Report Launch | Malign Creativity: How Gender, Sex, and Lies are Weaponized Against Women Online
2021 will be a year of firsts for the United States: Kamala Harris will become the country’s first female Vice President; Avril Haines will serve as the first woman Director of National Intelligence; and Janet Yellen will be the first woman to lead the U.S. Department of the Treasury. For the first time, women will helm the White House communications team. More women—and more women of color—have been sworn in as Members of the United States Congress than ever before.
But for these women, and many others in journalism, activism, academia, and beyond, political aspirations and engagement in public life come with a tacit cost. Social media platforms, lauded for connecting people, for helping protest movements organize, and for giving up-and-comers in a variety of fields the ability to compete, are also vectors for harm. Disproportionately, that harm—in the form of gendered and sexualized harassment and disinformation—is directed at women, particularly women of color. The cumulative impact of these online behaviors carries a huge risk not only for women’s equality, but for national security, and more broadly, the health of democracy itself.
"Malign Creativity: How Gender, Sex, and Lies are Weaponized Against Women Online" is a landmark research study that explores gendered abuse and disinformation across six social media platforms over two months in late 2020. In the study, the Wilson Center and Moonshot CVE define, quantify, and evaluate the use of online gendered and sexualized abuse and disinformation campaigns against women in public life, and strive to build awareness of the direct and indirect impacts of the phenomenon. The study provides recommendations for social media platforms, government policymakers, and employers to mitigate the problem in service of a more equitable, democratic future.
“Suffice it to say that actors like China, Iran and Russia are using the same gender-based tropes and tactics that we’ve identified—that are being used in the domestic discourse—effectively weaponizing our society’s own endemic misogyny in order to discredit these women and their work. As Jane pointed out in the introduction, this makes gender-based disinformation a national security issue as well as one that affects women’s political participation.”
“Malign creativity is the greatest challenge to identifying and taking action against gendered abuse and disinformation. To give you a little bit more of an idea about what we mean when we say malign creativity, these are the ways that abusers get around detection on platforms, so often you’ll see things like the word “bitch” spelled with an “!” instead of the letter “i”, or special spacing that again allows these people to avoid detection by automated detection algorithms.”
“The onus of reporting is on targets—and detection for that matter—rather than these multibillion-dollar corporations detecting and identifying gender-based abuse and harassment, they rely on reports from women like us who are enduring it. One focus group participant said, ‘It is largely a content moderation problem that really puts the burden on the individual being attacked to report the harassment. And then they’re in wait-mode and you don’t know if you’re going to get a response in 24 hours—maybe the best-case scenario—or several days, or maybe there will be no action whatsoever.’ One of our interviewees described the act of shielding oneself form abuse as exhausting, this blocking and reporting and muting that you need to do, all while essentially reliving this trauma that is being directed at you in order to get rid of the content.”
“It’s not just silly memes on the internet. In the short term, women are disengaging from public life. One of our focus group participants said ‘often times, my solution is to lock down my account or I go completely offline and I don’t post for days. You don’t feel safe to continue speaking, so you don’t speak.’”
“Disinformation narratives overwhelmingly targeted Kamala Harris. 78% of all of our disinformation data collected was directed specifically at her. While Kamala Harris was the main target of most of these narratives, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was also targeted in each category.”
“Narratives like these [sexual disinformation] ultimately target the subject’s political qualifications, their ability to do their jobs, and ultimately just aim to distract from their political work and focus attention on very sexist ideas on what sorts of activities women engage in especially to advance their careers.”
“Racialized narratives discredit the subject’s ethnic identities. One of these was directed at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez which argued that she was not the working-class Latina that she claimed to be, but actually a wealthy, privileged, effectively Caucasian women. This narrative is represented here at the bottom by the keyword ‘sandy cortez’ which as you can see is the most recorded keyword within this category. And ‘sandy cortez’ is a nickname that congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez allegedly used to use in college, and it’s been weaponized against her to sort of strip her of her Latin name and bring to mind the image of a white, privileged person.”
“Users who engage with one narrative tend to engage with others, such as the transphobic narrative that Kamala Harris is a man named ‘kamal aroush’ and that she isn’t actually black and should therefore not claim to represent black people. Second, this again demonstrates the intersectionality of the attacks against Kamala Harris and we also observed quite similar intersectionality—as has been mentioned—about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar.
“We can see that a number of grey users cross-posted calls for sexual and often abusive fantasies about Ocasio-Cortez on multiple red erotic and role-play subreddits. Some of these calls included users seeking political role-plays about conservative politicians or Trump supporters having rough sex with Ocasio-Cortez, as well as role-plays about liberals degrading Ivanka Trump… This context demonstrates the degree to which a young female politician can be sexualized and fetishized online, a trend which demeans her credibility as a serious politician.”
“What these networks show us is that these individuals are engaging in repetitive, abusive behavior, and platforms should be able to detect this behavior—just like we have—to see that it violates some of their spam and harassment policies and that they need to take appropriate action.”
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