A blog by the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy
Political Communication Summer Series #3
Today, the Bulletin Editorial Team is happy to kick off our summer series with policy briefs written by MPP students on topics of political communication in different settings worldwide. The articles are the result of a MPP course taught by Dr. Hasnain Bokhari in the summer semester. The course introduced fundamental concepts of political communication in highly interactive sessions. The six policy briefs will be published in couples of two, i.e. via three blogposts, so make sure to a) scroll down to not miss the second one of the day and b) tune in on Thursday and Friday of this week, as well, for parts 2 and 3 of our series.
Enjoy the break!
Florian and the Bulletin Editorial Team
1. Women in the age of fake news: Gendered Disinformation in Politics (Author: Julia Korn)
Women in the political sphere face a set of different challenges compared to their male counterparts. They are underrepresented, as parliaments around the world consist on average only of 26.5% women. In cabinet positions, that number is even lower and accounts to 22.8% (UN Women – Headquarters 2023). In addition, female politicians experience sexism, are often judged by their physical appearance or held to different standards than men. Former New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Arden was asked at a press conference in 2022 if she and Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin, who was visiting New Zealand with an economic delegation, were only meeting because they were of the same age and gender. Arden replied, that no one had ever asked Barack Obama and John Key, both former leaders of their countries, the same question (Spiegel 2022). Similarly, in 2017, after a meeting concerning Brexit between Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon, at the time prime ministers of England and Scotland, the British newspaper Daily Mail titled its article “Nevermind Brexit, who won Legs-it!”. Next to the headline, a photo of both politicians in skirts was visible (Malkin 2017).
Gendered Disinformation in Politics
Recently, another phenomenon has emerged which undermines political credibility: disinformation. Commonly called “fake news”, disinformation is misleading or false information, intentionally distributed to cause harm. Although there might be legitimate elements in videos or articles aiming at disinforming the public, they are often framed in a way to come to a wrongful conclusion (Pathak et al. 2021). Any politician can come under attack, disinformation however disproportionally affects women (Jankowicz et al. 2021). Therefore, a new field of research is “gendered disinformation”. Jankowicz et al. define gendered disinformation as using “false or misleading gender and sex-based narratives against women, often with some degree of coordination, aimed at deterring women from participating in the public sphere” (Jankowicz et al. 2021). Di Meco adds, that gendered disinformation is often based on ideas of misogyny and distrust for women in politics (Di Meco 2020). Furthermore, a study by the National Democratic Institute states that the aim of such disinformation is the promotion of political, economic or social objectives (Zeiter et al. 2019).
Since there is a growing number of people worldwide using the internet as a source of information about politics (Di Meco 2020), social media plays a key role for current and future female politicians to speak to their constituents, gain exposure and convey messages on their own terms (Jankowicz et al. 2021). Unfortunately, that also exposes them as a target for online attacks. According to an IPU study, 41.8% of female parliamentarians surveyed reported, that “extremely humiliating or sexually charged images” of themselves had been spread on social media (Filion 2016). Moreover, a different study showed that 9 out of 13 female politicians closely researched were targeted by gendered disinformation campaigns (Jankowicz et al. 2021).
Such disinformation campaigns can have serious consequences for the politician itself, but also for society in general. On an individual level, false and sexually charged information distract from content and policy debates, undermine credibility, and leave an image of a woman unfit to serve the public. As a result, working effectively becomes that much harder for her (Di Meco 2019). Moreover, observing women in politics being attacked based on their gender serves as a deterring example for potential future female politicians or girls interested in politics. Consequently, the gender imbalance in many parliaments remains the same (Blatnik 2023). Apart from the personal and equality standpoint, gendered disinformation also has an effect on democracy. For voters to take an informed and independent decision in elections, they must have access to accurate, impartial information. When facts are coupled with lies, debates framed in a misleading way and women discredited and sexualized, this is no longer the case. If disinformation influences people’s perception of candidates, the democratic process is undermined.
Disinformation Campaigns in the United States Presidential Elections
Gendered disinformation campaigns are not a side issue, they have reached the highest level of politics. In fact, they featured heavily in the United States Presidential elections 2016 and 2020.
