Mouse cursors point to a woman surrounded by icons representing a hostile digital environment

Ilustración de Salam Shokor en Behance. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

The internet is a minefield. But the experience of having to navigate a minefield of hate speech is not the inevitable path of the internet. Systematic and coordinated efforts are required to turn virtual spaces into unbreathable spaces. In this sense, the dominant narrative is that women and LGBTIQ+ people have no place in public life and therefore must be excluded.

The internet today is a house on fire. All over the world we find an aggressiveness there that is shocking and calls for new ways to address the phenomenon. There is no denying that institutional violence and political harassment, among other forms of violence, are increasingly impacting women who are active and vocal in public life. But not just women, as LGBTIQ+ people who participate in politics are also especially targeted.

The weaponisation of the internet to attack certain groups, in particular women, is the focus of the study Engendering Hate: The contours of state-aligned gendered disinformation online, conducted by the UK-based organisation Demos and written by Ellen Judson, Asli Atay, Alex Krasodomski-Jones, Rose Lasko-Skinner and Josh Smith. The study, which is available here, looks at the different strategies and tactics employed by state-aligned actors (and some non-aligned actors) with the aim of systematically weaponising online spaces to exclude women leaders and undermine the role of women who participate in public life.

According to the study, one of the most important tactics for scattering bombs into the trenches of the internet is the use of disinformation. In addition to identifying tactics, the study emphasises the political motivation behind those tactics. That is, we can no longer continue to talk about naïve trolls or casual haters, but of a network of agents connected directly with those in power. Hence the urgency of identifying and explaining their modus operandi.

We can no longer continue to talk about naïve trolls or casual haters, but of a network of agents connected directly with those in power.

It is a very specific type of tactics, which involves creating, sharing and spreading content aimed at discrediting those who dispute the public space with their voices, corporalities and presences, thus sabotaging the spaces occupied by these new actors who change the playing field and force a reinvention of the rules. The study highlights how these strategies are deployed through gendered narrative battles, with concrete political, social and/or economic objectives.

“We’re going to beat manhood into you.” “Quit or we’ll kill you.” These are some of the threats that trans legislators in Brazil are receiving. For example, Erika Hilton is one of São Paulo’s most voted legislators and she has been the target of the greatest number of threats connected with her gender identity. We see this in Argentina, too, with the country’s youngest national congresswoman, Ofelia Fernández, attacked by trolls who harass her on Twitter.

In Chile, Irací Hassler Jacob, an economist who was recently elected mayor of Santiago and is a member of the Communist Party, a feminist, and vocally pro-choice, has also been a permanent target of harassment. It is not our intention here to name them all, but we want to highlight how the debates for a new national constitution in Chile are also being hijacked by organised attacks by hegemonic trolls with the aim of silencing critical voices. One such voice is that of Coni Valdes, a lawyer and activist who represents that country’s struggle in defence of sexual dissidence and as a result has faced constant accusations. In Colombia the attacks against María José Pizarro are part of the daily obstacles she encounters because of her views on sexual and reproductive rights, among other issues.

The premises of the report from the United Kingdom are also in line with a survey conducted in Argentina by ELA, the Latin American Justice and Gender Team, and published in 2020. While focusing on documenting the attacks committed against women and LGBTIQ+ persons in politics in 2019, this survey called attention to how violence in digital spaces penalises anything that falls outside or does not conform to the “norm” – understood as the rules of the patriarchal world.

The conclusions of these reports emphasise the fact that sexist violence on the internet takes on its disciplining and regulating role, enabled by certain features of these platforms, including the possibility of having fake accounts (bots and trolls created for harassment purposes) and the actions of coordinated attacks.

One of the main objectives of this violence is to punish those who have historically been attacked for wanting to occupy a space in the political arena. For those furthering this agenda, politics and the internet must be unlivable and suffocating spaces for women and non-binary persons.

For those furthering this agenda, politics and the internet must be unlivable and suffocating spaces for women and non-binary persons.

Tactics for spreading crap all over the internet

The Engendering Hate study complements the analyses and adds pieces to put together the puzzle of digital violence aimed at undermining our online presences. Its inputs are key, as they help map or outline the way in which political agents act (often aligned with states themselves, other times with global corporate interests) in their goal of crushing plural participation on the internet.

The disinformation strategies deployed by state-aligned actors, often connected with the bot farms or call centresA distinction is in order here, as platforms such as Twitter can detect bot farm attacks (when they are massive and automated). The difficulty arises with call centres that are operated by numerous human beings who can personalise the attacks. These are called “sophisticated actors” and are harder to detect. that are known to be hired by hegemonic power groups (of any political orientation) for their virtual battles, follow certain rules of behaviour, which are defined below.

Rule 1: Convince others that women are devious: they are not fit for politics

The central narrative of this widespread disinformation strategy is that women are not fit for politics and must therefore be excluded. The ploy they frequently use is constructed around a character presented through disinformation that distorts what that person says or proposes, with the aim of suggesting that women are not to be trusted, that they have a false nature, and that their intentions are thus deceitful. But in order for that strategy to be effective they resort to fake news. Women journalists are accused of misinforming or being themselves responsible for creating fake news, based on dubious or altered content. Women politicians are singled out as liars who misrepresent their political initiatives and principles. Betrayal and disloyalty also emerge as one of the leading themes.

