December 4, 2020

by Maria Giovanna Sessa, Researcher at EU DisinfoLab

False information during the COVID-19 pandemic and parallel infodemic has revealed itself to be persistent, resilient, strategic, and adaptive. Over these many months, certain topics have resurfaced under the guise of current events. At EU DisinfoLab, we have been tracking how misogynistic narratives have been retrieved and adapted to fit within the mis- and disinformation landscape around COVID-19 – an event which has had a disproportionately negative impact on women’s rights. This report adopts a disinformation methodological lens to look at examples of gendered disinformation – specifically disinformation that relies on negative depictions of women – circulating during the pandemic.

The main takeaways from our analysis are:

  • COVID-19 has confirmed the tendency of disinformation to adapt to the surrounding context. This stickiness applies to gendered disinformation in a transversal manner that affects various countries.
  • Misogynistic narratives tend to produce either a negative representation of women as enemies and opponents in public debate or a pitiful depiction of women as victims, often in order to push a social or political agenda. 
  • Character-related disinformation has been leveraged systemically to undermine women’s political commitments. For example, we look at how the conspiracy belief that a small group has an ill-intentioned, hidden agenda was applied to female politicians during International Women’s Day demonstrations.
  • As COVID-19 has created economic hardships that call for emergency financial measures, disinformation has sought to present female politicians as incapable of prioritising relevant policies and thus unfit for decision-making.
  • Misogynistic disinformation is often combined with different audience-dividing topics in order to polarise public opinion. 
  • Disinformation taking aim at women is not merely a “women’s issue”, but has a detrimental effect on civil rights and democratic institutions as a whole. It also means a chilling of freedom of expression for women and gender rights proponents and political advocates.

Defining gendered disinformation 

Gendered disinformation can be understood as the dissemination of false or misleading information attacking women (especially political leaders, journalists and public figures), basing the attack on their identity as women (e.g. Jankowicz, 2017; Barker and Jurasz, 2019; Di Meco, 2019; Stabile et al., 2019). The techniques for diffusing gendered disinformation are diverse and include misogynist comments that reinforce gender stereotypes, sexualisation and the diffusion of graphic contents, online harassment and cyber-attacks. Gendered disinformation has the effect of perpetuating a negative perception of women in society: it undermines women’s credibility in occupying positions of power ,discourages women from participating in the public debate, and serves to silence women in general. This research focuses specifically on misogynistic disinformation, with the recognition that gendered disinformation is a wider concept.

Our Research

Our cross-national analysis of fact-checked news shows a transversal trend in gendered disinformation against the background of COVID-19. For this reason, findings should be evaluated as the outcome of internationalized strategies and trends rather than single isolated episodes of misogyny. This report calls for recognition of the bigger picture and acknowledgement that disinformation against women is not merely a “women’s issue”, but has a detrimental effect on civil rights and democratic institutions as a whole (Di Meco, 2020). In order to understand the deeply negative consequences of misogyny on democracy, we can look at the Russian propaganda war against Lukashenko’s opponent Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Belarus, accused of being a sockpuppet of the West, to delegitimize political opposition. 

The media has a fundamental role in producing and reproducing social and cultural norms which influence equality. Accordingly, media sexism is defined in terms of “under- or misrepresentation of women, leading to a false portrayal of society through a gendered lens” (Haraldsson and Wängnerud, 2018). A widespread phenomenon, media sexism also affects false news that is spread online across news outlets and social media. Sources of disinformation tend to address salient issues in a credible way, so as to polarise public opinion and strengthen a given perspective, narrative, or ideology. If sexism is present in society, then it is likely to appear within the mis- and disinformative landscape as well. Indeed this is what our research has shown during the case of COVID-19.

Focusing exclusively on false information that relies on a false or misleading images of women in the pandemic context, we notice that the narratives tend to produce either:

  • A negative representation of women as enemies, in order to fuel the public debate;
  • A pitiful depiction of women as victims in order to push an alternative agenda.

Of course, the borders between these categories are sometimes blurred. However, both aim to achieve an emotional response in their audiences, whether through anger or compassion.

Women framed as responsible for the spread of COVID-19: The case of the 8M Demonstration 

The International Women’s Day (8M) in Spain offers a clear example of the deliberate search for direct causation among spurious events that is typical of conspiratorial narratives. The manifestation created the perfect storm to present gender issues as a threat to the community, exploiting public safety concerns related to the virus. The protest was the subject of by far the largest campaign of gendered disinformation encountered in a single country during the period considered.

