At 19 years old, Ofelia Fernandez was the youngest politician to be elected to the Buenos Aires city legislature. A member of Generation Z, she was active on social media until closing her Twitter account this year as a result of harassment.
Ofelia’s retreat from social media is part of a worldwide phenomenon, whereby female political figures —particularly those from diverse backgrounds — are the target of online abuse.
Such attacks are pervasive in Latin America and have featured prominently this year, in which there has been a record number of elections. From Mexico’s midterms to Chile’s presidential vote and election of delegates to draft its new Constitution, 2021 will have seen more than 200 million Latin Americans from 10 countries – over half of which are women – casting their vote.
Online attacks against female politicians take place through social media platforms and are designed to undermine political legitimacy for reasons associated with their gender. The Mexican feminist collective, Luchadoras, identified sexual objectification, derogatory comments based on physical appearance, and reinforcement of gender roles as strategies that weaponize gender to undermine female political figures.
Gender is increasingly used in disinformation campaigns that target female politicians and the anonymity and reach provided by digital media has amplified online attacks.
Ofelia Fernandez herself, already criticized because of her youth, faced a targeted campaign claiming she had not finished her secondary education. Although unfounded, these claims were picked up on social media and led to a wave of attacks claiming she was unfit for office.
Offline impact of online abuse
Such attacks are a new source of inequality in politics. As female politicians cut back on their social media engagement to avoid harassment, their reduced contact with constituencies has a direct impact on their ability to compete for office, compared with their male counterparts.
Online harassment targeted at female politicians has an especially chilling effect in a pivotal electoral year for Latin America where the pandemic has shifted political activity from the in-person to the online realm.
In Chile, 67 per cent of female candidates to the constitutional assembly were subject to online violence.
By weaponizing gender, online attacks against female politicians seek to undermine their political legitimacy and remove them from the heart of the political debate.
First, they serve to reinforce gender stereotypes that portray women as ancillary to political activity. Despite advances in female political representation, the belief that women do not belong in politics is ever present. The World Value Survey (2017-2020) showed that about 22 per cent of respondents in the Latin American region either strongly agree or agree with the idea that ‘men make better political leaders than women do’.
Second, online political violence often succeeds in making women adopt forms of self-censorship. For instance, Paraguay’s digital rights organization TEDIC reported that female social media users choose to re-tweet content instead of expressing their own views to avoid online harassment.
Gendered political violence online is often designed to discipline targeted women through intimidation, and to silence most progressive and dissident voices.
Elisa Loncón, Mapuche leader elected president to the Chilean Constitutional Assembly, summarized it well. Following a series of social media attacks, she said: ‘I have been the target of racial, class, sexist and political violence.’ Her statement depicts the intersectional nature of online harassment, which disproportionately targets women of diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
This phenomenon is not unknown beyond Latin America. Diane Abbott, the British MP, was identified by Amnesty International as the MP facing the most abuse online in 2017, and Nadia Whittome reported experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder in 2021, shedding light on toxic parliamentary culture in which female MPs of colour are under constant attack.
Female representation in politics matters in Latin America
Regional elections are unfolding at a time when feminism is on the rise. Women’s political representation in the region has expanded, and female politicians and activists are pushing women’s issues as part of their political agenda. This ranges from infusing feminists perspectives into government budgeting in Argentina to efforts to legalize abortion in Mexico, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru.
Guaranteeing equal rights and opportunities to women is not only fair. International experience shows that when women gain access to decision-making positions, they advance the gender agenda and broaden the spectrum of policy problems that are discussed. They also transform the way countries do politics, as women use more collaborative and consensual strategies to gain influence and support for their agenda.
Allowing online gender violence to undermine female politicians is extremely harmful for Latin American politics. Women are a driving force in Latin American economies and societal wellbeing, and the fight for women’s equality is bound to bring greater prosperity to the continent. Analysts at the research group Brookings have described these forms of online attacks, particularly through disinformation campaigns, as a question of national security. They maintain that such online attacks, at their heart, threaten both ‘democracy and human rights’.
A role for political leaders
Online gender violence is a ‘collective action problem’ in which a wide variety of actors – with different capabilities and interests – participate. Answers to this phenomenon must consider the variety of parts involved.
To date, debates have centred on how states and platforms must engage to protect female political figures. For instance, Mexico and Peru have seen the emergence of specific regulations penalizing some forms of online gender violence, and Argentinian electoral authorities reached a voluntary agreement against disinformation and hate speech during the last two elections.
In the meantime, social media platforms continue to hone their moderation mechanisms to mitigate online harassment and deactivate disinformation campaigns.
Political leaders have a critical role in this process. In Latin America, however, where parties are central to political activity, they have not done enough.
Research by the Argentine think tank, CIPPEC, looking at the digital transformation of political parties in Latin America, has found that political parties increasingly engaged with their constituencies online during the pandemic, but have not embraced the online space as a sphere of political action.
Political parties in the region must step up their game. They ought to avoid naturalizing this phenomenon, commit to condemning attacks against female politicians and work to shut down those campaigns that attack women.
Gendered political violence online needs to be recognized as a dangerous practice designed to push women out of the political scene. Addressing this issue calls for action, not only from states and platforms, but also from leaders across the political spectrum to unite in condemning the practice and rendering it a no-go zone.
Any attack on female Latin American leaders is an attack on democracy itself.