Much has been written about fake news, bots, Internet trolls, and the gamut of tech-driven media manipulation that ranges from ad-hoc hoaxes to systematic attempts to hijack civil and political discourse. But there has been a lacuna in this coverage: gender, and the ways in which female politicians are victims of “gendered disinformation.”
In the report “Women, Politics & Power in the New Media World,” gender expert and women’s rights advocate Lucina Di Meco tries to fill this gap. “Millions of dollars are being spent on programs looking at democracy and technology,” she writes. “Almost none of them factors in women in politics. It’s infuriating and doesn’t make any sense.”
The study was published in Fall 2019, and includes interviews with 85 women political leaders (including three former Prime Ministers and one former president) hailing from 30 countries around the world, in both the Global South and Global North. The report also includes extensive analysis of various forms of media, traditional and digital.
Di Meco states that an AI driven analysis of 2020 primary coverage “shows that female candidates are attacked more often than male candidates by trolls/fake news accounts/bots.” She notes that anecdotal evidence suggests the same is happening elsewhere as well. “All it takes is a fake story and smear campaign fabricated by a journalist to ruin years of hard work,” Di Meco quotes former Malawian president Joyce Banda as saying.
New media is both a blessing and a curse for female politicians. According to Di Meco’s study:
While they recognized the benefits of being online, the majority of female politicians and experts interviewed for this study reported being extremely concerned about the pervasiveness of gender-based abuse (ranging from insults to death treats) in the digital space as a real barrier for women who want to engage in politics.
Emails, blogs and social media platforms have provided new channels for misogyny and gender-based violence, with the most vicious attacks being against women of color and religious minorities.
Di Meco also addresses this phenomenon in her blog entry “Gendered Disinformation, Fake News, and Women in Politics,” on behalf of the Council on Foreign Relations.
And yet, there is hope; despite a “highly toxic social media environment,” female political politicians globally have successfully harnessed Twitter and Facebook, tapping into and leveraging a wellspring of usually female support for their candidacies.
In traditional media, women political candidates have also been given short shrift. “Particularly when it comes to women’s political leadership, almost everywhere, traditional media is mainly an obstacle, as the coverage women in politics receive is still heavily biased against them both in quantity and in quality,” writes Di Meco.
Di Meco suggests that we do not have to passively accept the current reality, “There are actionable steps and evidence-based solutions and innovations that can speed up progress towards gender equality in government . . .”
One specific recommendation is an increased presence for women as reporters and decision-makers in traditional and online media, and in the tech world. Others include “using technological innovations to track and eliminate bias and harassment against women in politics; promoting digital literacy to ensure that citizens become conscious consumers of information; and investing in women’s political participation and candidate training programs globally.”
It will take a concerted effort by media, tech companies, policy makers, political parties, politicians and engaged citizens to place women on an equal footing in the media, and in national legislatures, where they remain highly underrepresented.
Di Meco also suggests further study in a number of areas at the national and regional levels. Much finer grained analysis is needed to understand the impact of traditional and online media on women leaders in specific national and cultural contexts.
Di Meco has a many irons in the fire; among other responsibilities, she is Senior Director of Girls’ Education at Room to Read, an international nonprofit promoting gender equality through education. She also co-founded The Gender Breakfast, a Bay Area-based network of gender equality experts, and serves on the Advisory Board of FundHer, which is dedicated to electing progressive women to State legislatures.
Di Meco has an extensive background in international development having worked for UN Women, the UN Industrial Development Organization, the UN Industrial Development Organization and the OECD. She has written extensively on gender and women’s leadership for academic, government, NGO and general audiences, including Ms. magazine.
Di Meco was born in Italy and lives in San Francisco. She earned a political science degree from the University of Turin, Italy, a Master’s in Development Economics from the University of East Anglia (UK), and a Diploma in Gender Studies from FLASCO (Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences) in Mexico City. She is a Harvard Women and Power Alumna. In a recent email interview with PW publisher and editor Kiersten Marek, she reflected on the role gender plays in her life, in politics and in the larger society.
Di Meco argues that gender is not an aspect of identity, but is interwoven into all aspects of our lives. “In most societies and certainly in ours, gender identity truly conditions everything we do – and do not do,” she notes. “I think it’s almost impossible to fathom which career paths and life experiences we would have had, had we been born with a different gender identity, or in societies where gender wasn’t such a critical identity.”
While many can’t help but note the salience of gender, DiMeco has made breaking down gender barriers her life’s work, “I so deeply believe in the importance and inevitability of achieving gender equality,” she says. “It’s personal, political, professional and everything in between. I love being part of a movement that is helping to get there faster.”
Di Meco views systems-level change as crucial. In the next decade, she wants to see increased emphasis in this area, “as opposed to trying to move the dial ‘one person at a time.’” The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but Di Meco would like to see gender-lens philanthropy energize large-scale change. “Philanthropy has an incredibly important role to play in achieving gender equality by investing in the most crucial and underfunded solutions – understanding they might not always be the most popular, or the simplest,” writes Di Meco.
Governments and companies are often most comfortable funding specific program that generate short-term outcomes. “Philanthropists have the obligation to go one step further and make investments that are truly transformational and bold – like supporting women and girls’ leadership,” writes Di Meco. The analysis and conclusions in the “Women, Politics & Power in the New Media World,” report can point funders in the right direction.
On a personal level, Di Meco strives to live a balanced life. “When your profession is also your passion, the risk of burnout is real, and it’s crucial to carve out time for family and self-care,” she says. She also notes the importance for women of putting their best foot forward. “As a young woman, born and raised in Italy, it hasn’t always been easy for me to talk about my skills and accomplishments without the fear of sounding boastful or arrogant. I wish I had known that it was OK to be ambitious, and to want to dream big.”
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