On April 4, non-profit organisations #ShePersisted and The London Story presented new research, “The Digital Mob and its Enablers: Gendered Disinformation and Online Abuse Against Women in Politics in India”. At an online event launching the report, a panel explored how gendered disinformation – the spread of deceptive or inaccurate information and images against women leaders – is weaponized to undermine women’s political participation and gender equality. Notably, the report finds that current political leaders in India are involved in creating a culture of impunity for gendered disinformation.
As emerges from data from the Election Commission of India, only 723 out of 8000 candidates in the 2019 Indian general elections were female. An already low number, it is in fact the highest ever: the 2019 elections had the most women candidates in any election since India’s independence. However, as women’s political participation increases, so do attacks seeking to undermine their participation in the public sphere.
The report finds that the most vicious gendered disinformation campaigns target women from minority communities, women who advocate for minority rights and women who question the government or highly visible male leaders. The main actors spreading gendered disinformation, in turn, are “strongmen” political leaders and illiberal political actors, but also average people pulled into the net.
Angellica Aribam, a political activist and founder of FemmeFirst, joined the report launch to narrate her first-hand experiences with gendered disinformation attacks, which are also included in the report. “I have faced massive trolling, and when I go to the handles responsible and check who they are, it was once written that this person is ‘followed by Prime Minister Modi’. When you see things like that, you see that person feels impunity,” she noted. Angellica Aribam suggested that the solution must lie in a concerted effort by police, online platforms and political parties: “The onus lies on political parties to make sure that this does not happen. Sure, you can disagree, but you cannot threaten anyone with rape or share explicit images, like they did in my case. The onus lies on the parties to denounce such behaviour, and to revoke the positions of those members.”
Yet, the report launch event also noted the responsibility of social media platforms, and the urgent need for strong international regulation of platforms.
“This isn’t only a matter of bad things happening in society and being reflected on social media, this is about the design of social media platforms. They foster, incite and reward violence, abuse and disinformation, because social media platforms monetize the engagement derived by those horrible forms of abuse,” Lucina di Meco, lead author of the report and co-founder of #ShePersisted emphasised.
“In the last few years, we have encountered significant and systematic evidence that suggests that social media has provided a breeding ground for online abuse in the form of trolling, doxing and psychological manipulation,” said Dr Ritumbra Manuvie, lecturer in international law at the University of Groningen and Executive Director of Indian diaspora-led think tank The London Story, who moderated the report launch.
India is currently presiding over the G-20, a process that also involves engagement on gender equity. Through the Women-20 engagement group, India as the world’s largest democracy aims to lead the world’s largest economies towards a world of equality and equity, and towards the fulfilment of the Sustainable Development Goals. Among the goals is gender equality, which is a precondition for realising all goals in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.
In this context, the authors appealed to decision-makers and thought leaders in India to take the findings of the report seriously. As the world’s largest democracy is also becoming one of the largest markets for social media companies, what is happening in India has implications for the future of digital technology, democracy and women’s rights globally.
The report is part of the new series “Monetizing Misogyny” by #ShePersisted. To read the report: