Social media and elections: Helpful or hurtful to women?

By Alexis Weaver

September 13, 2019   |   0 comments

Erin Schrode, who was running for Congress in her Northern California district in 2016, reports that while she was running, she would wake up each morning to countless abusive messages on her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Erin Schrode is far from alone. 

Although women around the world are increasingly playing more of a significant role in the political processes of their countries, they continue to face immense obstacles. As the roles women have traditionally played evolve, unfortunately, so does the violence that is committed against them.

Violence against women in elections is a specific form of violence used to prevent women from exercising their voice and agency in the democratic process. Electoral violence can have a disproportionately higher impact on women because they often occupy a subordinate status in society and are more vulnerable to attacks.

Although election violence is not unique to women, they often experience it differently than men. Much of this violence is sexual in nature and, during the electoral cycle, it tends to intensify. Attackers and trolls weaponize and question women’s sexual and moral purity during elections as a means of intimidation. This violence degrades, demoralizes, and shames female victims with the purpose of excluding them from the electoral process. This harms the integrity of the electoral process, and ultimately, undermines democracy.

Online attacks

As public debate and politics has moved online with the growth of social media, so too has election-related violence against women. According to the UN, around 95 percent of online abuse is aimed at women. Research shows that social media has become the number one place in which psychological violence is carried out against female politicians.

Women frequently cite widespread, rapid public attacks on their personal dignity as a factor deterring them from entering politics.

The ease that social media provides for perpetrators to attack women has changed the way psychological violence is carried out during the election cycle. Perpetrators are able to attack and abuse women with relatively little effort and often without having to face any consequences.

The abuse that women candidates, politicians, voters and others face online during the election cycle is often a reflection of implicit sexual attitudes that are normalized and widely accepted in every day society. Many aspects of everyday culture imply that women are beneath men and that they are sexual objects for men’s pleasure. These sexual attitudes are manifested in the violence that women face online. Much of this online abuse includes direct or indirect threats of physical or sexual violence (typically rape), discriminatory/sexist taunting, and privacy violations such as doxing or sharing sexual or intimate images of a woman without her consent.

Although the full impact of the use of social media to commit violence against women in an election context is difficult to measure, the sexism and abuse women face online often discourages them from political engagement. Women frequently cite widespread, rapid public attacks on their personal dignity as a factor deterring them from entering politics. Not only does the violence that women face during elections impact democratic participation today, but it also has major impacts on the future political participation of girls and young women who witness that abuse that many women face during elections.

Violence against women on social media occurs, to varying degrees, in every country during the election cycle. With social media growing around the world, especially in developing countries, violence against women in elections on social platforms will likely become more common and continue to replace other forms of psychological violence that women have traditionally faced during elections. Not taking this type of violence on social media seriously and allowing it to continue can have significant electoral impacts, especially in a world where social media’s influence has a global reach.  

The way forward

Violence against women in elections perpetrated on social media is undoubtedly a complex phenomenon, but there are concrete actions we can take to address it.

  1. Forecast the probability that a social media attack will occur against women in elections. Forecasting should be conducted through a crowdsourcing software platform where a pool of experts will be asked to provide responses to a specific set of questions related to social media violence against women in elections. Then, their responses will be weighted. Forecasting is a useful tool to prevent violence from happening to women on social media.
  2. Monitor and document abusive and violent social media posts toward women during elections. Documenting would be helpful in organizing a database allowing experts to analyze the different patterns and correlations associated specifically with election-related violence against women on social media.
  1. Educate individuals about violence against women in elections on social media. Education is an important aspect of programming in order to respond to and correct this violence on social media, while also informing people of its effects. Informing both officials and the public about violence against women in elections and how it manifests could help better prepare involved parties and prevent the use of social media to spread violence.
  2. Hold perpetrators accountable to reduce the culture of impunity associated with electoral violence against women on social media. Electoral management bodies should engage with social media companies in order to block and quickly remove offending posts and to deactivate accounts that are engaged in this type of violence. Perpetrates who have broken the law should be prosecuted. The cooperation of social media organizations is key in addressing the violence against women in elections that occurs on their networks.

Alexis Weaver is studying Public Policy and International Affairs at The Bush School of Government & Public Service and participated in an internship with Creative’s Electoral Education and Integrity Practice Area.

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