Pelosi attack highlights risks of online violence against women in politics

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) addresses reporters during her weekly press conference on Friday, September 30, 2022.

Last week’s attack targeting Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at her home is highlighting the real-world risk of violence stemming from the online vitriol targeting women in politics.

The online abuse of women running for office, especially those of color, is more likely to be gendered, personal and invoke sexual violence than their male peers, research shows. 

Although misogynistic attacks are not new to politics, experts say the rise of social media and its secretive algorithms are increasing the threat level facing women in the public arena, in a way that could dissuade women from running for office. 

“Any political violence is bad. So it’s not as if we should care more about what is targeted to men versus women. But what we should pay attention to is the way that gender is a factor in that targeting,” said Kristina Wilfore, co-founder of the group #ShePersisted, which researches gendered disinformation and online abuse. 

On Friday, Pelosi’s San Francisco home was allegedly broken into by David DePape, who told police he wanted to break the Speaker’s knee caps and was carrying zip ties, a roll of tape and a hammer, according to the affidavit released by the Department of Justice on Monday. 

The Speaker was away in Washington, D.C., but her husband, Paul Pelosi was at the residence and suffered serious injuries after being struck by a hammer. 

Shaunna Thomas, co-founder and executive director of the feminist group UltraViolet, said the attack “wasn’t a random or isolated act of violence” but rather the result of years of right-wing media spreading a narrative “demonizing” the Speaker with “violent and misogynistic rhetoric to galvanize their base.”

“What’s worse is that social media platforms have allowed these attacks to metastasize online and create an echo chamber that both radicalizes its consumers and desensitizes them to violence,” Thomas said in a statement. 

Men running for office are not immune to online abuse, but the attacks are far less likely to target their gender, according to a report published by the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) last week. The report analyzed data relating to tweets targeting candidates running for Congress in the 2020 election. 

Women of color were more likely than any other group, including white women and men of color, to be subject to misogynistic and racist content, the report found. 

Women of color also faced the highest percentage of tweets targeting them that combined disinformation and abuse, according to the report. Those types of posts combined the spread of false narratives, for example dismissing the validity of mail-in ballots, with abusive language. 

Wilfore, of #ShePersisted, said the disinformation and gendered attacks targeting female candidates shouldn’t be dismissed as “run-of-the-mill politics.” 

“This is a big part of identity-based conflict — finding those touch points that create a sense of threat,” Wilfore said. 

The language aimed at women — positioning them as “dangerous,” “radical” or “dirty” — is different from that of their male counterparts and deployed in a way meant to create an “existential threat to justify violence,” Wilfore said. 

“I imagine many people are looking at this story and thinking, ‘Well, but yeah, people just don’t like Nancy Pelosi,’ like they didn’t ‘like’ Hillary Clinton. That lack of likeability is actually part of the mis- and disinformation that’s aimed at women over men,” Wilfore said. 

Even calling a politician by her name — like the alleged attacker did when reportedly yelling “Where is Nancy? Where is Nancy?” — is more common when targeting women and seeks to “undermine their public role and position,” Wilfore said. 

Although the report focused on a comprehensive study of 2020 candidates, CDT research director Dhanaraj Thakur said the problem is “still severe” in 2022 races. 

For example, he noted reports that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s (R) reelection campaign darkened the skin tone of Democratic opponent Stacy Abrams, who is Black, in an ad, as reported by the local station 11Alive. Kemp’s team told the news outlet that their campaign uses filters and overlays in video production and that it was ridiculous to suggest it might be racially motivated. 

A staffer for a 2020 campaign for a woman of color told CDT researchers in an interview the opponent’s team would “purposely darken” the candidate’s skin tone in social media posts and mailers. The CDT report did not disclose names of staffers and candidates interviewed for the report. 

UltraViolet’s Thomas said in some cases the attacks against female candidates this year are narrowing in on a “sweet spot” of using sexism without “going as far as they did” with Vice President Harris in the 2020 presidential race with overtly sexualized disinformation. 

For example, the hashtag #heelsupharris appeared more than 35,000 times in Twitter posts in the first week Harris was named to President Biden’s ticket, The Washington Post reported at the time, citing data from Zignal Labs. Similar narratives were pushed by mainstream conservative figures during the 2020 race.

But many of the attacks facing women in 2022 are still coded in sexism, Thomas said. 

One example UltraViolet highlighted was comments from Tudor Dixon, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Michigan, seemingly mocking the kidnapping plot against her opponent, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

“The sad thing is Gretchen will tie your hands, put a gun to your head and ask if you are ready to talk. For someone so worried about getting kidnapped, Gretchen Whitmer sure is good at taking business hostage and holding it for ransom,” Dixon told supporters at a campaign event, according to The New York Times. 

Another example highlighted by experts monitoring the abuse facing women was attack ads painting Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), who is running against Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), as being soft on crime despite her years serving as a police chief in Orlando. 

The issue is not only facing Democrats, though there are more women running as Democrats than Republicans in recent cycles. 

The CDT report found that the racist and sexist attacks targeting women were present regardless of the candidate’s party affiliation. Thakur said the report didn’t look into who was posting the content, but the widespread nature implies the attacks are “coming from all sides.” 

Tina Ramirez, a state senate candidate in Virginia and spokesperson for the Republican-leaning political action committee Maggie’s List, said the attacks GOP candidates are facing are violent, vulgar and “literally trying to destroy their families, their livelihoods and their ability to provide for their children and protect their children.” 

Thomas said the online hate could in part lead to fewer women running for office. 

Already in House and Senate races there are fewer women this year compared to the last few cycles, which broke records, according to data tracked by the Center for American Women and Politics. There are 21 female Senate nominees in 2022, compared to the record of 23 set in 2018, and 259 female House nominees, compared to the record of 289 in 2020. 

Experts are urging social media platforms to take action to better mitigate violent rhetoric before it turns into acts of violence. 

A Meta spokesperson pointed to updates the company made last year to remove harassment against public figures, including “severe sexualizing content,” “derogatory, sexualized photoshopped images and drawings” and “attacks through negative physical descriptions that are tagged to, mention or posted on the public figure’s account.” 

A spokesperson for Twitter, which has reportedly scaled back on content moderation since being purchased by Elon Musk last week, did not respond to a request for comment. 

Thakur said part of the problem is social media platforms attempting to make changes that address the problem as a whole, and therefore failing to address how these attacks target specific groups in different ways. 

“The problem is not evenly felt, it’s not evenly impacting all political candidates across the board, some are worse off than others. So you have to adjust your strategies and solutions accordingly,” Thakur said. 

Tags gender-based violence Nancy Pelosi Nancy Pelosi online threats political violence
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