Rule 2: Denounce women as too stupid for public life

Through a mixture of pseudoscience, dated humour and general abuse, they lay the groundwork for the claim that women are supposedly stupid, as a regular topic of gendered disinformation, which stands out in the databases analysed in this study. In a historical continuum, beginning with Aristotle, who saw women as inferior and, therefore, with less authority to govern, centuries later populist leaders around the world continue to harp on with the same tropes, in particular when male political hegemony is questioned and defied. Think, for example, of the slander campaigns of Donald Trump and Matteo Salvini. Or of Jair Bolsonaro’s efforts against the struggles for the rights of women or LGBTIQ+ persons. At the same time, any missteps by women are instantly highlighted and not easily forgotten.

Rule 3: Make women afraid to talk back

The study shows the different tactics that attackers employ to dismiss the arguments raised by women, in particular by women journalists, politicians and celebrities, to defend themselves against accusations hurled at them. They highlight a loop in Twitter: the more women decide to respond and defend themselves against disinformation attackers, the more abuse they receive.

Rule 4: Praise women for being sexy, condemn them for being sexual

This is connected with a sexualised distortion that is common in disinformation campaigns against women. This is orchestrated through the use of false images or the creation of what are known as “deepfakes”,“Deepfakes” are images or videos created with image montage tools that make the final product seem like a real image or video of the person whose image is being manipulated. These techniques have been furthered by accelerated developments in artificial intelligence and software that allow for faster and more efficient image processing. For more information, see: aimed at vilifying the public image of women or gender-diverse persons in politics.

Rule 5: Show everyone that the strong men will save them

In a narrative return to the past, the figure of the man emerges as something close to the primitive image of the savage hunter (Vladimir Putin riding a bear or Jair Bolsonaro riding on a motorcycle without a helmet down a busy avenue, to mention just two), the macho man who sweeps in as a saviour in times of crisis. While these discursive strategies circulate in the form of memes, women and non-binary persons are patronised or harshly attacked because of their identities and public activities.

Rule 6: Demonise the values that women hold

Anti-rights arguments conflate leftist politics with feminist politics and the resulting jumble becomes the central feature of the gendered disinformation identified by this research. By alluding to both indistinctly, conservative or right-wing governments portray feminism as anti-government and confrontational. In this sense, anyone with views contrary to today’s more conservative regimes, in particular anyone with views connected with women’s emancipation, will be singled out as illegitimate, objectionable and dangerous.

So hysterical they are historical

There is no stopping change, and women’s and LGBTIQ+ groups’ movements are not and will not be passive victims of disinformation and gendered attacks. We need to come up with new strategies to occupy the internet. The GAFAM or Big Tech will never be our allies: we see more and more attacks every day and, at the same time, greater sophistication in the weapons designed to silence us, produced by global alliances of the world’s conservative right.

While there is no denying the creativity deployed by transfeminist movements on the internet to defy stereotypes and norms, as well as to expose their hate speech, we need to call attention to the widespread disinformation, understand its causes, and identify its targets. Notwithstanding that ability to give original and organised responses, we cannot forget the damage these attacks wreak on people and on their lives and work.

Solidarity and mutual support networks need to be strengthened in a context that has been fragmented since the beginning of the health crisis. The Demos report reminds us that online gendered disinformation does not happen in a vacuum. We need to contextualise it in our media ecosystem: what is being said on TV; the community rules and business models of the commercial social media platforms we use; and the messages behind the most widely circulated memes. We need to understand the rules of the algorithms that reward popularity in each platform and identify the opinion bubble they favour and when.

Harassed people can hardly be expected to deal with the problem on their own, comment by comment, to counter what is a systematic onslaught of gendered disinformation. To continue to navigate this minefield as if it were an inevitable path is to place an unfair burden on the victims, who are not only being identified and attacked, but who must also block or respond intelligently, while employing self-defence strategies against the avalanches of gendered disinformation.

Harassed people can hardly be expected to deal with the problem on their own, comment by comment, to counter what is a systematic onslaught of gendered disinformation.

The challenges posed by the enormous damage we are witnessing, caused by these actors aligned with the government of the moment or with powerful transnational groups, require that those responsible for interactions on commercial social media platforms, as well as lawmakers and civil society as a whole, recognise that this gendered disinformation exists and that it constitutes online gender violence.

This kind of violence also demands specific responses. One such response is the continuous updating of terms of service and reporting mechanisms so that they are truly accessible and transparent. We also need to gain further insight into the effectiveness of disinformation as a political practice. Disinformation takes on many forms and, as we have seen, it is sustained by a host of different actors.

The only way to deactivate the mines in this battlefield is to gain awareness and understand how these virtual spaces are being manipulated to generate increasing polarisation. The path that we wish to go down to reach those spaces, prioritising non-violent participation, can only be paved by us, with autonomous decision-making infrastructure.

The only way to deactivate the mines in this battlefield is to gain awareness and understand how these virtual spaces are being manipulated to generate increasing polarisation.

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