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Gendered disinformation is a subset of misogynistic abuse and violence against women that uses false or misleading gender and sex-based narratives, often with some degree of coordination, to deter women from participating in the public sphere. Both foreign state and non-state actors strategically use gendered disinformation to silence women, discourage online political discourse, and shape perceptions toward gender and the role of women in democracies. In a groundbreaking study, Canada, the European External Action Service (EEAS), Germany, Slovakia, the United Kingdom, and the United States jointly assessed the tactics used by these actors to sow gendered and other identity-based disinformation across the world. Key findings from this report are detailed below.
- Perpetrators of gendered disinformation targeting women comprise both foreign state and non-state actors, including Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Foreign state actors utilize their media assets, control of the information environment, and sometimes state-backed troll farms to spread disinformation about women politicians, policy makers, journalists, and activists, and even policies targeted at women.
- Disinformation is often targeted toward women with intersecting identities. Our research captured 13 unique themes of gendered disinformation that include the wide use of gendered stereotypes, hyper-sexualization, and political targeting of women to shame and discredit them. Perpetrators use a combination of identity-based and political themes, revealing that disinformation can target any vector of a person’s identity to discredit and shame either them and/or their communities.
- Perpetrators most often disseminate gendered disinformation through coordinated social media activity that is either spontaneous or pre-mediated across multiple platforms. In many cases, abuse initiated by foreign state actors spurred further online gendered disinformation by social media users. Foreign state actors use false materials to spread disinformation (such as doctored or misleading images or videos) in addition to media articles, memes, bespoke hashtags, public statements by politicians or other influential people, and even manga cartoons.
- Foreign state actors mobilize gendered disinformation to target a variety of individuals, groups, and legislation. When individual politicians, journalists, and activists are targeted, they may decide to leave their jobs or stop speaking out online as a result. When legislation is targeted, the underpinning public and political consensus can be reduced, sometimes leading to policy reversals. Beyond the harm caused by the abuse itself to the victims and survivors, which also include psychological distress, trauma, long-term mental health impacts, and physical and sexual violence, narratives also include threats of violence and rape, and physical calls to action outside the online sphere, whilst simultaneously posing a threat to democracy.
- The ultimate goal of gendered and identity-based disinformation is to discourage the exercise of freedom of expression and undermine democracy. Both foreign state and non-state actors strategically target women and people with intersecting identities. One goal of this strategy is to dissuade individuals from practicing their freedom to express and uphold beliefs and ideals that contradict their adversaries’ beliefs. A second goal is to dissuade members of broader identity-based groups from exercising their rights. This strategy threatens democracy by undermining the ability to access impartial, fact-based information, and it negatively impacts the make-up of democratic representation.
Our research underscores the importance of using a gender and identity-based lens to analyze the tactics used by foreign state and non-state actors to spread gendered disinformation that deliberately polarizes attitudes, sows division, and undermines social cohesion. The spread of gendered disinformation harms not only the targeted individuals, but also democracy. The critical nature of the subject matter requires further investigation, particularly in understanding the use of gendered disinformation in Africa and Latin America; the evolving tactics of state actors; and Russia’s use of misogynistic narratives in Europe; in addition to furthering understanding of communications responses and interventions that can be used to counter gendered disinformation. To inform our collective responses most effectively, we must continue to not only study gendered disinformation tactics and their impacts on targeted communities, but also partner across countries invested in preserving democracy to share findings, deepen the evidence base, and inform policy to tackle this scourge.