Gendered disinformation and what can be done to counter it

For all the progress made on gender equality, we still live in a world where women are regularly attacked in public spaces, physical and digital. A group of experts came up with suggestions for solutions in a recent panel moderated by IMS.

The digital space was bustling as the Danish Representation in Vienna along with the other like-minded OSCE member states held a panel on gendered disinformation on 28 April 2021.

Gendered disinformation uses false or misleading gender and sex-based narratives against women, which ultimately pushes women out from public spaces. Gendered disinformation undermines democracy and is therefore an issue of concern to everyone.  

“We commend the organisers for prioritising the phenomenon of gendered disinformation and rising to the challenge,” said IMS Head of Global Response Gulnara Akhundova, the event moderator, during her opening remarks.

The event featured an expert multi-stakeholder panel, and the participants were civil society leaders from the OSCE countries, OSCE member states, and other representatives of international organisations. 

“If you are not at the table you are on the menu. We need to make sure that women leaders are at the forefront for the new digital social contract. And that gendered disinformation is addressed in this new contract.” These are the words of Lucina Di Meco, a gender equality expert and advocate and one of the panelists.

On the panel was also Dr. Irena Hadžiabdić from the Central Election Commission of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who spent most of her career in election management and Alexandra Pavliuc, PhD student in Social Data Science from Oxford Internet Institute and co-author of the report “Malign Creativity: How Gender, Sex, and Lies are Weaponized Against Women Online”.

“It is important to keep the intersectionality perspective in mind,” Alexandra Pavliuc raised during the event. “In our research we found that women of colour receive multiple vectors of harm, for example transphobic, racist and racialized and sexualized narratives.”

Gendered and sexualised disinformation can be defined as “a subset of online gendered abuse that uses false or misleading gender and sex-based narratives against women, often with some degree of coordination, aimed at deterring women from participating in the public sphere. It combines three defining characteristics of online disinformation: falsity, malign intent, and coordination.” 

One example, unfortunately one of many, which was raised during the panel is linked to the Ukrainian member of parliament Svitlana Zalishchuk. In 2017, Svitlana Zalishchuk gave a speech to the United Nations on the impact of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict on women. A screenshot began appearing on posts about her speech showing a fake tweet claiming that she had promised to run naked through the streets of Kiev if the Ukrainian army lost a key battle. To underline the point, the message was accompanied by doctored images purporting to show her totally naked. The story circulated on the internet for a year, casting a shadow over her political accomplishments. This is a clear example of gendered, sexualised disinformation – mixing old, ingrained sexist attitudes with the anonymity and reach of social media in an effort to destroy women’s reputations and push them out of public life.

Whilst the event raised the issues of gendered disinformation, emphasis was placed on solutions. Lucina Di Meco raised the need to fully understand gendered disinformation; map major disinformation efforts and evaluate impact of inoculation strategies for gendered attacks. Secondly, women leaders should be supported in fighting disinformation with tools to respond to online attacks and space should be provided to build alliances. Lastly, there is a need to influence digital platform standards to ensure that digital platform standards proactively address gendered harms.

It became clear during the event that one sector approach is no longer an option. As raised by Irena Hadžiabdić “We simply have to connect to find solutions, we need a multi stakeholder approach to counter disinformation. This is difficult and complex, we have to also work with citizens for them to learn and engage – international standards should underpin this.” 

IMS stands committed to continue to work against the global spread of gendered disinformation, which pushes women out of public spaces and our hope is that these words inspire action. 

The debate was part of the 28 April “Democracy Defender Award” ceremony, established in 2016 by the OSCE ambassadors of Canada, Denmark, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Sweden,Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. The recipient of the award was the Belarusian human rights center, “Viasna”, for its mission of defending human rights in Belarus. 
If you wish to watch the recording of the session, please find it here.

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