Opinion: Online harassment of politicians more often targets women and must be fought with policies requiring media literacy

Legislation targeting media companies isn’t the solution.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been one of the most frequent targets of online attacks, which are often both sexist and racist.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been one of the most frequent targets of online attacks, which are often both sexist and racist. Pool / Pool - Getty

From Russian lies on the invasion of Ukraine to anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, this type of online misinformation grabs headlines, but what is seldom acknowledged is the deluge of digital lies that amount to gender harassment.

Specifically, online harassment targeting women in government has never been more prevalent and goes hand-in-hand with disinformation campaigns. A 2016 survey of female parliamentarians across the globe found that 42% had “extremely humiliating or sexually charged” images of themselves shared online. By contrast, attacks targeting men in politics are mostly just related to their professional duties. 

One study found that over a five-week period, nearly one-third of Americans (65 million people) were exposed to at least one article containing disinformation on social media channels. Another study found that news stories with disinformation are 70% more likely to be shared on social media than stories that are accurate.

The problem is made worse due to changing media consumption habits – over two-thirds of Americans get their news from social media platforms. When it comes to politics, the targets of these abusive disinformation campaigns aren’t random, they tend to be women and people of color. 

Online harassment targeting women in the form of disinformation is an attack on all of us. The abuse often spills over into the real world, putting women in the public sector at greater risk for harm. This can dissuade some from entering or staying in public leadership roles, which has the potential to erode women's rights and the functioning of our representative democracy by curtailing the robust participation of all gender identities. 

In the 2020 congressional races, female candidates were significantly more likely to receive online abuse than their male candidates – on Facebook alone, female Democrats running for office received 10 times more abuse than male Democratic candidates.

Immediately after Kamala Harris was selected as Biden’s running mate in the presidential election, false claims about Harris were spread 3,000 times per hour on Twitter. 

“Cheap-fakes,” which are recontextualized or edited videos intended to distort the original content, have spread unmitigated on social platforms and often target women. One of the most widely circulated cheap-fakes, shared millions of times, was a video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appearing to be drunk on camera. It was later revealed that the video was slowed down and edited, and social media platform companies never removed it. Other edited footage of Pelosi has gone viral across different social platforms, often using different soundbites edited together to make it appear that she is stammering incoherently – one such doctored video was pinned to then-President Donald Trump's Twitter page for a period of time. 

In the fall of 2020, authorities revealed a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, which initially started as a weekslong online disinformation campaign in response to her COVID-19 response measures. When the majority-female council in Seattle rejected a land use deal in 2016, the members were viciously attacked in sexist social media posts and emails. And in Vermont, Kiah Morris, who was the only African American woman in the state’s house of representatives, resigned in 2018 because of what she described as a yearslong campaign of harassment and threats on social media, leading to vandalism of her home. 

Here in New York, one of our own members of Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has been one of the most frequent targets of online attacks, which are often both sexist and racist. Recently, she was featured in an animated video posted to Twitter by Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar which depicts him killing her. 

We are fortunate that New York City with a historic women-majority City Council led by a Black woman, hasn’t seen many highly publicized instances of sexist disinformation, yet. Still, Queens Council candidate Linda Lee was the target of a sexist tweet by her primary opponent Steve Behar, suggesting that her campaign was only asking people to vote for her because she was a mother. Behar has denied this to be the case, counters that he was responding to one of Lee's supporters and disputes media accounts of the alleged sexist tweet. New York City mayoral candidate Maya Wiley said she experienced racist and sexist attacks on social media during her campaign as well.

Social media platforms have done very little to effectively clamp down on the disinformation that is plaguing our society, and there are few legislative options that are politically feasible. Due to heightened awareness of these issues, politicians, think tanks and concerned citizens are asking how we can reform our online platforms to reduce the amount of disinformation and make them a safer place for everyone. 

Often, the most discussed solutions include new regulations banning certain types of content or making changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to hold platforms liable for real-world harm caused by disinformation that they host. The problem with these solutions is that while there is an appetite to better regulate content hosted on social media platforms, there is no agreement on what type of content is unacceptable, making them political nonstarters. 

Big questions about the constitutionality of such changes with respect to First Amendment rights and free speech are also abound. Likewise, these ideas are reactive, often occurring after the damage is already done, and will not work on new forms and sources of disinformation as they continue to emerge.    

The best path forward may actually be one that does not try to regulate or get rid of disinformation at all, but instead trains the public to be more critical, to better detect disinformation, to reject it and to understand the motivations behind it. 

A national media literacy education program in public K-12 schools would be an optimal, long-term solution. This proactive and engaging plan would reach new generations in deep and meaningful ways, serving to better inoculate people from disinformation. 

Right now, only five states have enacted policies requiring media literacy in education standards. New York is not one of those five states. Not only should this approach expand to all 50 states, it's absolutely crucial that media literacy education include a gender and racial bias component. Our future netizens must be equipped with the skills to detect disinformation and to grasp an understanding of what motivates it and who is more likely to be the target of false information. This will help them guard against it and not contribute to sexist and racist tropes that these types of campaigns frequently lean on. 

We might not see the immediate benefits of such a program, but it will eventually pay dividends.

In the long run, our online ecosystem will become more thoughtful, safe and less divisive. Users will be more cautious about what they believe, learn to check reputable sources, think before sharing and report malicious content. Since democracy depends on the informed debate and exchange of ideas based on the acceptance of basic shared truths, and with so much of this exchange taking place online, a digitally savvy and cautious citizenry that allows for the full participation of all gender identities will serve to strengthen our democracy and society by making such attacks less effective. 

Erik Krause, Master of Public Administration and Public Policy student at John Jay College, is a Fellow at the Initiative for Gender Equity in the Public Sector and The New York Community Trust.

Editor's note: This story was updated to include Steve Behar's response disputing the allegation that he targeted his Queens Council primary opponent Linda Lee with a sexist tweet. 

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