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Free Expression, Privacy & Data

Understanding the Impacts of Online Gendered Disinformation and Women of Color in Politics

The prevalence of disinformation in the U.S. has emerged as a significant problem in recent years, with researchers focusing on the strategies and tactics used in disinformation campaigns. Politicians generally are common targets of online attacks. But gendered, racialized abuse and disinformation are disproportionately targeted toward women politicians. Despite important work by advocates to highlight this problem, policymakers have yet to grapple with disinformation targeted toward women from racial, ethnic, religious or other minority groups who are engaged in politics. While we have some evidence of abuse targeted at women of color politicians, we have yet to analyze the scale and nature of gendered disinformation about this group. The knowledge gap in this area undermines attempts to truly understand and address the full impacts of disinformation on political attitudes, voting behavior, and trust in democratic institutions.

This month, CDT will launch a new research project that aims to help fill this gap. We will examine how gendered disinformation affects women of color political candidates in the U.S., with a focus on the November 2020 elections. Gendered disinformation makes use of existing gender narratives, language, and ultimately discrimination to achieve certain social and political goals, including maintaining gender inequality. Gendered disinformation is related to and often occurs with online gender-based violence (GBV), defined as targeted abuse and harassment of persons based on their gender identity or gender expression. One way to think of the relationship between the two is that gendered disinformation involves false information ​about​ persons or groups based on their gender identity (e.g., false claims about a woman’s capacity or qualifications for political leadership). And online GBV involves ​targeting​ and abusing individuals based on their gender identity. Both kinds of attacks can lead to the physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering of its targets, including a chilling effect on women’s participation in politics. 

Research shows that the pervasiveness of online GBV and gendered disinformation are serious obstacles and disincentives for women who want to engage in politics or consider careers in politics. Studies also indicate that women of color are more likely to face high levels of consistent online abuse. An analysis of social media conversations about Kamala Harris during the 2020 U.S. presidential election campaign showed that she was targeted by 4 times as much misinformation as white men running for vice-president between 2016 and 2020 (e.g., Michael Pence and Tim Kaine.) In another study looking at online abuse targeting a variety of congressional candidates, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar received the highest proportion of abusive comments on social media platforms overall, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez received the highest proportion of abusive comments on Facebook.

CDT’s prior work has focused on the deleterious effects of online disinformation and misinformation. Our most recent research report identified key research opportunities, including important unresolved questions around the intersections of online disinformation, race, and gender. CDT has also helped election officials and other trusted sources counter misinformation and online voter suppression.​ Our planned study builds on this previous work by analyzing the impacts of disinformation on women of color political candidates.

This mixed-methods study will include qualitative analysis, content analysis, and a user-testing and design component. We will test the hypothesis that political candidates who identify as women of color are subject to more gendered disinformation than any other group of candidates. In doing so, we will ask questions such as: 

  • What were the patterns and impacts of gendered disinformation on women of color candidates in the 2020 election? With an intersectional approach, what more can we learn about the relationship between online gender-based violence (GBV) and gendered disinformation?  
  • To what extent are women of color political candidates subject to more and different forms of gendered disinformation compared to other groups of candidates (e.g., white men and women, men of color)?
  • Based on these insights and the perspectives of women of color candidates, how can we inform user interface and user experience solutions to better prevent gendered disinformation and abuse from targeting these groups, as well as options to help candidates address the problem?

Women of color have historically been underrepresented in politics. We need a better understanding of the ways social media promotes or inhibits their participation in our democracy. Through our forthcoming public reports, workshops, and discussions, CDT hopes to provide insights for industry, researchers, civil society, and government stakeholders on how to best approach the social and technical problems associated with gendered disinformation targeted toward women of color political candidates.

Updated November 18, 2021.