As the pandemic imposed unprecedented social distancing measures, a number of outlets produced biased coverage of the 8M celebration in Spanish cities, pointing to the event as responsible for an acceleration of the pandemic. Although social gatherings are undoubtedly hot spots for the spread of the virus, disinformation was more fixated on the prejudiced portrayal of the feminist movement and its adherents as plague spreaders or law-breakers, rather than concern about health risks. Importantly, this protest was authorised and preceded the declaration of the state of emergency in the country. 

In their recent research, Vegetti and Mancosu (2020) distinguish between issue-related and character-related disinformation. The women’s protest seems to fit both categories; from an issue-based perspective, the pandemic offered an excuse to undermine feminism and gender equality by attacking the event. In addition, 8M offered the chance for character-based campaigning against female politicians, in order to diminish the value of their work and challenge their capability as democratic representatives. Fabricated evidence that 8M increased the spread of the virus included the false allegation that Irene Montero, the Minister of Equality, had deleted tweets related to the event after testing positive to COVID-19. 

To strengthen the image of these political opponents as dishonest towards their constituents, a manipulated video went viral of Montero coughing during the event. Accused of participating in the mobilization despite already having symptoms, the politician was blamed for prioritising her personal agenda over the health of her fellow citizens. 

The conspiracy belief that a small group has an ill-intentioned, hidden agenda was applied to female politicians during the demonstration. Female politicians wore purple gloves during the 8M parade as a security measure against the coronavirus, but a conspiracy theory claimed that they failed to warn other participants to do the same. This conspiracy was echoed by Vox leader Santiago Abascal, whose party adopted a mixture of “machismo and confessional conservatism” as an electoral strategy. Indeed, the far-right party celebrates the patriarchy embedded in traditional values that fosters hatred towards vocal women. Andrei Yeliseyeu has made a similar assessment regarding Belarus: “the ‘patriarchy’ is one of the traditional values, one of the bonds that are promoted by Russian propaganda.”

Women portrayed as victims to push other COVID-19 disinformation narratives

At the same time as women were portrayed as responsible for the pandemic, contradictory misogynistic narratives framed women excessively as helpless victims of this crisis. This duality shows that consistency is not essential to disinformative narratives, and that a range of messages can be deployed at once, for different objectives. The underlying belief that women are fragile and in need of male protection is known as “benevolent sexism” (Glick and Fiske, 2001); this can exploit sentimental reactions to push another agenda. For instance, a desperate mother caught crying on camera because the pandemic left her unemployed and homeless is really used to criticise the government, or the mass fainting of two hundred innocent Colombian girls becomes leverage for vaccine hesitancy. The resulting perception is that women are dragged into the conversation to make a point about something else, without real concerns over their actual struggles.

Women accused of pushing a secret gender equality agenda

Sources of misinformation have spread with alarm the false belief that, under the cover of the pandemic, an underground operation of ideological manipulation is taking place. The dispute specifically revolved around the rejection of traditional gender norms. In Italy, anti-abortion activists on social media and anonymous sources on instant messaging apps diffused the misleading news that the government Task Force for the post-pandemic recovery was secretly introducing gender theory into the school curriculum. The claim originated from a programme document aimed at promoting gender equality through concrete initiatives in schools to overcome harmful stereotypes about girls (e.g. offering STEM and sport courses for girls, education on the safe use of social media to avoid cyberbullying and public awareness initiatives towards parity).

Furthermore, false news is sometimes conveyed in the form of twisted data about gender issues, so that a legitimate concern is trivialised and perceived as non-urgent. For instance, a screenshot was circulated on Spanish social media, presenting fabricated statistics according to which, out of 128 minors that had died at the hands of their parents, 72 were killed by their mother, but “the Ministry of Equality only publishes the 39 (murders) carried out by men”. This type of content is harmful on multiple levels: not only is it untrue, as there are no official statistics on the number of minors who are victims of homicide and their relationship with (or the gender of) the perpetuator; it also undermines the conversation on domestic violence against women, which has been defined as “a pandemic within a pandemic” (Evans et al., 2020), as experts and activists have raised concerns about the dramatic increase of domestic violence during the lockdown. 

