Reflecting on Five Years of Work on Gendered Disinformation
Over five years ago, in December 2017, I published a piece in Coda Story entitled “How Disinformation Became a New Threat to Women.” It introduced what was then a new concept: gendered and sexualised disinformation.
Gendered disinformation (for short) combines “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.”
A year on from the 2016 election in the United States, in which false, gendered attacks against Hillary Clinton ran rampant, I was frustrated that governments, the press, and academia spent so much time admiring the broad problem of disinformation, and so little time recognising how it affected half of the world’s population and our participation in the democratic process.
Researching Russian disinformation in the leadup to the publication of my first book in 2020, I kept coming across instances in which adversaries like Moscow honed in on preexisting societal cleavages around women’s political leadership, feminism, abortion rights, and beyond. They weaponised discord on these critical issues to drive us further apart from one another and achieve policy outcomes desirable in their own capitals, but not for women.
The most infuriating part of this cycle wasn’t that our adversaries seized on these issues; that was part of a playbook they had followed for decades. What was maddening was our collective refusal to recognise the harm being done by our own blinders. We viewed—and in many cases still view—gendered and sexualised abuse against women in public life as “just part of the job,” or as a “women’s issue.”
We have mostly refused to acknowledge that gendered disinformation is a national security vulnerability, and that repairing that vulnerability begins at home. Since I first made this point in 2019, I have been laughed at on multiple occasions.
Enter women’s month, and the flurry of activity that it always brings. I have been happy—heartened, even—to see the emphasis that the international community has placed on gendered disinformation and tech-facilitated gender-based violence this March.
On the sidelines of the UN’s annual Commission on the Status of Women, the United Kingdom and United States held a productive dialogue on the phenomenon, for example, and my calendar has been filled with invitations to speak to a number of groups from military personnel to journalists. But one month per year, at events organised by and primarily for women, is not enough to solve a problem that has wide-reaching implications for security and equality, online and off.
At the Centre for Information Resilience, combatting online harms against women and minorities is one of the core pillars of our work, 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. We are standing up for women from Myanmar—where a groundbreaking investigation by our Myanmar Witness program uncovered instances of doxxing that led to arrests of women activists—to Afghanistan—where our Afghan Witness program tracked a steady increase in online gendered hate speech against women since the Taliban takeover in 2021.
In 2023, we are continuing this work in contexts such as Ethiopia and Ukraine. In non-white, non-Western, or non-English-speaking contexts, the stakes for women making their voices heard online are incredibly high.
The international community has made progress in recognising the threat of gendered abuse and disinformation, but it is not an area we can make progress on if it is eclipsed by other issues more than 90 percent of the year. It is a sobering, frightening reality for 50 percent of people every single day.
CIR commits to shining the spotlight on the injustices women face online not just during Women’s Month, but year round.
Want to learn more about online abuse and gendered disinformation? Browse the following recommended resources:
● “How Disinformation Became a New Threat to Women,” Coda Story, December 2017
● “Attacks and Harassment: The Impact on Female Journalists and Their Reporting,” the International Women’s Media Foundation, 2018
● “FREE TO BE ONLINE? A report on girls' and young women's experiences of online harassment,” PLAN International, 2020
● “Engendering Hate: The Contours of State-Aligned Gendered Disinformation Online,” NDI and Demos, 2021
● “Malign Creativity: How Gender, Sex, and Lies are Weaponized Against Women Online,” The Wilson Center, January 2021
● “Addressing Online Misogyny and Gendered Disinformation: A How-To Guide,” National Democratic Institute, September 2021
● “No Excuse for Abuse,” PEN America 2021
● “Bringing Women, Peace and Security Online: Mainstreaming Gender in Responses to Online Extremism,” Alexis Heneshaw, Global Network on Extremism and Technology, 2021
● “Online violence Against Women Journalists: A Global Snapshot of Incidence and Impacts,” Julie Posetti et al, UNESCO, 2021
Nina Jankowicz is Vice President (US) at CIR. She is Director of the Hypatia Project, which researches and counters online harms targeting women.