New report examines social media abuse and disinformation targeting female politicians including Kamala Harris and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Justin Hendrix / Jan 25, 2021

Malign Creativity: How Gender, Sex, and Lies are Weaponized Against Women Online- a new report from The Wilson Center, a think tank, and Moonshot CVE, a firm that develops interventions to reduce violent extremism- presents an "analysis of online conversations about 13 female politicians across six social media platforms, totaling over 336,000 pieces of abusive content shared by over 190,000 users over a two-month period."

The subjects of the analysis include Vice President Kamala Harris, Senators Susan Collins and Kirsten Gillibrand; US Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elissa Slotkin, Ilhan Omar, Jaime Herrera Beutler, Elise Stefanik, and Lauren Underwood; Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer; as well as world leaders including New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, Canada's Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, and UK Secretary of State for the Home Department Priti Patel. Data was collected from Twitter, Reddit, Gab, 4chan, 8kun, and Parler.

During the period of data collection, between September 1st and November 9th, 2020, Vice President Kamala Harris was far and away the most targeted for the 13 subjects, drawing 78% of the total number of recorded instances.

Four of the women- Kamala Harris, Gretchen Whitmer, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Jacinda Ardern- were the target of narratives asserting they are secretly transgendered women, often including video as “proof”. For instance, in one widely shared photo, Vice President Harris is positioned next to an image of her alleged former identity, a man named "Kamal Aroush," which is in fact a photoshopped image of Harris. The researchers suggest the image originated as part of a QAnon campaign.

Keyword network of users interacting with transphobic terms towards Vice President Kamala Harris, including false claims she is actually a transgender woman formally known as 'Kamal Aroush'

The researchers also chronicle racialized and racist narratives, including ones targeting Representative Ilhan Omar, "whose Black and Muslim identities were weaponized to portray her as a dangerous foreign 'other.'" Referencing the prior work Amnesty International, the researchers note that "gendered harassment and disinformation campaigns against women of color online are greater in volume and more serious in tone than those that white women face."

Most of the subjects were the target of sexualized abuse. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is falsely accused of involvement in a sex cult, one of he main narratives employed against her on the six sites reviewed. Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is sexualized and fetishized in an endless variety of ways. On Reddit, users post calls for others to share sexual fantasies and other material about her, some of which are graphic and indeed violent.

The researchers examined a Subreddit network posting calls for sexual content (pink) and transphobic content (green) centered around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Importantly, the researchers observe a number of tactics- which they dub "malign creativity"- that abusive users employ to avoid detection by social media platform moderators, such as the use of coded language. They also consider the prevalence of gendered abuse and disinformation as a tactic by state actors, such as Russian propaganda outlet RT's targeting of Nicole Perlroth, a cybersecurity reporter for The New York Times.

Fundamentally, the researchers conclude that social media platforms are not taking substantial enough action to police gendered harassment and disinformation, and that their policies are inadequate to the scale and scope of the problem. "As they stand, platforms’ policies on 'targeted harassment' often do not adequately address the online abuse and gendered disinformation campaigns to which women in public life are subject," they note, pointing to poorly defined and misleading policies at Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Worse, the onus is on targeted women to detect and report harassment. “It is largely a content moderation problem that really puts the burden on the individual being attacked to report the harassment," said one woman interviewed.

In a press announcement, Nina Jankowicz, the Wilson Center’s Disinformation Fellow and lead author of the report, said: “In the past year alone I have been targeted with thousands of hateful messages attacking me on the basis of my gender. Too many of my colleagues face the same vitriol, simply for doing their jobs and expressing their opinions while women. Online misogyny may be the norm now, but we trust this report will lead to change that makes the internet a more equitable place for women's voices. Our democracy and national security depend on it."

Read the full report here. The Wilson Center will host an online launch event at 1pm ET on Monday, January 25th, 2020.


Justin Hendrix
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & ...