Gendered disinformation weaponises fake news and manipulated photos against the vulnerable. What can be done to stop it?
The world is in an age of disinformation. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres took to social media recently to decry the ‘tsunami of disinformation’ fuelling dehumanisation and polarisation.
This tsunami of disinformation has specific implications for women and gender-diverse people, especially public figures.
In 2019, media outlets around the world broadcast haunting images of Patricia Arce, the Mayor of Vindo, Bolivia, as she cowered, barefoot, covered in paint, surrounded by a mob that forcibly cut her hair. The incident occurred during mass protests in Bolivia, driven by a disinformation campaign alleging election fraud.
Bolivian Vice-President Alvaro Garcia attributed the attack to Arce’s gender, stating “for these people, being a woman is a crime”.
Cities are the closest form of government to the people. They house the majority of the world’s population. They are charged with policy-making and implementation of increasingly complex societal challenges from climate change to migrant settlement to public health — all of which are major targets of disinformation.
Gendered disinformation adds an additional layer, sowing division and threatening to undo the progress made towards gender equity. This is concerning, then, as gender equity — especially in the tech and AI workforce — is considered key to addressing this issue.
Disinformation is rapidly expanding across themes as diverse as climate action, urban planning, international warfare, technology and public health, and it is increasingly used to pursue a misogynistic agenda.
‘Gendered disinformation’ takes multiple forms, from fabricated stories to falsified images. These are used in concerted campaigns against female and gender-diverse folks — especially decision-makers and public figures — to promote narratives designed to humiliate and sow distrust and incompetence.
The US Department of State found that gendered disinformation is being used by state and non-state actors as coordinated social-media activity that targets individuals, groups and legislation.
According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Irene Khan:
‘Gendered disinformation is not a new phenomenon, but, fuelled by new technologies and social media, it has gained traction, threatening, intimidating, harming and silencing women and gender nonconforming persons. The negative consequences go far beyond the targeted individuals and undermine human rights, gender equality, inclusive democracy and sustainable development.’
Khan’s August 2023 report to the United Nations General Assembly describes how gendered disinformation operates to achieve its objectives:
‘Information is manipulated and amplified with some degree of coordination to reaffirm gender stereotypes, inflame existing bias and prejudices and push overarching negative gender narratives. It is laced with misogynistic and sexualized language and images and may also contain explicit or implicit threats of gender-based violence. Overlapping tactics of intimidation, shaming and discrediting are frequently used, especially against women to depict them as unfit for leadership.’
Beyond the UN, other significant institutions see the growing threat. In Washington, DC, policy think tanks the Brookings Institution and the Wilson Centre have both characterised gendered disinformation as a threat to national security.
Comprehensive data is scarce, and what little there is relates primarily to the national and international spheres. However, cases have emerged through news media specific to gendered disinformation at other levels, including its impact on cities.
For example, in April 2023, several Australian cities cancelled day events for International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, amid coordinated campaigns threatening violence and abuse. This has also happened in cities in the US.
In September 2023, dozens of girls in a Spanish town of Almendralejo were targeted in the creation and dissemination of fake nude images. Disinformation in the form of such images disproportionately targets women and girls and is designed to humiliate. These instances go beyond individual gendered disinformation attacks, to the community level, and local governments are in the firing line to respond.
Limited data exists on gendered disinformation within the local or city realm, and what little there is largely focuses only on women. This significantly limits our ability to understand the extent of such disinformation and its impact.
For this reason, a collaboration of Australian and global partners led by The University of Melbourne recently established the Disinformation in the City project to better understand and inform evidence-based responses to disinformation – including gendered disinformation – at the city level.
Yet even with current data limitations, a troubling pattern is emerging. According to UNESCO, women are self-censoring and disengaging from online spaces because of the potential reputational and professional damage caused by gendered disinformation.
They find that this is discouraging other women from pursuing professions with public exposure — a claim echoed by EU Disinfolab in their 2022 gendered disinformation technical document. This is a double whammy for gender equity.
Women and gender-diverse people remain underrepresented in elected positions of local public office: as of 1 January 2023, just 34 percent of local government elected representatives in Australia, for example, are women. This is slightly lower than the global average of 35.5 percent, which persists despite 88 countries legislating gender quotas in some form.
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As cities are tasked with responding to ever greater challenges across society and environment, the full political and civic participation of all genders will be critical. There remains significant work to be done at the city level towards gender equity, and gendered disinformation threatens to hamper progress.
Ika Trijsburg is Research Fellow in City Diplomacy at Melbourne Centre for Cities at The University of Melbourne, where she leads the Disinformation in the City research collaboration.
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