June 10, 2024

Gendered Disinformation in the European Parliamentary Elections

Politicians are frequently targets for harassment, abuse and disinformation campaigns online, but female politicians face a particularly acute risk. Women are singled out for abuse more often and the nature of these digital attacks is more vicious than ones directed at their male equivalents. Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that offline violence against female politicians is on the rise. The continuous stream of gendered disinformation and abuse can force prominent women out of the political sphere altogether, impacting democracy and women’s participation in the political arena. 

In 2024, nearly half of the world’s 8 billion people will head to the polls to vote and gendered disinformation has become particularly important in this election cycle. While nearly all countries fall short of equal gender representation in their political systems, the European Union boasts  39.9% female representation in Parliament, well above the global average of 26.9%. That figure, however, could change this week as a result of last week’s European Parliament elections amid a tidal wave of gendered disinformation. 

GDI observed a rise in online spreading of gendered abuse and disinformation about current female EU leaders and candidates in the past several months. These narratives include elements of misogyny, global conspiracies, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia as well as elements of foreign information manipulation and interference (FIMI). President of the EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen, faces particularly high levels of attacks, but the trend is widespread across member states and various candidates. 

Digital disinformation narratives against von der Leyen seek to sow civic discord by portraying her as “unelected,” incompetent and power-hungry. The observed narratives carried misogynistic undertones, implying that von der Leyen got the job through connections and backroom deals rather than her qualifications, and frequently included language casting doubt on the competency of women in politics in general. Additionally, by referring to von der Leyen as “unelected” - despite the fact that she was elected by the EU Parliament - these narratives seek to undermine the democratic basis of the European Union. 

Misogynistic narratives range from overt rhetoric belittling women running for public office to more insidious discourse, playing into existing social bias against women to portray female candidates as less qualified than their male counterparts. Hostile terminology such as “witches,” “hyenas” have been applied to female politicians alongside misogynistic slurs that have no male equivalent. Online perpetrators of these narratives frequently refer to female candidates with demeaning, diminutive titles and evaluate candidates based on their perceived attractiveness, mirroring similar campaigns waged against Greta Thunberg and other female climate activists. These narratives tend to portray women as both in need of assistance from male counterparts to perform their jobs, but also as master manipulators eager to lean on their womanhood to incur favours, sympathy and support. 

Reflecting global trends, female politicians of colour in the EU encounter higher levels of abuse and are targeted for disinformation more often than their white female counterparts. Black female MEPs faced targeted rhetoric describing them as un-European due to their skin colour, and were subject to racist slurs and other forms of hate speech. French MEP candidate Rima Hassan was frequently targeted for abuse based on her Palestinian background and naturalisation to French citizenship after immigrating from Syria. Narratives referred to her as a “jihadist terrorist” and “Islamic fanatic” seeking to infiltrate and “subvert” the EU. Some users demanded her deportation, despite the fact that she holds French citizenship and not Syrian, and accused her of treason. 

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine looming large over these elections GDI observed many gendered FIMI disinformation narratives - typically from Russia. Russian state-sponsored media frequently singled out von der Leyen for attack, spreading false claims about her alleged unethical conduct and corruption. These attacks followed a similar pattern to the misogynistic narratives outlined above in that they sought to depict von der Leyen as both incapable and expertly manipulative. The language used to refer to her was often belittling and disrespectful at best, but sharply abusive and rife with misogynistic slurs at worst. 

We do not know to what extent these gendered abuse and disinformation narratives have impacted EU voting choices, but even without that consideration, the impact on women in public life of digital gendered abuse is obvious and disheartening. In the UK alone, 19 women MPs decided to step down before the end of their term, explaining that online abuse was “a major factor” that motivated their decision. To avoid completely backsliding on women’s representation in this election and beyond, world leaders must pay attention to the kinds of gendered abuse and  disinformation being deployed across the web and take action to combat it.