Texas A&M Research quoted by Biden says online harassment of female politicians threatens democracy


Kamala Harris is sworn in as Vice President of the United States on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC.


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President Joe Biden this month announced the creation of the White House Task Force to Combat Online Harassment and Abuse, citing research from Texas A&M University that says worsening abuse and harassment female politicians online 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 from the Bush School of Government and Public Service, with Distinguished University Professor Valerie Hudson as as an educational consultant. Hudson holds the George HW Bush Professorship in the Department of International Affairs and directs the school’s Women, Peace, and Security program.

The report is one of several capstone projects undertaken by the Bush School each semester, in which teams of graduate students led by a faculty member conduct research for a client agency, on a pro bono basis. The client for this project was the Department of State’s Bureau of Global Women’s Issues.

“While there is space for women in politics, it is not certain,” the report said.

The vast majority – if not all – of female politicians experience 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 in the news, there’s a good chance they’ll receive harassing and abusive messages,” said Mendoza, who was simultaneously earning a bachelor’s degree in international studies and a master’s degree in international affairs at the time of publication. of the report; she graduated in May.

“They get an incredible amount of posts and messages from bots and anonymous people, and not just from opposing political parties, but from members of their own parties. The abuse comes from every possible avenue,” she said .

In their study, the group members reviewed current literature as well as thousands of social media posts, 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 many others. They also interviewed 10 renowned researchers whose expertise covers issues of democracy, women, peace and security, governance and gender in private, governmental and academic spaces.

The report argues that technology-facilitated gender-based violence threatens democracy by normalizing gender-based abuses and spreading misinformation 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 participate effectively and successfully in the democratic process, democracy fails,” the report says.

“These are attacks on the female gender, as if to say: ‘why do you, as women, do politics?’ It doesn’t happen to men,” Mendoza said.

“Online harassment of female politicians is rampant and far exceeds in intensity and quantity that faced by male politicians,” Hudson said. “The level of harassment is a real barrier to women’s participation in the democratic process, and it is something that democratic governments should seek to reduce.”

Types of abuse

The researchers found that gendered disinformation campaigns against women in politics generally fall into three categories: gendered, racist, and sexualized narratives. A woman can be delegitimized as a political leader by the way she dresses, her sexual history, race, sexual orientation, religion, or current relationship status.

Recent advances in technology have compounded the problem, the authors said, noting that the range of perpetrators includes anonymous actors working alone or as part of large online crowds. Although most female politicians are targets of abuse and harassment, women of color and those from minority religious groups receive far more.

Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, for example, has been the target of a vocal campaign targeting her identity as a black, Muslim woman, portraying her as a terrorist and political saboteur.

Another popular avenue claims that women are unfit to lead due to their perceived promiscuity. During the 2020 presidential campaign, Vice President Kamala Harris was targeted by campaigns regarding 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 that being single is a negative factor tainting her ability to lead politically. In the UK, 18 women parliamentarians chose not to stand for election, citing online and offline abuse as factors in their decision. One reported that the harassment was “almost always sexual, with constant threats of rape and references to their genitals,” the report notes.

Mendoza acknowledged that male politicians also receive their share of abuse online. So why is abuse and harassment against women a greater threat to democracy?

“Men are being abused and harassed online, but when you look at the posts, they’re not being targeted because of their gender,” she said. “They’re being targeted for their intelligence, or something they said needs to be verified, things like that.”

But with women, most comments aren’t 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 do you, as women, do politics?’ It doesn’t happen to men,” Mendoza said.

Effects of gender-based violence

Researchers note the “time and energy” cost of technology-facilitated gender-based violence “…although invisible, can have debilitating effects on a politician’s success…In addition, harassment can make him fearful for his safety as well as that of their families.

Physical attacks on female political figures occur around the world and, according to researchers, are encouraged when online abuse is normalized.

The abuses place obstacles for women politicians in their dialogue with supporters and potential voters, particularly if they self-censor, avoid or reduce communication – or even withdraw from platforms altogether to avoid it.

And, Mendoza noted, abuses can deter public opinion from supporting female politicians for sexist reasons that have nothing to do with their politics or leadership abilities, a disservice to the democratic process.

Report Recommendations

The group examined society’s and government’s response to technology-facilitated gender-based violence in countries around the world, finding commitments to prevent and punish, but only to a certain extent and with limited application. The report makes policy recommendations, saying the United States must not only take action to combat the problem 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 occur on their platforms, educating lawmakers and the general public on the problem, and many others.

The report was presented to the State Department in late April. Mendoza’s co-authors are Madeleine Songy, Madeleine Pelton, Olivia Cretella, Kathryn Hopp, Olivia Jackson and Ailyah Banks.

Key former Bush School clients include the National Security Agency, USCYBERCOM, the Rand Corporation, the Wildlife Conservation & Policy Program, the Congressional Research Service, and the US Space Force.

“Capstone projects are a very valuable educational experience for the student,” Hudson said, noting that the Women, Peace and Security program trains students to apply their academic training to real political situations. “This flagship project is an excellent example. We have a real political problem here – the weakening of women’s participation in democratic processes – and our students are actively seeking best practices and solutions. That’s what the Bush School is all about, to train future political leaders in the skills they need to tackle the pressing issues facing the nation.

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