Gendered disinformation and connected cyber threats: historical patterns, new battlefields, and the implications for international security
Social media provides a burgeoning ground to one of the oldest and most damaging forms of propaganda – disinformation designed to disempower women. Deep-rooted stereotypes, misogyny, and homophobia have been in many respects reinvigorated with the use of technology. Only this time, the virtual extension of the offline world can reinforce abusive structures through a myriad of connected cyber threats.
The foundations of disinformation based on gender – the roles and attributes that society considers appropriate for women and men – are rooted in centuries of biased attitudes and practices. Throughout history, women in particular have been subjected to a wide range of false, defamatory, and maliciously intended narratives. Accounts of gender roles, power dynamics, and sexuality have been weaponized against them to undermine their credibility and abilities. These narratives initially aimed to deny women access to education, property, and other rights, and later to justify their exclusion from politics and public spheres. They still undermine women’s autonomy and agency today.
Social media and messaging apps have become primary platforms for information sharing. In many instances, they serve as empowering tools, especially for marginalized and minority groups. But they also extended patterns of discrimination and helped to amplify and spread false content. This is because their accessibility and anonymity attracted abusive content. Malicious actors now spread false information on a massive scale. Modern disinformation campaigns rely on technology such as bots to amplify content, exploit data for micro-targeting, or deploy trolls to spread disinformation and harass the targeted people.
Disinformation campaigns are based on the deliberate sharing of false information to manipulate opinion or plant suspicion in receptive audiences. A pronounced gender dimension is present in politically motivated campaigns. Female politicians are targeted more often than their male counterparts, and with more severe consequences to their work and security. These attacks provide the basis for a high incidence of online abuse which aims to deter or discredit candidates.
Several candidates were the victims of sexualised disinformation ahead of parliamentary elections in Georgia in 2016, being targeted by fake videos that claimed to depict them engaging in sexual activities. A female politician accused of adultery because of the videos retreated from political life. The featured men did not face similar repercussions because such behaviour for men was deemed socially acceptable. There was one exception – a man who was identified by the media as gay – which put him at risk in the majorly conservative country.
Online attacks on women frequently reference archaic tropes depicting women as mentally unstable or hyper-sexual. Doctored images posted online purporting to show them naked have been used against a series of female politicians, a former Ukrainian parliamentarian, Svitlana Zalishchuk, who publicly criticised Russia, a Rwandan female presidential candidate, Diane Rwigara, and former President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic of Croatia.
There is a growing tendency of weaponizing disinformation and online harassment against human rights defenders and journalists. Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) report warned that leading China journalists are facing a coordinated information campaign. These are accompanied by threats of violence and rape, accusations of being a traitor, or insults regarding appearance often focused on women of Asian descent. The inherent misogyny within such disinformation serves to discredit women and push them toward self-censorship.
In many contexts, the use of the internet as such is gendered. It is an extension of the offline world and can reinforce its abusive structures. Of the estimated 2.7 billion people currently unconnected, the majority are women and girls. By extension, they are less able to gain digital literacy, which is a source of further vulnerability to crimes committed with the use of ICTs. Men have been found to be more likely to commit cybercrimes, especially those associated with hacking, and gender-based offences, such as the use of spyware against partners, and sharing non-consensual sexual materials online. At the same time, women and girls are particularly vulnerable to such offences committed by partners or family members as a form of surveillance, control, and continuation of family or intimate partner abuse.
Indiscriminate cyberattacks can also have differentiated impacts depending on gender identity or expression. Gender can be a factor of vulnerability because of the sensitivity of data and possible repercussions. For instance, when hack and leak crimes include medical data relating to sexual or reproductive history. Australia's health insurer Medibank has spoken about the "malicious weaponization" of private information after hackers who stole their customer data released a file of pregnancy terminations.
Data leaks can have severe consequences for LGBTQ people who can experience stigmatization, ostracization, or violence following the exposure of their gender identity. Such was the case of a hacking group that leaked data about users of an LGBTQ dating site in Israel. This attack, which some security experts attributed to Iran, shows how gender can be weaponized not only against the impacted people, but it can be politicised as a matter of international security.
Finally, the breach of sensitive data can also lead to multiple exploitations. There have been cases when hacked court records and medical history were fed into disinformation to perpetuate harm. For instance, a Finnish journalist who exposed fake news operations and a troll farm in Russia was targeted with disinformation based on twisting her medical history. Her health data and other personal information were published after a breach into archived court files showed she was at one point fined for drug use. The following disinformation campaign framed her as a drug dealer to undermine her reputation and the credibility of her work.
These and other cases show that gender can be a factor of vulnerability both offline and online. What is more, threats in cyberspace are interconnected and can lead to a cycle of perpetuated harm. Governments and private companies alike must therefore step in to ensure that targeted individuals and groups who are exposed to a higher amount of harassment and intimidation online based on their gender and other compounding attributes are taken into account in policy and decision making and provided with increased protection.
Pavlina Pavlova is Public Policy Advisor at the CyberPeace Institute in Geneva, Switzerland, where she works on advancing international law and norms under the framework of responsible state behaviour in cyberspace and represents the Institute at the UN Open-ended Working Group on ICTs and the UN Ad Hoc Committee on Cybercrime. Prior to this role, Pavlina was an official at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), being appointed Liaison Officer of the OSCE Chairmanship. She also coordinated OSCE capacity building programmes aimed at strengthening the human dimension of security. Pavlina has been publishing and speaking on the nexus between technology, human rights, and security. Her research centres around cyber threats and cyberattacks impacting vulnerable and targeted groups and the interlink between online and offline security. She authored research papers presented at the Yale MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy of the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Stanford Internet Observatory, among other fora.
Photo by Mati Mango