Character-related disinformation has been leveraged systemically to undermine women’s political commitments. This tactic has been the object of many studies that investigate female underrepresentation in politics (e.g. Hedlund et al., 1979; Dahlerup, 2006; Elder, 2008). The political activities led by women are often ridiculed and discussed in terms of superficial aesthetic corrections in the face of “more serious problems” that the country is facing.  As COVID-19 has created economic hardships that called for emergency financial measures, disinformation has aimed at presenting female politicians as incapable of prioritising relevant policies and thus unfit for decision-making. On the contrary, many countries under female leadership were deemed more successful in tackling the pandemic. Looking at the earlier lockdowns implemented by female-led countries such as New Zealand, Taiwan and Germany, Garikipati and Kambhampati (2020) suggest that women leaders have been more risk-averse regarding potential human losses rather than negative economic consequences due to early confinement. Moreover, women in politics often display a more participative approach that is compatible with higher levels of empathy, which some interpret as weakness or excessive sensitivity (Eagly and Johnson, 1990). As one illustration of this: disinformative outlets have directly twisted the call for inclusivity made by Italian congresswoman Laura Boldrini during COVID-19. Retrieving Boldrini’s linguistic battle to use a feminine declination of titles where the masculine form is usually employed (e.g. ‘sindaca’ for female mayor instead of ‘sindaco’), a conservative newspaper accused her of wanting female pronouns in the self-declaration form (which one needed to carry to go to outside during the lockdown). Meanwhile, claims were made that Spanish politicians Irene Montero and Beatriz Gimeno had spent hundreds of thousands of euros on “feminist stickers” to promote gender equality during the pandemic.

Double standards and differential treatment of women 

Because gendered disinformation draws on pre-existing misogynist attitudes, it can also have the effect of framing the information in a biased manner. One such example: the liberation of Silvia Romano, after 18 months of captivity between Somalia and Kenya in the hands of Al Shabaab militias, dramatically polarised the Italian public debate in the middle of the COVID-19 lockdown. As the pandemic unfolded and patience among the involved difficulties grew thin, old sentiments of misogyny and xenophobia found fertile ground. 

Rumours about a million-euro ransom paid in a period of national financial stress triggered a massive online campaign fueling resentment towards the young woman. Another claim was made by a notorious disinformer that the government had authorised the payment of the ransom with the coronavirus layoff funds. Moreover, Romano’s conversion to Islam and consequent public appearance with her head covered generated a flurry of hate speech accusing her of complicity with her captors. Alongside unsubstantiated gossip about her being married to one of her guards, public figures called for her arrest on charges of terrorism, as “she converted to terrorism rather than Islam”

Multiple misogynist perspectives emerge from this episode, which also intersects with an islamophobic viewpoint. In line with the tendency to infantilize women and deny them agency over their decisions (e.g. Carlson, 2010; Huot, 2013), Silvia Romano is portrayed as a naïve girl who got herself into trouble abroad. At the same time, there is fear and mistrust of her behavior, and resentment that she betrayed her country’s values and adopted the faith of the oppressor. Hence, it is a short step from foolish victim to guilty party.

Unnoticed by public opinion, differential treatment – including the right to be forgotten – was offered to the three male hostages who Italy liberated from terrorists over the past year. Below, screenshots of titles taken from the same newspaper reveal the different tone used for Romano and her male counterparts. The biased coverage conducted by extreme right re-informative media further corroborates the gendered nature of the Romano case, particularly compared to a male security officer captured and killed in Iraq, who “did not convert to Islam and died as an Italian”

“Silvia Romano landed in Italy. But mystery surrounds her conversion. Once freed she refused to change her clothes. Had she really married one of her captors?”

“Mali, Italian, kidnapped 15 months ago, is released. Luca Tacchetti and Canadian Edith Blais were freed in Northern Mali. The two had disappeared in December 2018 in an area of Burkina Faso known to be a stronghold of the local Islamic State cell”

“Alessandro Sandrini, the Italian kidnapped in Syria in 2016, is released. The ‘salvation government’ linked to the Qaedists of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham announces the release of the Italian hostage Alessandro Sandrini. Prime Minister Conte: ‘Released at the end of a complex intelligence activity’”

“Syria, Sergio Zanotti freed. The entrepreneur was kidnapped by a group close to Al Qaeda in 2016. Conte: ‘He is fine and will soon be in Italy’”

Women as the transmitters of disinformation

Gendered disinformation tends to reflect and exploit the stereotypes that already exist in the general public. Our research shows that the medium itself can leverage gendered biases as well as the message shared. In line with culturally prescribed gender roles that see women as assistants, caretakers or teachers (Brody and Hall, 2008), we registered that in Italy, the 12 disinformative audio messages verified by fact-checkers between March and May, 7 (58%) relied on a woman’s voices as the transmitter, who was also identified as an insider or expert. Female doctors, nurses and relatives of medical staff (usually impostors, occasionally real) claimed to have insights that differed from the information provided by mainstream sources. Indeed, there are paralinguistic cues that better correspond to a woman’s tone of voice, whether this is spontaneous or deliberate. Since telephone operators have traditionally been female, people are used to getting assistance from a female voice, perceived as helping rather than commanding. Moreover, this practice resonates with the tendency of disinformation to use female images on fake accounts.

