Advocates worry online misogyny will keep women out of office

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FILE – In this March 8, 2020, file photo Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY., speaks at a campaign rally for then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

(The Hill) — Advocates are worried that rising online misogyny will leave more women unwilling to run for office, a concern highlighted by a video posted by Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., showing him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. 

Although Gosar’s video, which used an edited clip from the anime show “Attack on Titan,” targeted a member of Congress, critics warn the amplification of such content via mainstream social media can dissuade women from participating in politics at all levels.

“There’s a silencing impact,” said Bridget Todd, director of communications at the feminist group UltraViolet. “I think it really does trickle down where everybody — whether you’re a public figure or just someone who’s interested in getting involved in your kids school board in your town — I think that everybody can see the way that these platforms have tolerated this abuse, how they’re treating it like it’s not a big deal.”

“And why would anybody want to speak up and be a full participant in their democracy when that’s the case?” Todd added.  

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who introduced a resolution along with 60 Democratic colleagues to censure Gosar, said “without a doubt” content like Gosar’s video deters women from seeking office. 

“This idea of violence against women, gender disinformation, repels women from either speaking out, so they silenced the women, or they have the effect of discouraging support for these women, members or candidates,” Speier told The Hill. 

“There is a huge underlayer here of misogyny that is coupled with a social media platform, any number of them, that allows like-minded people to come together and create a fervor around their hatred for women,” she added.  

Gosar’s account tweeted the video on Nov. 15. Twitter did not take down the post, instead labeling it to note that while it violated the platform’s policies, the company had determined keeping the post up was “in the public’s interest.” 

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, took similar measures putting the video behind a “warning screen” and removing it from places where the platforms recommend content — but ultimately leaving it up. 

Gosar himself ultimately pulled down the video after a fierce backlash.

In a lengthy statement, Gosar said he does not “espouse violence or harm toward any Member of Congress” and that the video “depicts the fight taking place on the House floor and symbolizes the battle for the soul of America” over immigration policies in Democrats’ spending package.

“Sadly, I was not very surprised that a number of the companies didn’t take any significant action on that piece of content,” said Chloe Colliver, head of digital policy and Strategy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD). “Women have tended to be near the bottom of the list on companies’ policy enforcement resources and decision making for a long time, even when they’re in the public light.”

ISD published a report last year that found female congressional candidates were more likely than male counterparts to receive abuse on Twitter and Facebook, with the exception of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who also received high levels of messages classified as abusive.

Women of ethnic minorities were particularly more likely to face online abuse, with Ocasio-Cortez receiving the highest proportion of abusive comments on Facebook, based on the report. 

“Social media allows this more widespread abuse in that format, from people who otherwise might not take the time to write a letter, or make a call, and it also provides them in many cases more anonymity than those other outlets,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

For women in particular, that abuse tends to be more sexualized and violent. 

The ISD report found the abuse targeting women was more likely to be related to their gender than that directed at men. The abuse women faced was based on their physical appearance or “perceived lack of competence,” while abuse targeting men was more likely to attack political stances, according to the report.  

“When we speak to women and talk about encouraging them to run for office, some of the pause that women have when thinking about candidacy and office holding is, ‘Is this going to be an institution in which I am safe, in which I am valued, and in which I can get things done?’ ” Dittmar said. 

“Like any candidate and officeholder, there’s a cost-benefit analysis, but for women, in particular, this is under the potential cost,” she added.

On the other hand, there’s also a chance that videos like Gosar’s will have the inverse reaction and motivate women to take political action to “get men like Gosar out of office,” Dittmar said.

The gendered attacks on women in politics exist across party lines. 

Republican female candidates and elected officials face far more scrutiny than their male counterparts — especially on aspects other than their political opinions such as their appearance, parenting skills and relationships, a Republican consultant who has worked with several female candidates told The Hill. 

Critics across the board say the social media platforms need to take greater action to combat misogyny through enforcing existing policies and clearing up ambiguous terms to better address hate speech and violence against women. 

Platforms need to clarify the wording of policies to ensure extremist behavior or harassment directed at women or transgender people are “clearly included,” and they need to put a more resources into understanding the issues to detect and act upon them, Colliver said. 

UltraViolet put out a report card, conducted with ISD, last week that detailed ways the group found social media platforms fail to combat misogyny. Twitter received a C-minus, Facebook received a D-minus and Instagram an F.

Cindy Southworth, head of women’s safety for Meta, said the report “ignores all of the work we do to protect people on our platform from different forms of abuse,” touting the company’s technology to detect hate speech and tools to allow users to report harmful comments and accounts. 

A Twitter spokesperson in a statement responding to the report said the company is committed to ensuring Twitter doesn’t “become a forum that facilitates abuse” and will “continue to examine our own policy approaches and ways we can enforce our rules at speed and scale.”

But even within their existing policies, platforms “hide behind” different enforcement criteria for content posted by public figures, Todd said. 

Twitter’s policies state that it can apply a “public interest notice” because of “the significant public interest in knowing and being able to discuss their actions and statements.” For the labeled content, such as the Gosar video, Twitter limits engagement by not allowing users to like, reply or retweet it without additional context. 

The position of the account holder shouldn’t impact enforcement, critics argue. 

“It still violates their terms of service, whether they’re a public figure or not, it shouldn’t be up,” Speier said. 

“We can’t have a fully functioning healthy democracy unless everybody can fully participate in online discourse. And right now, because of these platforms, that’s just not the case,” Todd said. 

“I think these platforms really have to decide if they’re going to stand with harassers, abusers and misogynists — or women,” she added.

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