Online Misogyny Is a National Security Threat, New Study Finds
In the spring of 2021, Annalena Baerbock became an unlikely candidate to lead Germany’s chancellery election after experiencing a huge surge in popularity ahead of the vote in September of that year. But after she pledged to block a gas pipeline project between Russia and Europe, the Greens party candidate soon became the target of a vicious campaign on social media.
Suddenly, fake and photoshopped images of a nude Russian model were circulated purporting to be of Baerbock and suggesting that she previously worked as a sex worker. A string of sexist attacks followed, including questions about whether she could balance the responsibilities of chancellorship with being a mother. Her high approval rate quickly plummeted and Baerbock eventually lost the election, coming in third place.
Studies conducted by the German Marshall Fund and the Institute of Strategic Dialogue eventually found that Baerbock had been hit by an especially high amount of disinformation from Russian state-backed sources. Bild, a tabloid in Germany, wrote that NATO specialists even believed that “Moscow [had] pressed the anti-Baerbock button.”
Attacks portraying women in politics as promiscuous or having an unconventional sexual past are often common and effective tactics employed by political opponents. But Lucina Di Meco, co-founder of the online campaign, “#ShePersisted,” said that Baerbock’s example also revealed two other phenomena at play, which she has written about in a new study called “Monetizing Misogyny.” Not only does gendered disinformation lead to the backsliding of women’s rights and democracy as a whole, but the study found that gendered disinformation also becomes a national security threat when foreign actors use it to exploit divisions in society.
Although the term “gendered disinformation” doesn’t have a standard definition, Di Meco, a leading gender equality expert, has described it as the spread of deceptive or inaccurate information or images used against women in public life. A study conducted by Demos in 2020 noted that gendered disinformation isn’t just false information—it also uses “highly emotive and value-laden content to try to undermine its targets,” and ”seeks impact primarily at the political level, though can also cause serious harm at the personal level,” leading to hate campaigns that come with terrifying, and sometimes lethal, consequences for women in politics.
The study examined in-depth case studies in five countries—Brazil, Italy, Hungary, Tunisia, and India—over the period of two years and interviewed over 50 women leaders to look at how social media was weaponized as propaganda by authoritarians and illiberal actors. Below, some key takeaways from the study on how gendered disinformation undermines democracies around the world.