Social Media is a Powerful Platform for Women in Politics — and their Harassers

By Maura Reilly on November 06, 2019

Yesterday, Lucina Di Meco, a senior gender expert with the Wilson Center, released her report, #ShePersisted: Women, Politics & Power in the New Media World, which looks into women leaders and the double-edged sword of social media in the current world order. The report covers 28 countries, 85 women in the fields of politics, civil society, journalism, television and technology, and the impact and importance of social media for women political leaders — given the continued gender bias found in traditional media.

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Di Meco found that while social media has opened up new avenues for harassment of women politicians, it also provides a unique and new way for women to reach their constituents and control their narrative. Social media platforms encourage community-building and offer young women and activists a space to build “confidence as political actors and begin to engage in the public arena.” At an event promoting Di Meco’s report, Christine Matthews, President of Bellwether Research and Consulting, pointed to the centrality of Facebook as a tool for grassroots organizing and for building a community and network of supporters for women political candidates. But, on the flip-side, Matthews suggested that women’s campaigns also need a designated security or monitoring position to deal with the high levels of trolling and harassment. Additionally Jenna Golden, President of Golden Strategies, urged that despite the difficulties and harassment that comes with social media, the solution is not to walk away, but stake a claim to the space and look to several entities — including tech companies, political parties and governments — to demand solutions.

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ (IFES) report on the violence against women in elections (VAWIE), found that “social media is well-adapted to amplify the types of violence that women most often experience in electoral participation.” Not only does social media act as a microcosm for the harassment women face in electoral participation, it can magnify the harassment, which people can now do anonymously and at a distance. Di Meco addresses these issues and provides a set of suggestions for how the negative side effects of social media for women can be corrected at all levels, including tech companies, governing bodies, individual politicians, and political parties. Her suggestions include, increasing the number of women and women of color at all levels of decision-making, calling attention to the harassment and violence women face online, and providing women leaders with training on how to best use social media and deal with online harassment.

While no large-scale solutions have been implemented, there are smaller-scale and individual trouble-shooting opportunities to address the harassment women candidates face online. In the lead up to the 2019 Canadian elections in October, Lana Cuthbertson, the co-founder of Parity YEG and former Alberta North chair of Equal Voice, created ParityBOT, a Twitter BOT account which detects problematic tweets about women candidates and responds with positive messages or ‘positivi-tweets.’ Over the course of the 2019 campaign, the ParityBOT identified 5,677 abusive/problematic tweets; although the account did have a cap on how many tweets it could post in a day. Cuthbertson found that while the BOT is helpful, it serves more as a band-aid than a systemic fix, so “women need to run for office and once elected, they need to change politics so it’s a more appealing space for women.” Additionally, IFES has created a VAWIE-Online tool which scrapes and mines online data to “note trends over time and analyze the difference between various categories of violence [… and] assist in identifying drivers of online electoral violence.”

Today, social media is central to most people’s everyday lives, and presents an important platform for politics. And, as Di Meco’s report highlights, it is an incredible tool for women in politics who wish to control their narratives and build a community of support. But, like many aspects of our society, it’s use can still be biased against women, and it often provides a platform for violence and harassment against women. Given social media’s centrality in modern life, we must find and implement solutions to make it a more open, inclusive, and civil space, especially for women; which Lucina Di Meco’s report outlines.

Maura is a RepresentWomen Fall 2019 Research Intern from the Washington, D.C. area. She graduated from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland this past spring with an honors degree in Social Anthropology.

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