How social media is failing women in Tunisia

How social media is failing women in Tunisia

Women leaders in Tunisia are being attacked through gendered disinformation campaigns, according to new research by #ShePersisted and Accessnow. In the wider Arab region, 70% of women activists and human rights defenders report feeling unsafe online.

Since Tunisia follows an autocratic system of power, online platforms are being used as tools for instigating hate and abuse towards women leaders, because they are viewed as a threat to the government and to other powerful political figures. 

This research was presented at an online event hosted by #ShePersisted, a campaign that works to address gendered disinformation against women in politics, and Accessnow, a global non-profit founded in 2009 with the goal of defending and expanding digital civil rights. The primary focus of the meeting was to identify the patterns of politically motivated disinformation and the online algorithms used to spread attacks on women in Tunisia. 

Gendered disinformation: a new tool to weaken democracy

Over the last five years, Accessnow interviewed more than 100 female political figures and activists globally, all sharing the same recurring issue: backlash and hate on online platforms. Several women leaders reported being attacked through gendered disinformation campaigns, strategically designed to undermine them. 

Numerous reports have found that authoritarians and illiberal actors all over the world use technology and social media as weapons to take away individuals’ right to freedom because they find their presence threatening. Authoritarians marginalise these vulnerable individuals and communities for the purpose of weakening democratic instutitions. 

Lucina Di Meco and Sarah Hesterman conducted this study to shed light on gendered disinformation in Tunisia. The two have more than 20 years of experience in the field of women’s rights research – Lucina Di Meco is a pioneering voice of gender equality and the co-founder of #ShePersisted, with Apolitical classing her as one of the 100 most prominent figures in gender policy for her work regarding global gendered disinformation. Hesterman, meanwhile, works with #ShePersisted, focusing on the sexual violence and harassment that women leaders and politicians face around the world. 

Gendered disinformation lies under the categories of misogynistic abuse, mistreatment and harassment against women, through the use of digital platforms and media to spread false information. Its aim is preventing women from taking  part in public conversations, inhibiting their ability to voice their opinions. 

#ShePersisted found that both state and non-state actors are a part of major disinformation campaigns aimed at targeting women who are seen as a threat to their agenda; this is prevalent in Middle Eastern countries as well as other parts of the world including Hungary, Italy, Brazil and Tunisia. Foreign state actors take advantage of information represented in online platforms to spread gendered disinformation to weaken the participation of women leaders, activists, and women in democracies. Non-state actors are considered organisations that are completely autonomous from central government funding and control, but include religious groups, organisations seeking to influence government, and even some parts of the media. 

Gendered disinformation targets women with intersecting identities

Gendered disinformation is more often than not aimed at women with intersecting identities, this is strategically done through the combination of political targeting, stereotyping, as well as the hyper-sexualization of women. 

In the study, Lucina Di Meco stated that, “gendered disinformation is a new threat and is taking a significant toll on the mental health and physical safety of women, girls, trans, and LGBTQ+ people all over the world. ” 

To humiliate and devalue the vulnerable persons, the perpetrator will deliberately pick out any aspect of the person’s identity and exploit and take advantage of them, and their communities.

The research findings prove that individuals and women with intersectional identities were most prone to violent online attacks, making them even more vulnerable.  

Bochra Belhaj Hmida, a lawyer, politician, and advocate forwomen’s rights, family law and LGBTQIA+ communities in Tunisia, is featured in the research. The unfortunate reality of Hmida’s leadership and female advocacy is receiving threats and being exposed to gendered disinformation from different campaigns in Tunisia. She has been accused of having anti-Islamic beliefs, and being corrupt and unpatriotic. 

The failure of social media platforms

Marwa Fatafta, advocacy manager at Accessnow and also an interviewee in the study, noted that social media companies are not considering women’s right to safety. She emphasised that “disinformation, gender-based behaviour attacks take place with little to no action from platforms”. 

“[Women’s] personal information is publicly shared without their consent and weaponised against them to spread disinformation, tarnish their reputations and intimidate  them into silence,” she added. “From Tunisia to Palestine, it’s a repressive and violent tactic against women used by many governments and their security apparatus.”

Another speaker at the event was Ikram Ben Said, founder of Aswat Nissa (which translates as “Voices of Women”), a feminist nongovernmental organisation created in 2011 with a mission to expand women’s participation in public and political conversations. Ben Said emphasised the role that women have in shaping social media.  She stated that, “There is no democracy without women’s rights and there is no women’s rights without democracy.”

The study concludes that the discrimination happening against women online in Tunisia is a symptom of a bigger problem. It is a sobering example for vulnerable democracies that shows how rapidly social media can become a method to turn against the activists it promised to support, becoming yet another weapon for authoritarianism. 

Lana Alsakka Amini


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