Viewpoint: Protecting Women Politicians from Online Abuse
Women who break the glass ceiling in politics are often depicted as disrupting the long-standing patriarchal structures that have traditionally kept women away from the public eye. The stereotypical “ideal” politician is usually based on a male perspective of strength and having a “thick skin,” which reinforces these patriarchal norms. Efforts to maintain the gendered status quo in politics are widespread, and include delegitimization and intimidation tactics such as misogynistic attacks or rape threats. Technological innovations provide additional fertile ground for such intimidation—and even violence—against women in politics. Though much of online hate is shared through social media, the consequences spill over into the offline world. Online abuse imposes financial and time-consuming burdens on female politicians who must, in addition to other pressing tasks, improve security, combat disinformation, and report perpetrators.
Many women politicians believe that they simply have to endure violence in order not to be perceived as emotional, weak, or unfit for the job. Some have managed to thrive politically despite being confronted with severe digital violence, like the 2021 German Green party candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, who is now minister for foreign affairs. Other female politicians decide to exit politics, like two former leftist congresswomen from Brazil who publicly announced their decision to not run in the 2022 elections after being targeted by severe online hate.
Why do some female candidates and victims of online violence drop out of politics while others endure? Our research shows that there are no simple answers. As part of a research project on online misogyny against politically active women, we interviewed five female Brazilian candidates for parliament. We found that women react differently to online violence: some simply ignore it or shrug it off, some choose to respond, and others stop engaging online altogether.