In 2016, when Hillary Clinton competed against Donald Trump, two major disinformation campaigns were used against her. The first, titled “Pizzagate” claimed that Clinton was running a child sex ring in tunnels under a restaurant in Washington D.C. . Although this turned out to be false, #pizzagate and similar hashtags were shared approximately 1.4 million times between October and December 2016. In another instant, Clinton’s health and subsequently her ability to lead the country was questioned, after Donald Trump stated she did not have the “look” or the “stamina” to become president. A video of Clinton shaking her head was manipulated so it appeared as if she had had a seizure. This video and similar ones showing her coughing were circulated, creating the “Hillary Health Scare”. A keyword analysis conducted between August and December 2016 on Twitter and in news articles found, that keywords related to the two disinformation campaigns against Clinton, such as “ill”, “ugly” or “children” were shared about 30.000 times. In comparison, keywords relating to Donald Trump’s scandal of grabbing women by their genitals, were only shared about 5.000 times (Stabile et al. 2019). While there is no direct correlation between these scandals and Clinton losing the election, they did damage her reputation and undermine credibility.
Four years later, during the 2020 Democratic primaries, Di Meco tracked the behavior of Twitter users, focusing on which links they shared. She placed them on a two-dimensional graph, based on their bias, left-or right leaning, and their credibility, fake or credible. The results showed that the female candidates were more often attacked by accounts with far right ideologies and likelihood to share false information than their male competitors (Di Meco 2020).
An attack against women, but a concern for society at large
The implications thereof are not surprising, however still concerning. There is evidence (Haraldsson and Wängnerud 2019) suggesting that media sexism negatively effects the percentage of women in national parliaments, and as highlighted before, gendered disinformation is built on sexist ideas.
One of the women interviewed by Sobieraj for her book “Credible Threat – Attacks against women online and the future of democracy” stated the struggle as follows:
“In order to participate [professionally] you have to wade through all this filth and it [...] take[s] longer for women to just do the basic function of participating, and that’s even when you take out the fear for one’s safety, or the psychological effects it might have on you, or the stress that it causes.” (Sobieraj 2020)
When the burdens of participation for women in the political sphere reach a level that becomes unbearable, they will simply opt out. In order to reach full equality in politics, as well as in other professional fields, we must ensure to judge by results instead of gender and critically assess the origin of information.
Gendered disinformation is an attack against women, but a problem that is of concern for society at large.
Di Meco, Lucina (2020): Online Threats to Women’s Political Participation and The Need for a MultiStakeholder, Cohesive Approach to Address Them. Un Women. New York.
Filion, Brigitte (2016): Sexism, harassment and violence against women parliamentarians. InterParliamentary Union. Geneva.
Haraldsson, Amanda; Wängnerud, Lena (2019): The effect of media sexism on women’s political ambition: evidence from a worldwide study. In Feminist Media Studies 19 (4), pp. 525–541. DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2018.1468797.
Jankowicz, Nina; Hunchak, Jillian; Pavliuc, Alexandra; Davies, Celia; Pierson, Shannon; Kaufmann, Zoë (2021): Malign Creativity: How Gender, Sex, and Lies are Weaponized Against Women Online. The Wilson Center.
Pathak, Archita; Srihari, Rohini K.; Natu, Nihit (2021): Disinformation: analysis and identification. In Computational and mathematical organization theory 27 (3), pp. 357–375. DOI: 10.1007/s10588021-09336-x.
Sobieraj, Sarah (2020): Credible threat. Attacks against women online and the future of democracy: Oxford University Press. Available online at academic.oup.com/book/36620.
Stabile, Bonnie; Grant, Aubrey; Purohit, Hemant; Harris, Kelsey (2019): Sex, Lies, and Stereotypes: Gendered Implications of Fake News for Women in Politics. In Public Integrity 21 (5), pp. 491–502. DOI: 10.1080/10999922.2019.1626695.
Zeiter, Kirsten; Perpera, Sandra; Middlehurst, Molly (2019): Tweets That Chill: Analyzing Online Violence Against Women In Politics. Report of case study research in Indonesia, Colombia, and Kenya. With the assistance of Dr. Derek Ruths. National Democratic Institute.
2. A new deal for fact checking: need for public policy for fact checker independence (Author: Anandha Padmanabhan Vijaya Kumar)
Fact checkers identify, analyze and flag false content that circulates in the public sphere. Fact checkers emerged as key players in the public sphere following the Trump presidency and the covid pandemic where disinformation came to challenge the integrity of truth and knowledge in how people engaged with each other. This phenomenon was called the post truth where truth and objective knowledge was feared to be coming to an end. Fact checking has emerged as an integral practice during this period in the fight against disinformation.
Fact checking is increasingly being seen as an important tool in fighting the effects that disinformation has on various discourses in the public sphere like immigration, health, science, politics etc. In this way, fact checking efforts have tangible effects in safeguarding the health and integrity of the democratic processes of a society.
