Previously published on Insights.
Professor Alana Moceri details how organized and hateful disinformation campaigns are being used to delegitimize women’s participation in political life, undermining democracy and human rights the world over.
These days, it’s impossible to be unaware of the abuse that many women receive on social media, from rape threats to death threats to threats of all kinds. Anonymity, or the feeling of it, tends to lead to cowardly behavior. But before you imagine the threats coming from some angry guy sitting alone at his computer, consider the possibility that these now commonplace attacks on women may be about more than just a few sexist men saying nasty things on Twitter.
Organized and deliberate gendered disinformation campaigns are potent tools that authoritarian leaders and their allies use to tighten their hold on power and silence critics. They target women with the aim of delegitimizing their participation in political life, deeming them, according to a report for the Brookings Institution, “inherently untrustworthy, unintelligent, or too emotional or libidinous to hold office or participate in democratic politics.”
Women activists, journalists, and politicians aren’t the only targets of online disinformation campaigns. Plenty of men have fallen prey as well. But because women have a historical deficit of participation in politics, and because women have long been silenced and shut out, continued attempts to keep them on the sidelines pose a special threat to democracy and its capacity to become more inclusive. However, this is about more than just fairness, as these disinformation campaigns promote democratic backsliding around the world. Fighting them should be a foreign policy and national security priority.
Disinformation campaigns fall into two camps, the first being state-aligned attempts to silence internal critics or opponents. This is a trend we see particularly from regimes run by strongmen such as Vladimir Putin in Russia, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. These leaders have all used gendered disinformation not only to attack female critics but to attack feminism itself.
Marielle Franco, a human rights activist, paid the ultimate price for speaking out on behalf of the poor and the marginalized in Brazil. Like many authoritarian leaders, Jair Bolsonaro doesn’t like criticism, but he especially doesn’t like it from women who are Black and bisexual like Franco. She and her driver were assassinated on March 14, 2018. This triggered mass protests, which kicked the so-called “Office of Hate” into action.
“Office of Hate” is a group of bloggers, prominent businessmen, aids, and lawmakers who are close to Bolsonaro, and even includes his son Eduardo. This network has a history of spreading lies about Brazil’s democratic institutions and the people with whom they disagree. Hence, they let loose an onslaught of fake news connecting Franco to drug dealers and painted her as someone who led an “immoral life.” It doesn’t stop there. Journalist Bianca Santana, another Black, Brazilian woman wrote an op-ed in the Guardian in July of 2020 about how Bolsonaro targeted her in a speech two days after she had published an article in the Portuguese language website UOL reviewing the evidence via a flowchart of Bolsonaro’s links to Franco’s assassination.