By Lesley Henton, Texas A&M University Division of Marketing & Communications
President Joe Biden this month announced the establishment of the White House Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse, citing Texas A&M University research which asserts that worsening online abuse and harassment of female political figures is a threat to democracy.
The report, “Technological Threats: How Online Harassment of Female Political Figures Undermines Democracy,” was authored by a team of graduate students at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, with University Distinguished Professor Valerie Hudson serving as faculty advisor. Hudson holds the George H.W. Bush Chair in the Department of International Affairs and directs the school’s Program on Women, Peace, and Security.
The report is one of many capstone projects undertaken by the Bush School each semester whereby teams of graduate students led by a faculty member conduct research on behalf of a client agency, pro bono. The client for this project was the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.
“While there is a space for women in politics, it is not a safe one,” the report states.
The vast majority – if not all – of female politicians are on the receiving end of online abuse and it’s a global problem, said Areala Mendoza, one of the report’s authors. The researchers refer to this abuse as “technology-facilitated gender-based violence (TFGBV).”
“If their name is on the news, chances are they’re receiving harassing and abusive messages,” said Mendoza who was simultaneously earning her bachelor’s in international studies and master’s in international affairs at the time the report was published; she graduated this May.
“They get an unbelievable amount of posts and messages from bots and anonymous people, and not only from opposing political parties, but members of their own parties. The abuse is coming from every possible avenue,” she said.
In their study, the group members reviewed current literature as well as thousands of posts on social media networks including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and WhatsApp; media sharing networks like Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and TikTok; discussion forums such as Reddit and Quora; consumer review networks including Yelp and TripAdvisor; and several more. They also interviewed 10 renowned researchers whose expertise spans the issues of democracy, women, peace and security, governance and gender issues within private, government and academic spaces.
The report asserts that technology-facilitated gender-based violence threatens democracy by normalizing gendered abuse and spreading disinformation to discourage women from participating in the political process and delegitimize female politicians in the eyes of voters.
“When half the population is unable to effectively and successfully participate in the democratic process, democracy fails,” the report states.
“Online harassment of female political figures is rampant, and greatly exceeds in intensity and in quantity than that faced by male political figures,” Hudson said. “The level of harassment is a true impediment to women’s participation in the democratic process, and it is something that democratic governments should seek to curtail.”
Types Of Abuse
The researchers found gendered disinformation campaigns against women in politics typically fall under three categories: gendered, racist and sexualized narratives. A woman can be delegitimized as a political leader by the way she dresses, her sexual past, her race, sexual orientation, religion or her current relationship status.
Recent advancements in technology have made the problem much worse, the authors said, noting the range of perpetrators include anonymous actors working alone or as part of large online mobs. Although most female politicians are targeted with abuse and harassment, women of color and those from minority religious groups receive much more.
Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, for example, has been the target of a virulent campaign targeting her identity as a Black and Muslim woman, portraying her as a terrorist and political saboteur.
Another popular avenue is claiming women are unfit to lead due to their perceived promiscuity. During the 2020 presidential campaign, Vice President Kamala Harris was targeted by campaigns concerning her sexual past in an attempt to discredit or humiliate her.
Technology-facilitated gender-based violence is a global problem. In Kenya, for example, disinformation campaigns often target a woman’s marital status, claiming singleness as a negative factor tainting her ability to lead politically. In the United Kingdom, 18 female members of Parliament have chosen not to run for reelection, stating abuse on and offline as factors in their decision. One reported the harassment is “almost always sexually charged, with constant threats of rape and references to their genitalia,” the report notes.
Mendoza acknowledged that male politicians also receive their share of mistreatment online. So why is abuse and harassment against women a more substantial threat to democracy?
“Men do face abuse and harassment online, but when you look at the messages, they’re not being targeted for their gender,” she said. “They’re being targeted for their intelligence, or something they said that needs to be fact-checked, things like that.”
But with women, most comments are not based on their politics but rather on stereotypes like “why aren’t you in the kitchen?” or degrading comments about their physical appearance or sexual history.
“These are attacks on the female gender, as if to say, ‘why are you, as women, participating in politics?’ That doesn’t happen to men,” Mendoza said.
Effects Of Gendered Abuse
The researchers note the “time-and-energy” cost of technology-facilitated gender-based violence “…though invisible, can have debilitating effects on the success of a politician…In addition, the harassment may cause them to fear for their safety as well as that of their families.”
Physical attacks on female political figures occur around the globe and, the researchers contend, are encouraged when online abuse is normalized.
The abuse places barriers for female politicians to engage with supporters and potential voters, especially if they are self-censoring, avoiding or lessening communication – even removing themselves from platforms altogether to avoid it.
And, Mendoza noted, the abuse can sway public opinion away from supporting female politicians for sexist reasons having nothing to do with their politics or leadership capabilities, a disservice to the democratic process.
The group examined society and government response to technology-facilitated gender-based violence in countries around the world finding some commitments to prevent and punish, but only to a certain extent and with limited enforcement. The report makes policy recommendations, saying the U.S. must not only take steps to combat the issue domestically, but also work internationally to coordinate policy approaches.
Recommendations include investigating bots and algorithms, investing in research, requiring companies to provide reports on abuse and harassment that happens on their platforms, educating lawmakers and the general public about the issue, and many more.
The report was presented to the State Department at the end of April. Mendoza’s co-authors are Madeleine Songy, Madeleine Pelton, Olivia Cretella, Kathryn Hopp, Olivia Jackson and Ailyah Banks.
Past Bush School capstone clients have included the National Security Agency, USCYBERCOM, the Rand Corporation, the Wildlife Conservation & Policy Program, Congressional Research Service and U.S. Space Force.
“Capstone projects are a very valuable educational experience for the student,” said Hudson, noting the Program on Women, Peace, and Security trains students to apply their academic training to real-world policy situations. “This capstone project is a great example. Here we have a real-world policy problem – the undermining of female participation in democratic processes – and our students are actively searching for best practices and solutions. It’s what the Bush School is all about, training future policy leaders in the skills they needs to tackle pressing problems facing the nation.”
Media contact: Lesley Henton, firstname.lastname@example.org