Gendered disinformation might have cost Warren the nomination and us our lives
Millions of families are grappling with the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic; many world leaders are unprepared for the task, and it’s apparent that women’s leadership becomes ever more needed. Research finds female politicians are not only better able to use a more collaborative and bipartisan governing style but also find a direct correlation between women in government and countries’ health outcomes.
With this in mind, knowing that the United States will have to wait at least another four years to see a woman in the Oval Office feels ever more disheartening.
When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) announced she was suspending her campaign on March 5, I didn’t cry, as I had in 2016. This time I was angry. In some ways, I could see this coming, as I had been researching, writing, and talking about gendered disinformation.
It’s not the first time that American politics breaks my heart. The 2016 presidential election was my first as a newly naturalized citizen, and I was excited to contribute to breaking the glass ceiling of presidential politics.
I should have known better. I spent a good part of that year researching and writing a study on the challenges female politicians face in accessing the political career. It ranges from societal norms and beliefs that make still seem women’s leadership a contradiction in terms of lack of funds and evident double standards in traditional and social media coverage.
Hillary’s loss felt deeply personal. As someone that has worked her entire professional career in women’s rights, Hillary Clinton represented better than anyone the fulfillment of a dream of seeing women’s rights recognized as human rights.
I wasn’t the only one that felt this way. That loss ignited a sisterhood that felt powerful and able to cross over borders and ideologies. Within months, millions were joining Women’s Marches all over the world, using social media to organize and protest against discrimination and, through the #MeToo movement, shining light on sexual harassment’s pervasiveness and impunity.
These movements seemed to bring women, particularly young ones, to recognize themselves as a constituency, and be more interested in voting for a female candidate as a result of it. In this sense, they were deeply political. They also represented hopeful examples of how social media could be used to galvanize change and bring women together.
They also represented an exception, and not the norm, of women’s relationship with the internet, as recently recognized in an open letter from Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, denouncing that “despite the growing crisis of gender inequality online, action by governments and companies has been too slow and too small.”
Emails, blogs, and social media platforms have provided new channels for misogyny and gender-based violence and is a particularly toxic place for women in politics, who are targets not only of online threats, harassment and graphic sexual taunts, but also of smear campaigns using misogynistic arguments and tools to delegitimize, depersonalize, and ultimately dissuading them from being politically active.
Marvelous AI, a data analytics company creating tools to detect political narratives about individual candidates, did an artificial intelligence analysis of the early months of the 2020 Democratic Presidential Primaries and what they found is that social media narratives about female candidates are more negative and mostly concerned with their character, as opposed to their policies. While such narratives weren’t exclusive to women, they seemed to be the norm for female candidates and the exception for male ones.
They also found that female candidates received more attacks from far-right and fake-news accounts than male politicians, often adding to people’s concerns regarding their electability, with Warren being their primary target.
While it’s impossible to know for sure how strongly what they saw on social media influenced people’s voting choices against Elizabeth Warren and the other female candidates, it’s fair to think that it played some role, given that about 44 percent of Americans used Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram as sources of information, with 35 percent of 18-29 years old saying that social media was their primary source of political news.
This problem is not without a solution and technological innovations can and should be used to support efforts to curb biased, hostile and harassing content on social media rather than aid it. According to Olya Gurevich, chief scientist and co-founder at Marvelous AI: “The role that social media platforms’ click-optimization algorithms played in spreading misogyny and other biases is by now well documented. I believe that technologists now have a moral responsibility, as well as the opportunity to help improve the unfairness in media. Much more can be done and has to be done.”
Maddeningly, hardly anything is being done.
As the reality of a global pandemic sinks in and the government’s unpreparedness becomes apparent, I cannot help but think of the opportunity the United States just missed. We could have elected a female president who had the kind of calm, prepared leadership style that is very much needed in situations like this.
As it turns out, the cost of inaction from policymakers, social media companies and nonprofit institutions who have failed in securing women have a fair shot at the political career might not only cost us the health of our democracies. In essence, it might cost us our lives.
Lucina Di Meco is a senior gender expert and the author of “#ShePersisted. Women, Politics & Power in The New Media World,” a global analysis of the relationship between women political leaders & social media. Lucina is also senior director for Girls’ Education at Room to Read, an international nonprofit committed to creating a world free from illiteracy and gender inequality, and serves on the Advisory Board of FundHer.