Holding Big Tech Accountable for Online Violence Against Women and Gendered Disinformation
High-profile women, particularly women of color, too often face vicious forms of online abuse, threats and gendered disinformation campaigns.
By Lucina di Meco and Kristina Wilfore | Originally published in Ms. Magazine
Digital media platforms, once celebrated for their equalizing and democratizing potential, have failed to deliver on their promises—and they have profoundly failed women along the way. According to a study from the Economist Intelligence Unit and Jigsaw, 85 percent of women globally reported witnessing online violence against other women. The numbers are even higher in Latin America, Middle East and Africa, with misinformation and defamation being reported as the most frequent form of abuse.
Despite this reality, social media platforms’ efforts to address this problem have been grossly inadequate. The latest commitments from Facebook, Google, Twitter and TikTok, unveiled at the United Nations (U.N.) Generation Equality Forum, are no exception. They fall short of representing a solution, and instead appear to tell women to “cover up” online to prevent their own harassment. Leading civil society organizations called it a PR stunt in an open letter to platform executives, asking them to instead enforce their existing hate speech rules and prioritize the safety of women and LGBTQ people over profit.
High-profile women, particularly women of color, too often face vicious forms of online abuse, threats and gendered disinformation campaigns. The attacks on journalist Maria Ressa in the Philippines, taken to scale through online disinformation campaigns, are prime examples of the aims of such efforts to silence women who are battling authoritarian governments. Similarly, the faked nude photos of the frontrunner Green Party candidate in Germany’s coming election were meant to demean and discredit her.
As a result of online misogyny, many women renounce political careers, self-censor or refrain from speaking out, while illiberal actors and authoritarians become ever bolder in their use of social media as a tool to silence opposition, roll back women’s rights and erode democratic institutions. We cannot let these practices continue, and we cannot let platforms who are able to make substantive change continue to skirt their responsibilities.
The new features rolled out in the context of the U.N. conference, co-designed by the platforms, are aimed at giving users “control over what they see” by filtering out offensive content. To offer that as a solution is absurd. Hiding abusive content targeting women won’t stop this content from spreading—it will actually allow for it to be further amplified, undetected and therefore unreported from the victims.
In reality, the reduction of online abuse and disinformation against women is not likely to happen by deleting content one post at the time, but by understanding and correcting how algorithmic preferences have grown to become a serious threat to democracy. Social media companies know this to be true, but they refuse to act, instead allowing online attacks against women in politics and journalism to scale and become sources of revenue. As with everything, they prioritize profits above all else.
So far, companies have avoided accountability by claiming that online gender-based abuse isn’t their problem, forgetting that online misogyny thrives because of algorithms designed to prioritize disseminating content with greater engagement potential—regardless of whether it is truthful, or irrespective of harm or social impact. Revenue grows when already outrageous and sensationalistic posts get further amplified by coordinated campaigns—whether they are carried out by authentic or inauthentic actors.
Social media platforms have also pushed the misleading narrative that free speech would be in contradiction with tackling abuse. This is a false choice, as the reality today is there is no freedom of expression and no justice for the millions of women who are everyday targeted with disinformation, defamation, abuse, doxing and many other forms of online abuse. Addressing gendered disinformation and online abuse is instead a condition to make sure that freedom of expression is a reality for everyone—not only for the powerful and the bullies.
Once more, the commitments made by Big Tech fall drastically short. We should not let them stifle conversations for real improvement in the form of stronger digital platform standards that ensure greater transparency and accountability from platforms in content moderation, algorithmic decision making, and risk assessment. They must take responsibility for the harms that they fail to take measures to prevent.
As Vice President Harris made clear in her address to the U.N. forum, there is a direct link between strong democracies and gender equality. A healthier digital media environment is paramount in that, and a critical condition for making real progress on gender equality worldwide. Governments, civil society and philanthropists must be much bolder than what we have seen so far in demanding the adoption of better digital platform standards that take into account the real-life harms and abuse that women face.