Overview of the current policies and collaboration between fact checkers and institutions
So far, European institutions have taken up policies that aimed at empowering the fact checker community. The European commission supported EDMO, or the European digital media observatory which brings various stakeholders together like the research community, academic institutions etc with the fact checker community. They also bring together important training tools, a large database of quality fact check created so far as well as weekly updated informatics in their website that consists of key trends in disinformation and misinformation as well as major fact checking developments.
EDMO has undoubtedly emerged as a quality repository for research, capacity building and training in the fact check world. One can safely say that there is a robust foundation over which pressing policy questions can be addressed.
Another equally important development in the global fact checking institutional infrastructure has been the development of the International Fact checker network (IFCN) under the Poynter Institute. IFCN brought the fact checker community into a global collaboration with each other. IFCN also pioneered the development of the code of principles which seeks to help establish standard fact checking methods.
Another key collaboration between European institutions and fact checkers is the 2022 Code of Practice on Disinformation which was developed in consultation with its signatories in an effort to develop the basic principles of fact checking.
There are many concerns facing the fact checking Industry. Chief among them are the concerns regarding Independence, opacity of algorithms and editorial influences that form the basis of their fact checker- social media company relationship.
Opaque influence over editorial practices of Fact checkers:
Meta retains the right to exclude and include categories of stories from being considered for fact check through their community guidelines. A major controversy emerged when facebook's misinformation rules were relaxed for conservative users which is likely to have an impact on climate denial, transphobia and other unscientific information. Meta also retains the finality of the verdict regarding fact checker efforts and has reportedly interfered with the final verdict by fact checkers many times.
There is already an existing concern about the general design of algorithms by companies like Facebook which recommends content to users that trigger political polarization. (Jaeho Cho, 2020). It is only a reasonable concern that these algorithms may also run the risk of enabling disinformation and misinformation.
The functioning of algorithms which flags the stories for fact checkers are themselves opaque. A list is made after considering the data gathered automatically that identifies false information in social media, Fact checker choices themselves and the flagging of misinformation by the broader community who uses these platforms. However, it is unclear what categories of data are considered and prioritized by the algorithm and whether they leave out data that are lucrative and align with the business interest of Meta. (Mike Annany, 2018)
Case in point is a report on Partnership press by Mike Annany in his investigative research on the nature of partnership between facebook and fact checking partners which reveals that functioning of the largely algorithm driven dashboard system of facebook which flags content for fact check within its digital universe, is highly opaque to the fact checkers. Several fact checkers revealed that it never shows content by conspiracy theory pages like info wars or by commercial advertisers who use misinformation to sell their products. Among many other gray zones, this dashboard system could very well be designed so as to not disturb the profit interest of Facebook.
Further, a recent study reveals that people's perceptions of the Facebook newsfeed algorithm's FAT increase their negative attitudes toward vaccination that may result in vaccination hesitation. (Eduardo D. Villacis Calderon, 2023)
IFCN guidelines themselves are insufficient as the body is reluctant to call out the interference of funding partners and instead only urge them to utilize the code. Such interference, if any, are also likely affected by Non- disclosure agreements between funding partners and fact checkers and in effect works to hide the influence that corporate funders have on fact checkers, from public scrutiny. There is also the assessment that the International fact check Network themselves receiving funding by Meta may put the network in a conflicting position. That is, receiving funding from the same organizations which they are supposed to monitor.
Funding Independence: fact checkers and their International body is increasingly funded by the very organizations they are meant to hold accountable. More than 45.2% of total funding for fact checker world come from Meta, previously facebook. 29% percent of the funding comes from grants, 6.5% from donations and membership subscriptions, 1.1% from advertisement revenues, 2.2%.from tik tok, 2.2% from academic institutions and the remaining 1.1% from training. This raises important concerns about the independence of fact checkers. However, this question is highly neglected in research and policy deliberations.
From a regulatory perspective, some have called for more regulatory oversight over the funding partners of fact checkers who seem to have tangible influences over the editorial choices, final verdict to act on fact checks and maybe even the overall policies and industry monitoring practices of fact checker communities themselves.
Notably, researcher of disinformation at Northeastern University's Civic AI lab, Mohamed Suliman called for a fact checking Independence Act. He makes his case by drawing from the information available in public domain gathered by experts, journalists and researchers on how the partnership between Meta and fact checkers have affected the Independence of the latter.
