This opinion piece was written by Eva Barboni, who is the founder & CEO of Atalanta, a social enterprise dedicated to increasing the number of women who hold senior government positions worldwide and tackling the root causes of gender inequality.
The channels for engaging with public officials have rapidly expanded with social media’s rise, creating enormous potential for direct communication between political leaders and the people they serve. At the same time, these platforms have opened up a new avenue for abuse and threats, lowering the barriers to harassment and often allowing the perpetrators to remain anonymous.
A disproportionate amount of this harassment is directed towards women. In a new report – “(Anti)Social Media: The Benefits and Pitfalls of Digital for Female Politicians” – we illustrate the scope of the problem, the impact it has on both female leaders and our broader democratic debate, and the solutions that can be implemented by a range of actors including governments and social media companies.
Patterns of gendered conversation and abuse
Conscious that online sentiment analysis is often based on inaccurate algorithms that can’t identify sarcasm and nuances in conversation, we deployed a toolset from BrandsEye, which combines machine learning with crowdsourced, manual review of content. This is the same toolset and approach that accurately predicted the outcomes of both the Brexit vote and the 2016 US presidential election, when many traditional pollsters got it wrong.
We looked at a range of categories of conversation about pairs of female and male leaders on three continents. Beyond just derogatory comments and abuse, we also looked at comments about political leaders’ appearance, marital status, children, and competence, in order to get a fuller picture.
The data showed that female political leaders had more comments in every single category we measured, and that those comments were also more negative than those directed toward their male counterparts. It also showed that nearly three-quarters of all comments about appearance and marital status were about women rather than men, and that only women faced comments about their competence in relation to their gender. While both male and female political figures received similar levels of derogatory comments, women were three times more likely to have those comments specifically reference their gender.
In short, it was clear that female political leaders face significantly greater levels of objectifying or personal comments and abuse than men.
The impact of online sexism and abuse
While comments about appearance or derogatory remarks are often dismissed as just the cost of doing politics, they have a detrimental impact on both the political leaders who are targeted and our democratic systems.
Comments about female candidates in particular have a few important implications: they delegitimise women as leaders, questioning their right to serve in political roles; they cause female leaders to depersonalise themselves, by raising the cost of sharing personal information; they intentionally distract them from focusing on more substantive work; they instil legitimate fear; and they can also dissuade them from engaging in public life.
They also have an impact on the perceptions of voters who view the content. A recent study showed that when voters read objectifying content about female political leaders online, they are much less likely to view those leaders as credible or serious.
Actions speak louder than tweets
Social media companies often face heavy criticism for their perceived failure to tackle the issue of online abuse. However, social media didn’t create the problem of sexism and violence against women, it simply exposes underlying biases and gives people a bigger platform to share them. Tackling the problem will require a coordinated approach, with candidates, political parties, social media companies, and government working together.
What governments can do
Governments can play a role in holding social media companies to account for improving their technologies for blocking and filtering abusive content and strengthening punishments for perpetrators. They can also play a convening role, fostering cross-party collaboration to provide support to officeholders and their staff.
What parties can do
Political parties should set clear guidelines for what is and is not acceptable for their candidates and members. They should also ensure that those guidelines are consistently enforced, and that independent bodies are established to review instances of abuse. Finally, they should provide more robust and frequent training for political leaders on how to handle abuse.
What social media companies can do
Social media companies should implement more effective solutions to block and filter abusive content, preventing posts that have been deleted from one account from simply popping up on another. They should also provide more consistent support and training to political parties, keeping them up to speed on new tools and tactics for handling abuse.
What we are doing
Despite the downsides, digital campaigning still provides considerable benefits for female candidates and leaders, enabling them to surmount the barriers that women still face when entering the public sphere. To help female candidates make the most of these benefits, we’re launching a new platform for women running for office. We hope it will help level the playing field and give women a new tool for making their voices heard.
If we are going to increase the number of women in senior leadership positions worldwide, we all need to work together to ensure that online abuse is removed from the long list of barriers to their success.
By Eva Barboni, Atalanta
(Picture credit: Flickr/Number 10)