Media manipulation

What is the IQ of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Belarusian human rights activist and former presidential candidate? … 82, according to Russia’s Channel 1, “this is slightly higher than that of an orangutan.” Belarusian media channel CTV described Tikhanovskaya as “a teleprompter woman. Because she herself cannot even put together two sentences without getting lost.” These statements, which draw on the sexist stereotype of the unintelligent woman who cannot think independently, are meant to uphold the image of Tikhanovskaya as a puppet, controlled by Western power holders with an anti-Russian agenda. Gendered disinformation of this kind is one form of media manipulation often used for political purposes. Censorship is another. Let’s zoom in on these to unpack what happens at the nexus of gender, media, politics, and conflict.

Disinformation is the coordinated and malign dissemination of fake news, usually with the intent to push a certain political agenda. It’s often women, ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ+Lesbian (L), Gay (G), Bisexual (B), Trans (T), Queer (Q), Intersex (I), Asexual (A), + denotes an umbrella term used by 'marginalized sexual and gender diverse people whose gender, gender expression, or sexual identity do not conform to cis-gender or hetero-dominant gender identity'. This acronym is intersectional by virtue of its nature as well as non-exhaustive and inclusive (as denoted by the +). Over the years, the + has been understood as encompassing Questioning (Q), Two-spirit (TS), or Pansexual (P). In other words, this term represents fluid (non-conforming) notions of gender identity and sexual orientation supposedly transgressing the binary constructs of our society (male v. female and heterosexual v. homosexual).× close individuals who are the main characters in manipulated media coverage. Owing to the omnipresence of sexist, racist, and homophobic biases and stereotypes, it is all too easy to spread false, smearing messages about these groups. Many authoritarian power holders and their supporters are well aware of that and do not refrain from defaming women and minority opponents for their own political gain.

In 2017, for instance, a fake tweet circulated about Ukrainian member of parliament Svitlana Zalishchuk. Zalishchuk is an outspoken defender of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity (and, for the record, of gender equality and LGBTQIA+ rights). Yet, the tweet falsely claimed that she had promised, in a speech to the United Nations, to run naked through the streets of Kyiv if the Ukrainian army would lose a key battle to Russia-backed separatists. A manipulated image of Zalishchuk without clothes was created to back up the story. Here, shaming and objectification of women’s bodies meet silencing of women’s voices in public and political spaces. Although almost too absurd to believe, this piece of disinformation kept circulating for more than a year. Zalishchuk’s political opponents (including separatists and Russian high officials) must have been pleased to see her credibility dwindle. Besides, the fake tweet distracted from the actual topic of Zalishchuk’s speech to the UN: The impact of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict on women.

In addition to disinformation, censorship is a key instrument to silence marginalised people and shape public opinion. Whilst some accuse the political left of censoring politically incorrect views through 'cancel culture'In cancel culture, those with unfavourable views are ostracised, called out, or held accountable for acts or utterances that have been exposed to severe criticism (often on social media). Concretely, this usually means a person loses their job, affiliations or access to platforms to voice their opinion. Cancel culture is a contested concept. According to its critics, it is a form of harassment intended to silence anyone with politically incorrect views. Others view it as a way to hold people, especially those with power and influence, accountable for misbehaviour.× close, state-sanctioned censorship in the form of prohibition or suppression of critical voices is quite something else. Censorship is widespread; many countries prohibit the spread of, for instance, incitement to terrorism or racial hatred. Authoritarian regimes, however, censor media – from books and art to the internet and television – to quell political dissent. Oftentimes, it’s communication on topics like gay marriage, gender equality or abortion that risks fines or imprisonment. It is women human rights defenders and LGBTQIA+ activists who have to put their safety, wellbeing, and lives on the line to make their voices heard. 

On top of that, women and girls worldwide have less access to the internet and technology. Especially in places where disinformation and censorship shape the media landscape, this presents a growing problem. Smartphones, computers and VPN connections can be crucial to be able to access reliable information and independent media channels (but, it must be noted, these won’t get you far in countries with extreme forms of state censorship, like Russia and China).

With authoritarian regimes using gendered disinformation and censorship to steer public opinion and justify foreign aggression, what do we do? Besides monitoring gendered media manipulation and supporting independent news outlets, media manipulation, including its gendered forms, must be given far more attention as a genuine security threat. Or else brave women leaders like Tikhanovskaya and Zalishchuk continue to be at the receiving end of political aggression mediated by manipulated news.