He calls for fact checking to be made into a public common where fact checkers retain complete Independence with regards to the following. (Mohamed Suliman, 2023)
Full editorial control of the choice of story by fact checkers should be ensured through regulation.
Addressing the opaque process regarding the section of stories for fact checks: This calls for fact checkers and the general public to have full transparency to the working of the algorithms that determine the dashboard system of content selection.
More research needs to be undertaken to explore how this dashboard can serve a true common objective rather than the financial interests of the company. This may also involve future steps to improve the dashboard system in a way that can fight disinformation and misinformation on wider typologies. For example, addressing gendered disinformation aimed at women and other gender minorities. (Jankowicz, 2021)
Funding Independence: Funding Independence is a highly neglected area of study and policy deliberation. While a fact checkers Independence act calls for Independent funding for fact checkers, there is not much deliberation as to how. This needs to be deliberated by the policy space more deeply. Calls for direct government funding needs to be weighed against the challenges to its independence from government control itself and sufficient checks and balances should be conceived against the possible weaponization of fact checkers by the government for partisan, geopolitical purposes. Policy dialogues should also explore the possibility of an Independent international fund aimed at supporting fact checkers and utilizing regulatory frameworks such as mandatory Corporate social responsibility laws, taxation and other avenues to regularize contribution of funds by media and social media companies into an Independent fund that is governed by the fact check community themselves.
Ultimately, there needs to be the highest level of consensus and clarity on the purpose of fact checkers as a community committed to holding stakeholders of democracy, state, economy in the political, social and economic process of modern society to the highest standards of objective truth and factual rigor. Every consideration should flow out of this basic presumption. And bold commons based solutions should be explored for achieving this goal.
Han Lin, Yonghwan Kim, Learning from disagreement on social media: The mediating role of like-minded and cross-cutting discussion and the moderating role of fact-checking, Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 139, 2023, 107558, ISSN 0747-5632, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2022.107558.
Mingfei Sun, Xiaoyue Ma, Combating health misinformation on social media through fact-checking: The effect of threat appraisal, coping appraisal, and empathy, Telematics and Informatics, Volume 84, 2023, 102031, ISSN 0736-5853, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tele.2023.102031.
Jingwen Zhang, Jieyu Ding Featherstone, Christopher Calabrese, Magdalena Wojcieszak, Effects of fact-checking social media vaccine misinformation on attitudes toward vaccines, Preventive Medicine, Volume 145, 2021, 106408, ISSN 0091-7435, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2020.106408.
Oscar Barrera, Sergei Guriev, Emeric Henry, Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, Facts, alternative facts, and fact checking in times of post-truth politics, Journal of Public Economics, Volume 182, 2020, 104123, ISSN 0047-2727, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpubeco.2019.104123.
Jaeho Cho, Saifuddin Ahmed, Martin Hilbert, Billy Liu & Jonathan Luu (2020) Do Search Algorithms Endanger Democracy? An Experimental Investigation of Algorithm Effects on Political Polarization, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 64:2, 150-172, DOI: 10.1080/08838151.2020.1757365,
Eduardo D. Villacis Calderon, Tabitha L. James, Paul Benjamin Lowry, How Facebook's newsfeed algorithm shapes childhood vaccine hesitancy: An algorithmic fairness, accountability, and transparency (FAT) perspective, Data and Information Management, 2023, 100042, ISSN 2543-9251, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dim.2023.100042.
Jankowicz, Nina; Hunchak, Jillian; Pavliuc, Alexandra; Davies, Celia; Pierson, Shannon; Kaufmann, Zoë (2021): Malign Creativity: How Gender, Sex, and Lies are Weaponized Against Women Online. The Wilson Center.
About the Author
Hello everybody, my name is Julia Korn and I am from Germany. Prior to my Master studies in Public Policy here in Erfurt, I completed a dual studies program in Business Administration at the Hamburg School of Business Administration. During the practical phases of this degree, I worked for a big European energy provider in the sales department. My interest areas are foreign policy, transnational cooperation and international trade. I hope to work in the Diplomatic sector or a part of the government at some point in my career.
Anandhapadmanabhan (They/Them) is a Public policy student and a legal practitioner with background in project coordination in social sector on gender justice, disaster management and pedagogy and curriculum reforms. They are also active in politics with a focus on the quality of democracy in India, as well as working closely with the student movement with the objective of ensuring universal equitable education to everyone and addressing caste, gender and class discrimination in educational spaces.
~ The views represented in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the Brandt School. ~