Against The Odds: Overcoming Online Harassment of Women in Politics

The 2018 U.S. midterm elections marked a historic moment for women in politics, as an unprecedented number of female candidates ran and were elected to Congress. This notable success, however, was not a smooth journey, but a hard-fought battle. With the rise of women’s political participation came an alarming increase in online harassment of those same women, placing women’s freedom of speech, expression, and political rights under threat. This is part of a broader pattern of online harassment targeted specifically at females in their varied roles as politicians, activists, and leaders. Because an online presence and speech is vital to participation in today’s debates, politics, and economy, such harassment presents considerable barriers for gender equality and opportunity in many areas of modern life.

Having women in leadership positions does not only make ‘moral’ sense, it provides concrete benefits to society and democracy. For example, when women are involved in negotiating peace treaties, they tend to last longer. Further, research shows that the average female senator is likely to cosponsor more bills than their male colleagues in the U.S. Senate. Increasing gender diversity in business to include more women has been shown to improve problem solving–a benefit that is likely to apply beyond the corporate sector. To reap these benefits, collective action across the private and public sectors is vital to create a collaborative platform to address and identify solutions to harassment of women online.

Women worldwide are twice as likely as men to fall victims to online harassment. In 2017, Amnesty International polled 4,000 women in eight democratic, high-income countries, including the United States, to find that around 76 percent of those women had experienced some form of abuse on social media platforms.

The likelihood of online harassment increases for women in leadership roles, especially in politics. Relevant data reveals that women politicians are judged more harshly online than their male peers, particularly women lawmakers, who are three times more likely than their male counterparts to receive comments containing sexually abusive language. Further, a 2016 survey conducted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) of 55 women parliamentarians from 39 countries across five regions found that 81.8 percent were subject to some form psychological violence. According to the same study of female parliamentarians, 45 percent of them had received threats of rape, beatings, death or abduction. Of the women surveyed, 41.8% reported facing “extremely humiliating or sexually charged images of themselves spread through social media”. The disturbing content of online attacks includes degrading comments on their physical appearance, sexual orientation, marital status, and parenting capabilities. Women running for office are often subject to sexual objectification, with harassers manipulating their photographs to appear as if they are in obscene scenes. In some of these instances, women were forced to drop out of political races due to fear for their lives and those of their families.

These attacks are not only personally and professionally damaging to women, they blatantly violate their freedom of speech and expression and prevent them from seeking and winning office. In an increasingly digitalized age, politicians rely predominately on social media platforms to communicate their political intentions, engage with the public, and express their views. If, in lieu of fostering open political dialogue and advancing their political agendas, they are faced with a flood of online attacks, not only is their work severely impaired but so is their ability and willingness to express themselves online.

Moreover, online harassment has the effect of blocking women from exercising their political rights, as it often deters them from running for office to begin with. While there is no solid data confirming the extent to which online harassment affects women’s political participation, studies have revealed that more than 61.5 percent of women running for office believe that the primary objective of harassment they face is to intimidate and dissuade them from pursuing political leadership positions. Restricting women’s political participation denies society and democracy of invaluable benefits, such as “fostering cooperation across party and ethnic lines” and “igniting greater responsiveness to citizen needs.”

It is essential to view online harassment of women as a broader human rights problem, rather than an exclusively gender-specific one, as it affects human rights activism within civil society. Many of these women are advocates for human rights, who use online platforms to express their views and push for change. Online harassment not only restricts their personal civic freedoms, it silences the important human rights messages they are trying to send. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al hussein, put it: “Online campaigns against women human rights defenders and organizations aim to damage their credibility as advocates, to diminish or obliterate the power of their voices, and to restrict the already limited public space in which women's activists can mobilize and make a difference.” By preventing women from freely and actively participating in political life, either by running for office or engaging in human rights activism, half of society is being muted.  

Against this backdrop, many organizations focusing on training women to run for political office have already embedded specialized programs to help women deal with trolling, harassment, and potential violence–issues that were once covered only on an informal basis. For example, the VoteRunLead trained 9,700 women online and in-person over the course of 2017. This year, the organization has already trained close to 1,000, but anticipates training an additional 30,000 by 2020, according to Vilardi.

The realization that women pursuing a political career are conditioned to accept online harassment and intimidation as a given only confirms the magnitude of the problem, as well as the dire need for immediate action by multiple players. 

The responsibility of social media giants in tackling the issue has been underscored many times, coupled with wide criticism for failing to adequately tackle abusive content on their platforms. For example, in 2017, women across the world boycotted Twitter for failing to adequately protect them from online abuse on the platform. Criticism has been followed by suggested solutions, such as developing appropriate systems to identify and remove illegal content from their platforms and providing tools to users to filter out threatening or abusive messages. These tools should specifically consider the particular methods by which women are attacked online.

However, given that this is a greater societal problem with a suffocating effect on women’s participation in democracy, the responsibility to adequately protect women should be shared among stakeholders, including governments and civil society organizations (CSOs). As Yvette Cooper, a member of parliament for the British Labor Party, stated: “Forty years ago women took the streets to challenge attitudes and demand action against harassment on the streets. Today the internet is our streets and public spaces. Yet for some people, online harassment, bullying, misogyny, racism or homophobia can end up poisoning the internet and stopping them from speaking out. We have the responsibilities as online citizens to make sure the internet is a safe space. Challenging online abuse can’t be done by any organization alone. This needs everyone.”

To that end, governments should consider re-evaluating the effectiveness of existing laws and regulations on online harassment or creating new ones, while also focusing on strengthening accountability measures for harassers and ensuring remedy for victims. They could even consider developing specialized divisions of law enforcement tasked with prosecuting purveyors of hate speech online, particularly that intended to prevent women from running for office.

Additionally, CSOs should continue to raise awareness and push back against these trends. CSOs should enhance their efforts to encourage victims to speak out about their experiences. Similarly, non-victim male and female candidates alike should openly discourage online harassment and abuse. 

While various tools implemented by social media platforms, governments, and CSOs can provide temporary protection to female candidates, through actions such as content take-downs, it is far from being a long-term solution. A longer-term solution requires a concentrated and collective effort to reshape mentalities and eliminate deeply rooted misogynistic perceptions of women in general and in leadership roles more specifically. This could be accomplished in several manners, including through public campaigns aimed at making it socially unacceptable to harass women on social platforms. 

Women pursuing political leadership roles should not have to choose between their careers and their basic human rights. Only when women are free to exercise their fundamental human rights without the fear of online or offline harassment will we have the right to claim that we live in a truly free and democratic society in which women can fully participate. Ending online harassment of women, including those running for office, must be a priority to grow the involvement of women in politics in the United States and abroad, and the many benefits to society that such leadership brings.

Amy Lehr is director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mariefaye Bechrakis is program manager and research associate for the Human Rights Initiative at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2018 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Amy K. Lehr
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Human Rights Initiative

Efthimia Maria (“Mariefaye”) Bechrakis