As our young women come up in the world, they face a deluge of information online, much of which is contributing to their sense of safety, or lack thereof. A new report from Plan International helps to break down the ways that online disinformation is impacting the lives of girls ages 15 to 24 around the world.
The report, The Truth Gap, helps to explain how girls and young women in 33 countries are experiencing information they find online. The report discovered that one in five girls (20%) feels unsafe due to false information that comes from the internet.
The research surveyed over 26,000 girls between February 5 and March 19, 2021, and found that exposure to lies and mistruths are having a profound impact on how they engage with issues ranging from COVID-19 to politics.
“Being online opens up opportunities for girls to learn and connect, but being online is intrinsically dangerous for us as misinformation/disinformation continues to add back more barriers,” said Rohini, age 18, a co-author of the petition and a Plan Youth Advisory Board member.
The Truth Gap found that more than a quarter (28%) of girls and young women surveyed have been led to believe a myth or “fake fact” about COVID-19, and one in four (25%) have questioned whether to get vaccinated against the virus. One in five (19%) of the girls and young women surveyed said that mistruths have caused them to distrust election results. Eighteen percent of girls said that because of their distrust in online information, they have have stopped engaging in politics or current affairs.
“The internet shapes girls’ opinions about themselves and the issues they care about. Our research makes clear that the spread of false information online is dangerous. It affects girls’ mental health and it’s yet another obstacle holding them back from engaging in public life,” said Shanna Marzilli, Interim CEO of Plan International USA.
The survey found that Facebook was the social media platform that girls believe to have the most false information, selected by 65% of respondents, followed by TikTok, WhatsApp and YouTube.
The report also discusses the larger context of the harassment of women in politics and the disinformation being circulated about women political leaders at alarming degrees. From the report:
The body of research on disinformation and misinformation online is growing rapidly, but little of it applies a gender lens. It is revealing when you do: for example, false, sexualised information and images are used to target and discredit female politicians to a greater extent than male politicians. A recent analysis also found that, following Kamala Harris’s nomination for the 2020 vice presidency in the U.S., false claims about her were being shared at least 3,000 times per hour on Twitter, in a coordinated attack. Similarly, Amnesty International tracked abusive tweets towards all female MPs in the United Kingdom. This included disinformation as an insidious form of abuse where false narratives are designed to undermine personal and professional credibility. Half were directed at Diane Abbot, a Black female politician. This and the Kamala Harris example draw a direct correlation between disinformation, abuse and prejudice.
Given the disturbing findings of this report, Plan International USA is urging the Biden administration to ensure online freedom and protection from violence for girls. In particular, Plan is urging the Biden Administration to commit to convening a National Task Force on Online Harassment and Abuse. Young activists working through Plan have created a petition to rally support for girls on this critical issue.