• Perri Grace

Disinformation Dispatch: Gendered Propaganda

In the wake of acts of violent extremism around the world, there is an increasing recognition of the role played by digital platforms and the spread of false information they enable in this phenomenon. While a thorough understanding of disinformation and its multilayered effects is still in its infancy, there is a slow emerging consensus that women could be a deeper target of gendered propaganda.

An injured pregnant woman is carried away from the damaged maternity hospital in Mariupol. Credit: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP.
An injured pregnant woman is carried away from the damaged maternity hospital in Mariupol. Credit: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP.

Dissemination of false information attacking women is on the rise and as analysts continue to explore disinformation and its related matters, we must seek out different ways to investigate. Are women more targeted by misinformation, disinformation and propaganda and if so, are they more impacted by these acts?


The Red Line spoke with an academic expert on propaganda and investigative journalist, Dr Emma Briant, to unpack the issues at play in this space.


A New Arena

A growing body of research is revealing that women are being disproportionately targeted by the rise of gendered disinformation. This has been evident within the global political sphere; female politicians are targeted by campaigns, often sexist in nature, and framed to be untrustworthy and inept in a bid to distort the sentiment surrounding these politicians.


One recent example came from a 2019 study conducted by a non-partisan data analytics firm evaluated Twitter and news coverage of the Democratic primaries for the 2020 US Presidential elections in the United States. The study found that Twitter accounts that were considered low in credibility, including trolls and bots, attacked female primary candidates at higher rates than male candidates. In addition, the focus of these attacks disproportionately trended towards the candidates’ character rather than their policies compared to male candidates.

A growing body of research is revealing that women are being disproportionately targeted by the rise of gendered disinformation.

This example echoes the experiences of women in politics across the world facing similar challenges. A 2019 study by The Wilson Center reported that nine of the 13 female politicians interviewed had been the target of gendered disinformation campaigns. The #ShePersisted. Women, Politics & Power in the New Media World report interviewed 88 female politicians from across the globe, the majority of which reported being extremely concerned about the pervasiveness of gender-based abuse and disinformation in the digital space.


This is an insidious problem as beyond the reputational damage rendered to its initial target, gendered propaganda can further deter some women from pursuing political careers. Undermining the credibility of women pushes women out of these spaces and discredits women's voices, thereby making it a fundamental danger to the progress of women.


The Propaganda Bullseye

When it comes to propaganda, Dr Briant states that it “reflects the culture of the audience and the creator - and most societies have been gendered to advantage men,” adding “so existing power relations are often exaggerated or used for outrage in propaganda and indeed our biases also shape the creation of online platforms and activities”.


Briant elaborates how propaganda takes advantage of existing power relations for stereotypes or cultural assumptions so any group that’s historically weaker may be labelled as the “other”. Trolling is a common form that can suppress the voices of not just women but minorities and “is often led by influencers and made worse by the ready ability to hide identities online and it can be accompanied by difficulties the target might also face off-platform”.


War in Ukraine

As the war in Ukraine continues following Russia’s invasion on 24 February, disinformation and propaganda have been pushed into the limelight, with many people unfamiliar with Russia’s deep disinformation history suddenly exposed to the amended ecosystem. “Propaganda reflects gender power in society,” Dr Briant asserts that it mirrors Russia’s innately patriarchal society, but this doesn't limit women from propaganda positions, rather, “women are certainly involved in propaganda there but are often working in roles that make them attractive visible faces of the outlets”.


“In democratic governments propaganda has still been traditionally undertaken more by men but there is actually a much greater gender balance in this relative to other national security roles.” Briant explains that this may be “possibly due to stereotypes of women being good communicators". Although the nature of this intentionality differs.

Vladimir Putin awards Margarita Simonyan, head of RT, with an Order of Alexander Nevsky on 23 May 2019. Credit: The Kremlin
Vladimir Putin awards Margarita Simonyan, head of RT, with an Order of Alexander Nevsky on 23 May 2019. Credit: The Kremlin

When it comes to gender-based disinformation it can be hard - like much of the disinformation sphere - to draw clear lines. Disinformation and propaganda campaigns targeted emotional Ukrainians stating that on major borders, due to the war effort, it was mostly women who were attempting to leave and when campaigns attempted to spread fabricated information that borders were closed, we can start to draw examples of gendered disinformation and propaganda.


With the head of RT, Russia’s propaganda and state-affiliated outlet, being a woman we can anticipate that studying propaganda through a gendered lens may become more relevant. Identifying disinformation and propaganda can be challenging, and while we now may be able to familiarise ourselves in order to better detect these activities, the scale and complexity continues to grow and reveal itself to us.


There are consequences

Gendered disinformation can essentially discourage women from sharing information, creating almost self-censorship or encouraging women to limit their online self-expression, which can be unfortunate for women in male-dominated industries who wish to participate in the conversations online. Getting this taken seriously will be a challenge as scepticism remains over the existence of gendered misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda.

Undermining the credibility of women pushes women out of these spaces and discredits women's voices, thereby making it a fundamental danger to the progress of women.

These tactics are nothing new; misinformation and disinformation education and media literacy can play a part in defeating consequential structural disadvantages. But for propaganda, media literacy in isolation can fall short of being an adequate response.


For these reasons Dr. Briant runs ‘Women in Disinformation’ on Twitter to promote the work of women researching these campaigns who often are targeted for attacks. As women are becoming leading figures in politics and media literacy efforts, responses to propaganda must not be left in an ambiguous grey zone.

 

Written by Perri Grace, in collaboration with Dr Emma Briant, a propaganda academic and investigative journalist. Dr Briant is also the author of multiple books including “Propaganda and Counter-terrorism: Strategies for Global Change” and forthcoming,“Propaganda Machine: Inside Cambridge Analytica and the Digital Influence Industry”.


Edited by Wade McCagh.