle to gender equality has been continuing online abuse and harassment targeting women, including public figures during the pandemic. Two research studies conducted by ISD in 2020 (one of which is unpublished) examined the online abuse and disinformation campaigns targeting public figures. Both found that online abuse and disinformation targeted women distinctly more than men.
Attacks against politicians: Public Figures, Public Rage
As online communication has become increasingly central to the political sphere, abuse and harassment directed at politicians has become a growing concern for those seeking equal democratic representation. Research has shown that women involved in politics are a particular target for online abuse, and this trend has continued during the pandemic. A study by ISD published in October 2020 looked into the scale and nature of online abuse targeting Congressional candidates in the U.S. presidential campaign.
We found that female candidates received higher levels of abuse than men on both Facebook and Twitter. On Facebook, they received 12% more abusive comments than their male counterparts. Trends on Twitter showed a similar picture: women in the study received 15-40% of abusive direct messages, while their male counterparts received between 5% and 10% of abuse (a notable exception being Mitch McConnell, who received 28% of abusive messages).
Women of colour – including Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – received the highest levels of abuse, which reflects the intersectional nature of the abuse. Moreover, abuse directed at women differed from the abuse targeting men, often being highly personalised and demeaning, calling into question women’s skills, competency and place in the political arena, and attacking them based on their physical appearance.
This trend extends beyond just the political realm and into the public sphere.
QAnon’s gendered disinformation campaigns
During the pandemic, online activity related to QAnon surged. The central claim of this wide-ranging conspiracy theory is that an elite cabal of Satan-worshipping, child trafficking paedophiles (the ‘Deep State’) has been ruling the world for many decades and that former U.S. President Donald Trump will expose it and bring corrupt elites to justice. QAnon supporters have accused a wide span of people of belonging to the ‘cabal’ – including Democratic politicians, philanthropists and high-profile celebrities.
In a forthcoming study examining the targeted harassment of high-profile celebrities by QAnon communities, ISD analysts compared QAnon discussion around high profile women with high profile men. To ensure a balanced comparison, individuals who shared similar identity characteristics (e.g. sexuality, race) and similar social media followings were chosen. Across three case studies which compared Chrissy Teigen with Tom Hanks; Ellen DeGeneres with Anderson Cooper; and Oprah Winfrey with Jussie Smollett, analysts found that women were targeted by QAnon disproportionately more than their male counterparts.
In QAnon communities on Facebook and Twitter, Chrissy Teigen was mentioned almost 10 times more than Tom Hanks; Ellen DeGeneres was mentioned twice as much as Anderson Cooper; and Oprah Winfrey was mentioned 5 times more than Jussie Smollett.
While followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory have coordinated misogynistic disinformation campaigns against these women, the movement itself has paradoxically seen a rise in female influencers over the past year and is increasingly appealing to women. Naomi Seibt is a prominent German QAnon influencer who has been described as the “anti-Greta” due to her activism in climate change denial. Research has shown how QAnon-related campaigns such as #savethechildren have found support among “suburban moms”. Many of the politicians who have openly voiced their support for QAnon in the U.S. are women – for example Congresswomen Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, both elected to the House of Representatives last year.
Accusations of paedophilia were by far the most frequent form of targeted abuse identified in ISD’s study. The second most frequent form of targeted abuse, however, was the use of derogatory female-specific terms (e.g. ‘bitch’, ‘slut’) to attack women. While the former directly relates to tropes of the conspiracy itself, the latter does not, and arguably serves as a reminder that while QAnon has seeped into the mainstream, it began on the male-dominated message boards 4chan and 8chan (now called 8kun).
Tackling gendered disinformation and online abuse
Gendered disinformation has become a phenomenon in and of itself. It has also become a prominent online abuse tactic. A recent study by the Wilson Centre showed that during the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election, Kamala Harris was the target of numerous coordinated gendered disinformation campaigns. Such campaigns – designed to smear reputation, discredit character and undermine public image – have a direct impact on equal representation and gender equality, affecting women’s ability to perform public-facing jobs.
Cases of women stepping back from the public sphere after being subjected to relentless abuse and trolling online are well-documented. Research has shown that online abuse can deter women and minorities from pursuing careers in politics, or even encourage those already engaged to step down from political life. During the 2019 UK general election, many female candidates decided to step down after facing abuse and threats on social media. When considered within the bigger picture, this is all the more concerning: women comprise only a quarter of members of national parliaments and 21.3% of ministers globally. This gender disparity has long-term implications, perpetuating a gender bias in decision-making processes and subsequent policies implemented by governments.
COVID-19 has had a deep impact on the scale and nature of online abuse. The rise in gender-based disinformation and abuse poses an increasing threat to an equal future post-COVID and regulatory efforts must recognise the changing nature of online harms.
Female coalitions have been fundamental in engendering legislative and policy changes to promote greater gender parity in politics, overcoming barriers that restricted their political participation and pushing for action to be taken to safeguard women online. Democratic governments and social media companies alike have a key role to play in mitigating the harassment, intimidation and attacks that women in the public eye face in online spaces. To progress toward an equal future, they must learn from past successes and adopt a similar multi-stakeholder, coalition-based approach to counter the issue of gender-based disinformation and abuse, as outlined in an expert paper submitted to the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women.
Female leaders demonstrated strong leadership in their responses to the pandemic. In a post-COVID world, which will likely be fraught with new challenges for governments, societies and healthcare systems, it is imperative that online spaces empower, rather than erode, their voices.
Eisha Maharasingam-Shah is an Associate working in ISD’s digital research and policy team. She is primarily involved in ISD’s election analysis work, working on projects related to disinformation and extremist campaigns targeting elections.
Cécile Guerin is a Research Coordinator at ISD, working on digital analysis projects related to disinformation, hate speech and extremist content online. She holds an MSc in International History from the London School of Economics and an MA in English from the École Normale Supérieure in France.