Online Violence Against Women in Politics: A Threat to Democracy

December 8, 2023

Online violence against female politicians, which impacts women’s representation in political and other decision-making institutions, has various consequences that harm democracy. The impact of online violence goes against the fundamental tenets of democracy, presenting novel challenges to states and institutions in controlling and holding perpetrators accountable. Although there are outstanding issues in controlling and monitoring such violence, at the same time, there are possible solutions to limit its occurrence in the future. States and institutions must take a decisive and strict approach to these issues in order to protect women from harassment and other dangerous forms of cyberviolence.

In November 2017, Spanish prosecutors opened an investigation into several threats, use of derogatory language, and harassment towards the former mayor of Madrid, who is a woman. These illegal activities all stemmed from one source – an online group chat comprised of local police officers.

The aforementioned case is only one of thousands involving online violence against women in political power. Due to the accessibility and wide reach of cyberspace, the Internet and politics have formed a close and largely co-dependent relationship in the past decades. Some research even indicates a positive correlation between Internet usage and political engagement in Europe. However, and worryingly so, online political discourse has also morphed into a breeding ground for gender-based violence wherein women politicians are subject to constant harassment. The statistics reflect these concerns: Amnesty International reported that women in politics are 27 times more likely to face online abuse than men in equivalent political positions. There are far-reaching and highly detrimental effects of this practice. Online violence against women politicians impairs the functioning of a modern democratic society, and as such must be treated as an issue of great importance in policy-making.

The Chilling Impact of Online Violence on Women in Politics

A major problem caused by online violence is its stifling effect on representative democracy specifically. The essence of the latter lies in the existence of appointed representatives who reflect the demographic of the society, which would of course include women from all walks of life. However, the prevalence of online violence against women has discouraged many from aiming toward and accepting positions of political power. One of the typical examples of this is cyberbullying of women parliamentarians, which consists of the publication of disparaging posts, messages, or other online content. These posts often contain what is termed hate speech: discriminatory language against an individual based on their inherent characteristics, in this case, hatred based on one’s identity as a woman. The proportion of such attacks is worryingly high, with the Inter-Parliamentary Union reporting in a 2019 study that more than half of participating women parliamentarians in Europe and 42 per cent of those in the global study been targeted with “online sexist attacks on social networks”. While politicians are regularly scrutinized publicly by the nature of their position, the gender-based attacks on women politicians often take on a misogynistic undertone, including discriminatory comments on women’s role in decision-making and politics.

In addition to cyberbullying, female politicians face many other forms of online violence such as cyberstalking, doxxing (wherein private information is leaked to the public), and sexual harassment. The impact of these attacks goes even beyond the women targeted, as it creates a societal climate of ‘discrimination, exclusion and insecurity’ for women in politics. In turn, women are often reluctant to take on political responsibility, facing potential reputational damage and the psychological effects of such harassment. This phenomenon is particularly detrimental toward younger generations, as for many the Internet is the first or main platform in which they engage with political issues. Online violence is arguably an antithesis of representative democracy and it hinders the creation of state institutions that are truly representative of the female population.

Navigating the Challenge: Holding Perpetrators Accountable

Online violence against women in politics is problematic not just because of its prevalence, but also its monitoring and control – or lack thereof. A general issue in holding perpetrators of online violence accountable is anonymity, which is precisely the reason behind the high volume of attacks ‘hiding behind the screen’, as users operate behind completely customizable names and private details. In this case, democratic states often deal with conflicting rights, such as the right to free speech on the one hand and protection from discrimination on the other. However, there are specific challenges in the political sphere that women are exposed to, and these will be considered in turn.

In this regard, rapid technological development has led to a series of newer forms of gender-based violence such as deepfakes, hyper-realistic images, or videos of fake events. As they are almost undetectable, they are also more prone to impact the public’s perception of the subject shown in the image or video. This technology is being used at a much higher rate to target women, including those in political power. For example, a deepfake-generated video of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi depicting her intoxicated was rapidly spread across social media, including by politicians. Understandably, concerns have already been expressed about the staggering effect of these on democracy, particularly with such content being used to humiliate and silence women politicians. Thus, new discoveries must be monitored accordingly to prevent a large-scale democratic backslide in society at the hands of technology.

Another problem with controlling gender-based violence that is especially present in politics is the misinterpretation of harmful online behavior as “exercises of freedom of expression”. On one hand, one of the pillars of democracy is the right to express one’s opinion freely. Even the law on defamation makes certain exceptions from liability where a person speaks on a matter of public interest, even if it concerns politicians themselves. But despite the robust protection of freedom of expression, such interests need to be balanced with the prohibition of other conduct, e.g. hate speech. Furthermore, the right to be free from discrimination is also essential to democracy, and as such, it must take center stage in the fight against online gender-based violence. While constructive criticism of women politicians is important for accountability, online violence such as cyberbullying or doxxing cannot find protection under the umbrella of free speech. This is especially significant considering the gender-based element of the situation, in that women are much more likely to face severe or repeated online violence. Thus, while it remains difficult to draw a precise line between the allowance of free speech and the prohibition of online violence, strict policies must be placed to ensure that one’s right to free speech is not used as an excuse to facilitate harassment and bullying.

Addressing the Menace: A Call for Proactive Measures Against Online Gender-Based Violence

The proliferation of online violence against women is concerning and relentless. While a full analysis of the solutions to these problems is beyond the scope of this article, it can be said that countries and institutions must utilize knowledge from experts in the field and stay in touch with recent developments in order to keep up with the rapid technological advancements. These policies may also include close cooperation with social media websites so that potential and ongoing risks can be identified and eliminated as soon as possible. As far as the dilemma between protecting free speech and fighting cyberviolence is concerned, a precise demarcation of permitted online activity must be set by states and institutions to ensure that free speech is not used as a justification for harassment and other online violence.

Therefore, fighting online gender-based violence requires a hands-on approach, with strict limits placed by the authorities and regular implementation mechanisms that ensure problematic cases are swiftly detected and investigated.

Unmasking the Threat

It is evident that the prevalence of online violence against women has become a significant issue in modern society. In addition to contributing to broad societal regress and reinforcing discriminatory attitudes towards women, this form of violence has a detrimental effect on democracy as well. As aforementioned, the fear generated by online violence has been a discouraging factor for women in regard to applying to or accepting roles involving political power. Consequently, this reduces women’s representation in institutions or political positions. Furthermore, democratic societies are facing the dilemma of balancing the rights deriving from public positions with other competing interests, including the right to free expression.

In summary, online violence against women is extremely harmful to democracy and the fundamental principles it protects. Its psychological impact not only dissuades individual women from engaging in politics, but the absence of regulations in these areas also creates a power vacuum that opens the door to widespread abuse facilitated by technology.

It is imperative that legislators and other politicians place the issue of online violence against women at the top of their agenda, and that they develop robust policies for the sake of protecting women’s fundamental rights and the democratic order.

Author: Lea Meraku


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