“With women, misinformation is used for a gendered sort of targeting. I have seen this with myself and other women activists. It’s often very sexual in nature. ‘Look at Gurmehar, she’s drinking and dancing in a car’, so what good is her word anyway? It’s used to discredit me.”
Gurmehar Kaur, a 24-year-old activist and author, has been a target of mis/disinformation campaigns since the day she decided to take a stance against the violence at Delhi University’s Ramjas College back in 2017. A video of an unidentified girl dancing in a car went viral with social media users falsely identifying her as Kaur in a bid to malign the activist’s character.
"“You’d never see this for male activists or politicians. Even if they are drinking and dancing or seen at a party, that content is not worth noting.”" - Gurmehar Kaur
Kaur is among the many women who often find themselves at the target of malicious mis/disinformation. As microcosms of the society, social media platforms too have to deal with the prevailing prejudices and notions that exist in the world. But why have online spaces only become increasingly toxic for women, especially those who ‘dare’ to voice their opinions?
Are Women Targeted With Fake News More Than Men?
Research shows that women in the public eye are disproportionately targeted more than their male counterparts.
A report by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women notes that as compared to men, women were attacked more often by social media accounts that shared a “greater volume of content containing false information.”
While the findings were based on a US-centric research, which used AI to track Twitter commentary during the US Democratic Primaries, the report states that similar instances of gendered disinformation have been recorded in countries like India and Ukraine.
Ambika Tandon, senior researcher at The Centre for Internet and Society, says that while it’s difficult to quantify if women are targeted more than men, several reports show that gender is one of the key identity markers on which misinformation is concentrated.
In a survey of women from 51 countries around the world, The Economist’s Intelligence Unit found that among the different threat tactics deployed to harass women online, misinformation and defamation were the most prevalent.
67 percent of the online harassment against surveyed women dealt with spreading of “rumours or slander to discredit or damage a woman’s character.”
But why do women become targets of such mis/disinformation?
Gender Gap & Norms – Why Women Are Targeted
Tandon argues that the disproportionate harassment of women stems from the gender gap in access to social media platforms. According to GSM Association’s Mobile Gender Gap 2020 report, women in India are 50 percent less likely to use mobile internet.
“So if you were to characterise social media as a public space, then that public space is primarily populated and dominated by men. Given that we live in a patriarchal set-up, gender becomes a key vector along which misinformation is spread,” says Tandon.
She also asserts that skewed gender norms, which dictate that woman should not express her opinion, especially in public spaces also contribute to online violence against women.
"“When they see a woman not following these norms – being submissive in public spaces – it is met with violence and backlash.”" - Ambika Tandon
This is echoed in an article by the think-tank, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which states that when women, especially politicians, display characteristics that are traditionally associated with men – such as ambition and assertiveness – they are perceived as “transgressing traditional social norms.” This becomes a reason for targeted harassment and disinformation campaigns.
What is Gendered Disinformation?
The EU Disinfo Labs, in a recent analysis on ‘misogyny and misinformation’, defines gendered disinformation as the “dissemination of false or misleading information attacking women, basing the attack on their identity as women.”
While analysing the misinformation prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers found that false information was spread to either
negatively represent women as ‘enemies’
show women as ‘victims’ to push a particular agenda
In India, we have seen multiple instances of both.
The arrest of 21-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi over the ‘toolkit’ controversy surrounding the farmers’ protest was met with a parallel social media disinformation campaign, seeking to discredit her.
While fake claims were made around her religion, painting her as a Christian, a Times Now article falsely calling her a ‘single mother,’ led to barrage of misogynist social media posts against the activist.
Similarly, social media trolls also used sexualised misinformation to target Safoora Zargar, an MPhil student of Jamia Millia Islamia, who was arrested in connection to the violence in anti-CAA protests.
Several people falsely claimed that she is unmarried and that her pregnancy was discovered when she was lodged in Tihar Jail. Rubbishing these claims, Safoora’s sister confirmed that she is married and went on to state that, “such vicious attacks on her by social media trolls are the least of our concern right now.”
Rana Ayyub, a journalist and an author, has been a frequent target of misinformation, too. From fake tweets in her name calling Afzal Guru a ‘martyr’ to falsely attributing her with controversial remarks on the Paris beheading, she has seen it all.
Perhaps the most vicious form of disinformation aimed at the journalist was a deepfake video.
“The lowest that the trolls went was when they morphed my face on a pornographic video and sent it to my relatives, my parents and my neighbours. It was unbelievable,” Ayyub had stated in an earlier interview with The Quint.
There have also been instances of misinformation around female politicians in the country. A photo of Congress leader Sonia Gandhi photoshopped to look like she’s sitting on the lap of former President of Maldives Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, is often revived on the internet.
Disinformation campaigns from opposing ideologies or political parties not only target women in the public eye, they also ‘use’ women through manipulated content and viral videos shared with false contexts to form a particular narrative.
As an example, The Quint’s WebQoof team has debunked several false claims that fan the right-wing conspiracy of ‘love jihad.’ Either images of interfaith couples are shared with misleading claims that the Hindu girl was ‘trapped’ into marriage or the religion of one of the spouses in the same-faith marriage is conveniently faked.
The impact of such gendered misinformation online has very real consequences offline.
What Are The Implications?
Tandon notes that there’s a strong parallel between the ways violence online and offline happens and thus, the effects are also quite similar.
Being a target of disinformation or cases of doxxing can lead to mental trauma. It can also take a form of censorship where a woman might leave the platform or show greater constraint in expressing herself online.
They may take down their pictures or change their persona to hide their real identities.
Kaur also notes a similar phenomenon, recalling conversations with her friends who refuse to share their opinions on public platform or among large followings because they would rather not deal with the repercussions.
In fact, she too had decided to take a step back from her campaign in 2017 against the violence in Ramjas College, realising that the misinformation surrounding her own life, childhood, and parents was taking away the limelight from the movement.
"“When a lot of misinformation comes into play and starts being spoken about on national television – or when it is debated – it gives it some sort of legitimacy. There’s nothing to debate about something that’s untrue. Today it is one lie, tomorrow it is another, am I just going to keep engaging with it?”" - Gurmehar Kaur
Tandon further states that the effects are greater when the woman lacks a support system. If the family doesn’t approve of her social media usage, after an incident of online violence, her device may be confiscated.
So, What Can be Done?
The article by the think-tank, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggests that tech giants like Facebook and Twitter need to take major steps to tackle gendered misinformation through content moderation.
However, it also notes the skepticism by experts over the lack of transparency and inadequacy of the existing content moderation policies.
Tandon suggests that for countries like India, platforms should be pro-active when supporting users, especially by directing their resources towards language inclusivity to recognise dis/misinformation.
“People in content moderation should be well-versed with the context they are operating in. Misinformation in India largely depends on the context and language being used,” she states.
She also asserts that above anything, behavioural changes are required. “We need a dismantling of the patriarchy – that’s the root of all this. Reporting mechanisms do help but they are a stop gap measure.”
She also recommends that media literacy campaigns that seek to sensitise students on use of online spaces are required.
“With the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more young girls have gained access to digital devices, and they should be encouraged to use social media platforms. Sensitisation as part of school education is certainly a measure we can take,” she adds.
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