Merging gendered disinformation and anti-vaccine claims

In the realm of false information, it is common for different narratives to overlap, to merge, and to draw on or recycle previous narratives. The reasons for this include the complexity of the system in which these sources operate, the aspiration to trigger emotional responses, and the fact that people who believe one conspiratorial or manipulated message are more likely to believe others as well (Goertzel, 1994). Therefore, as a final category of misogynistic misinformation, we address the superimposition of different audience-dividing topics in order to polarise public opinion. 

Vaccine hesitancy has populated the misinformative ecosystem during COVID-19, framing the vaccine as either an opportunity for pharmaceutical companies to make a profit or an excuse for a hidden government scheme of social control and even population cleansing. In May, a survey revealed that 41% of Italian respondents would not get the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine if it were available. This demonstrates the degree to which disinformation is consequential, as has a concrete impact on social interaction, health and security (Prooijen and Douglas, 2018).

In this context, a global trend consisted of the diffusion of groundless warnings on the ingredients contained in the experimental vaccine, which allegedly presented traces of cells from aborted foetuses (examples of this from France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the United States). Misinformation regarding the use of foetal cell tissues for vaccine manufacturing is far from new, dating back to the 1960s. At the time, researchers managed to isolate the rubella virus from aborted foetal tissues, which were donated to science by infected women who freely opted to end the pregnancy in view of the heavy physical and mental damage rubella would cause the child. Once the cell line was successfully reproduced in the laboratory, women’s foetal tissues were no longer needed to create the vaccine. Nevertheless, the stigma remains to this day, worldwide, and the anti-vax community has instrumentalized this connection to condemns women’s abortion rights. 

Istanbul Convention under attack

Beyond Covid-19, there is another important layer of context shaping the social and political environment in which this research was conducted: that of pushback led by several right wing populist leaders against women’s rights, as they are enshrined in the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (also known as the Instanbul Convention). Far-right populist and ultra-conservative rhetoric led by politicians in Poland, Turkey, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Slovakia – much of it co-opting religious discourse – is reframing the Convention as a sinister liberal attempt to impose a “gender ideology”. In Europe, politicians are taking aim at the Convention using disinformation tactics, including by framing the Convention itself as a product of social engineering. Elsewhere in this report we noted allegations of a “gender ideology” being spread in school curricula in Italy, evidence that this rhetoric is part of a cross-cutting, cross-border misogynist narrative. Though the focus of this research is on misogynistic disinformation related to Covid-19 specifically, it is critical to recognize this surrounding geopolitical climate in which misogynistic propaganda is emerging as an international phenomenon. This second context shows that that the occurrence of misogynistic disinformation is wide and more is needed to investigate and respond to it. 

Concluding remarks and recommendations

COVID-19 has confirmed the tendency of disinformation to adapt to the surrounding context. We showed that this stickiness applies also to gendered disinformation in a transversal manner that affects various countries. In conclusion, we make the following recommendations.

  • Acknowledge the phenomenon of gendered disinformation. A crucial first step to fighting gendered disinformation is to recognise misogynistic campaigns as an articulate and consistent phenomenon rather than a series of isolated events. Researchers should be attentive to this phenomenon and its implications. 
  • Maintain gender as a lens when analysing disinformation. Misogyny will often intersect with other biases, because disinformation tends to overlap with different narratives. Gender must be accounted for and not overlooked beside other phenomena at play. Gender may often be a subtle factor. Researchers looking to detect this element should ask themselves: would the news be told differently if it did not involve a woman? (The Romano case analysed here is a clear example of this differential coverage).
  • Address less visible agendas beneath gendered disinformation. Misogynistic misinformation during the pandemic has instrumentally depicted women as public enemies or helpless victims in order to achieve other political objectives. Looking for counter-examples might help reveal ulterior motives behind the disinformation. For instance, the concerns about the spread of the virus raised during the Spanish 8M were absent during the anti-government marches organised in the country two months later. Similarly, while the damsel in distress narrative was used to attack healthcare policies, alternative detrimental initiatives have been conducted under the cover of the virus, e.g. the ban on abortions imposed in a number of American states, suddenly categorised as non-essential services during the emergency. It is critical to identify and address the other political and social issues that may be motivating gender-based disinformation. 
  • Challenge the double standard underlying gendered disinformation. Disinformation plays on beliefs present in society, and so addressing this kind of disinformation also requires a social approach. It remains necessary to address the root causes of misogyny in addition to its echos in the information landscape.

Disinformation takes away agency from the group it attacks, whether silencing dissenting voices or suppressing the possibility to recognise, measure and address a key problem. Critically questioning the sources, messages and communication tools encountered is fundamentally relevant for the purpose of fighting gender-based disinformation and breaking this vicious circle that disproportionately affects women, but which has implications for democracy, political participation and free expression broadly.