Gender-based misinformation and online abuse against women in politics is not just a problem for the women targeted, but undermines women’s rights and democracy in general.
“Cowardly woman.” “Foreign agent.” “Head of the sex trade.”
These are just a few of the many damaging things women politicians and feminist activists around the world have to read about themselves online almost every day. This verbal abuse often escalates for those defending crucial battles for women’s rights.
As feminist activists take advantage of UN Women 16 days of activism against gender-based violence globally and as the United States Department of State summit for democracy launches in the United States, we must recognize that women who challenge the status quo and speak out against injustice and inequality are in the face of a growing number of online abuses. They may receive sexualized comments, be harassed, be threatened with physical violence or be the subject of false stories spread to discredit them. Such attacks can have a silent effect.
Awareness of this phenomenon is growing. At the UN 65th Commission on the Status of Women earlier this year, many expressed deep concern about how online abuse against women in politics prevents women from exercising their equal right to participate in all spheres of public life.
Yet what is often overlooked is that gender-based misinformation and online abuse against women in politics is not just a problem for the women targeted, but undermines women’s rights and democracy in general.
Gender misinformation erodes women’s ability to participate in public life safely and effectively and discourages them from holding public office. If women are underrepresented in legislative bodies, issues such as gender-based violence and reproductive health often lose their strongest promoters and advocates.
If women are underrepresented in legislative bodies, issues such as gender-based violence and reproductive health often lose their strongest promoters and advocates.
Online attacks are strategically used by illiberal political leaders as a way to eliminate political opponents and wage a culture war against feminism and roll back women’s rights. Take the example of Hungarywhere Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party has “imposed constitutional and legal changes that have allowed it to consolidate control over the country’s independent institutions” since coming to power in 2010.
Not only has the Hungarian government notably refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention, a historic human rights treaty aimed at combating gender-based violence, but it also promotes an openly anti-gender discourse: in 2020, the Minister of Family Affairs appeared in a video discouraging women from “some mistaken fights for emancipation”, and this year, Orbán called the genre an “ideologically driven expression”.
Women who speak out against the Orbán regime are branded puppets, foreign agents and paid actors associated with billionaire philanthropist George Soros, or are falsely accused of planning attacks on Hungary. Other unproven charges include misuse of public funds, being under the influence of drugs during public engagements, and valuing the destabilization of the country over the will of the Hungarian people.
Undermining women’s rights is not the only goal of these attacks. As women are often among the harshest critics of government corruption, attacks on women in politics are often a way to silence opposition and maintain unchallenged power. The dismantling of the independence, freedom and pluralism of the media perpetuated by Orbán’s ruling party, and the creation of a media conglomerate for the purpose of disseminating pro-government propaganda, are clear examples of this strategy. .
Online attacks on women in politics are pervasive in many other countries around the world and often lead to condoning or even legitimizing political violence. One such case is that of Millie Odhiambo, a Kenyan MP who was attacked by colleagues in 2014, who she claims tried to forcefully undress her. Odhiambo, who speaks out on women’s rights and her sexuality, had been abused online for her outspoken opinions before and after the incident: posts and articles on social media called her a prostitute of pejorative way, and she was called a woman with “cowardly morals”.
Social media platforms also play a role in perpetuating online violence and gender-based misinformation. This year, whistleblowers Frances Haugen and Sophie Zhang revealed the facebook failure (recently rebranded as Meta) to prevent autocratic rulers from using the platform for deceptive political gain, this corporate leadership”deprioritized” tries to fight misinformation, and the company manifestly inadequate measures to combat hate speech.
Earlier this month, #ShePersisted joined a coalition of women’s rights organizations to demand that social media companies adopt, enact and enforce policy recommendations for a feminist internetincluding expanding definitions of hate speech, establishing a better process for reporting and removing harmful content, and protecting victims of hate, abuse and harassment.
Ultimately, proposed solutions to tackle this pervasive problem must be developed with the understanding that gender-based misinformation and online abuse is not an individual problem, and while there are victims individuals whose lives are in danger and often shattered, this ultimately affects everyone – threatening democratic institutions and human rights around the world.