How Digital Media is Threatening Women’s Rights and Democracy

Gendered disinformation and online abuse against women in politics are not only a problem for the women who are targeted—but undermine women’s rights and democracy at large. 

85 percent of women globally reported witnessing online violence against other women. The numbers are even higher in Latin America, Middle East and Africa, with misinformation and defamation being reported as the most frequent form of abuse. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Loose woman.” “Foreign agent.” “Sex trade ringleader.”

These are just few of the many damaging things female politicians and feminist activists across the world have to read about themselves online nearly everyday. This verbal abuse often gets worse for those who defend crucial women’s rights battles. 

As feminist activists take advantage of the U.N. Women 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence globally and as the U.S. Department of State Summit for Democracy launches in the United States, we must recognize that women who challenge the status quo and speak out against injustice and inequality are facing an increasing amount of online abuse. They may receive sexualized comments, be harassed, be threatened with physical violence, or become the subject of false narratives spread to discredit them. Such attacks can have a silencing effect.

Awareness around this phenomenon is growing. In the U.N. 65th Commission on the Status of Women earlier this year, many expressed strong concerns about how online abuse against women in politics prevents women from exercising their equal right to participate in all spheres of public life. 

Yet what is often missed is that gendered disinformation and online abuse against women in politics are not only a problem for the women who are targeted, but undermine women’s rights and democracy at large. 

Gendered disinformation erodes women’s ability to take part in public life in a safe and effective manner, and discourages them from pursuing public office. If women are underrepresented in legislative bodies, issues such as gender-based violence and reproductive health often lose their starkest promoters and advocates. 

If women are underrepresented in legislative bodies, issues such as gender-based violence and reproductive health often lose their starkest promoters and advocates. 

Online attacks are strategically used by illiberal political leaders as a way to eliminate political opponents, and to wage a cultural war against feminism and backslide women’s rights. Take the example of Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party has “pushed through constitutional and legal changes that have allowed it to consolidate control over the country’s independent institutions” since coming to power in 2010.

Not only did the Hungarian government notably refuse to ratify the Istanbul Convention, a landmark human rights treaty aimed at addressing gender-based violence, but it’s also promoting an overt anti-gender discourse: in 2020, the Minister for Family Affairs appeared in a video discouraging women from “some misguided fight for emancipation,” and this year, Orbán called gender an “ideologically motivated expression.”

Women who speak out against Orbán’s regime are called puppets, foreign agents, and paid actors associated with billionaire philanthropist George Soros, or are falsely accused of planning anti-Hungary attacks. Other unproven charges include improper use of public funds, being under the influence of drugs during public engagements, and valuing the destabilization of the country over the will of the Hungarian people. 

Undermining women’s rights is not the only goal of these attacks. As women are often among the starkest critics of government’s corruption, attacks against women in politics are often a way to silence opposition and maintain undisputed power. The dismantling of media independence, freedom and pluralism perpetuated by Orbán’s ruling party, and the establishment of a media conglomerate for the purposes of spreading pro-government propaganda, are clear examples of this strategy. 

Online attacks against women in politics are pervasive in many other countries around the world, and often lead to the condoning or even legitimizing of political violence. One such case is that of Millie Odhiambo, a Kenyan member of Parliament who was assaulted by fellow members in 2014, whom she alleges attempted to forcibly undress her. Odhiambo, who is vocal about women’s rights and her sexuality, had been subjected to online abuse for her outspoken views prior to and following the incident: Social media posts and articles called her a prostitute in a pejorative way, and she was labeled a woman with “loose morals.” 

Social media platforms also play a role in perpetuating online violence and gendered disinformation. This year, whistleblowers Frances Haugen and Sophie Zhang revealed the failure of Facebook (recently rebranded as Meta) to prevent autocratic leaders from using the platform to achieve political gain in duplicitous ways, that company leadership “deprioritized” attempts to tackle misinformation, and the company’s grossly inadequate measures to combat hate speech

Earlier this month, #ShePersisted joined a coalition of women’s rights organizations in demanding that social media companies adopt, enact and enforce policy recommendations for a feminist internet, including broadening definitions of hate speech, establishing better process for reporting and removing harmful content, and protecting survivors of hate, abuse and harassment.

Ultimately, solutions proposed to tackle this pervasive issue must be developed with the awareness that gendered disinformation and online abuse is not an individual problem, and although there are individual victims whose lives are endangered and often shattered, it ultimately affects everyone—threatening democratic institutions and human rights around the world. 

Up next:

About and

Lucina Di Meco is a women's rights advocate and author, recognized by Apolitical as one of the 100 Most Influential People in Gender Policy for her work on gendered disinformation. She's the co-founder of #ShePersisted, a cross-national initiative to tackle gendered disinformation and online attacks against women in politics. Her work has been featured on The New York Times, the BBC, Time Magazine, The Washington Post, Politico, and El Pais, and she has written for The Brookings Institution, The Council of Foreign Relations, The Wilson Center, among others.
Sarah Hesterman is a research intern at #ShePersisted Global, an initiative focused on tackling gendered disinformation and online abuse facing women politicians around the world. She is currently pursuing a Master of Research in Social Research at UCL, and is writing her dissertation on sexual violence facing politically active women. Sarah is also a graduate student research intern at Data In Action, LLC.