Being a woman on the internet is a nightmare. How can we fix it? – Grid News
Being a woman on the internet is a nightmare. How can we fix it?

Nina Jankowicz was researching disinformation in Eastern Europe when she began noticing a troubling phenomenon: Women in Ukraine and the country of Georgia were exposed to coordinated, often sexualized, disinformation campaigns.


Hear more from Anya van Wagtendonk about this story:


Online trolls spread falsified images of a pro-democracy leader in Ukraine, her face photoshopped onto naked bodies. Somebody else leaked a deepfaked sex tape of an opposition journalist in Georgia.

Women aren’t just unwelcome online, Jankowicz realized, but vulnerable to “just a staggering amount” of gendered abuse. But the area was woefully understudied.

“At the time, very few people were talking about this sort of stuff: not just the abuse more broadly, which has always been kind of prevalent, but the specific use of gender as kind of a disinformation tool or tactic,” she said.

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In the buildup to the 2020 election — while she was studying how female office-seekers of all political persuasions weathered gendered harassment online — the issue became personal. She herself was subject to a torrent of online abuse after a Twitter video she made went semi-viral.

There were clear patterns, she told Grid in a recent interview, “in how abusers were behaving, and a clear negligence, both from social media platforms as well as governments around the world, in protecting women and their right to free speech online.”

This spurred her to write a new book, “How to Be a Woman Online: Surviving Abuse and Harassment, and How to Fight Back,” aimed at helping people understand how women experience online harassment and disinformation.

“There are still people who believe, frankly, that there is no qualitative or quantitative difference in the amount of abuse that women receive online and the amount of abuse that men, their counterparts, receive,” Jankowicz said.

Grid’s misinformation reporter, Anya van Wagtendonk, spoke with Jankowicz about why gendered harassment matters in an increasingly networked world, tactics for navigating gendered abuse online and what tech platforms can be — and often aren’t — doing.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Grid: What is that relationship between online harassment and disinformation?

Nina Jankowicz: We’ve got your broader abuse and harassment, and then there are some coordinated disinformation campaigns that fall under that umbrella. When you look at this report that we did for the Wilson Center about the candidates in the U.S. election, we defined it as having three characteristics: an element of falsity, an element of coordination and malign intent.

Generally, when you look at these disinformation campaigns, they’re spread around a false narrative — for instance, that Kamala Harris slept her way to the top, which was a popular one in 2020. Seventy-eight percent of the data that we collected was about Kamala Harris.

There’s the coordination element, so it’s being pushed by a group of people that are sharing the same meme.

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And then, of course, there’s the malign intent; almost everything that is categorized as abuse or harassment on the internet has the intent of silencing individuals, in particular women or women of color.

G: How can disinformation be gendered?

NJ: Let me give you an example that is pretty clear-cut, the thing that first opened my eyes to this phenomenon: In Ukraine, I was interviewing a woman named Svitlana Zalishchuk, who used to be a member of parliament in Ukraine, who was elected after the Euromaidan Revolution. She’s young, she’s quite attractive, and she was pro-democracy in Ukraine.

The campaign against her said that she had said that she was going to run down the main street of Kyiv naked if the Ukrainian army lost a key battle early on in the war in 2014. When they did lose that battle, a bunch of photoshopped images with her face on naked bodies appeared on the internet and gained so much traction that, she told me, a Deutsche Welle reporter that she was speaking to at the United Nations actually asked her about those allegations. So that’s a coordinated disinformation campaign that has a gendered element of exploiting her sexuality, obviously.

Similarly, in Georgia, a woman who was an opposition journalist and married to an opposition politician had a fake sex tape leaked of her. She was able to disprove that very quickly because she had a tattoo on her back, and the woman in the video did not. But other women were targeted at the same time, and in that very patriarchal, traditional society, it really did put a kind of nail in the coffin of some of their careers.


It has to do with inherently gendered characteristics or sexualized characteristics that wouldn’t really stick to men.

G: What research is still needed in this space?

NJ: One of the things that’s really difficult about research about abuse and harassment and disinformation generally is that we’re limited to the data that we have access to. And so even the quite wide-ranging [Wilson Center] study … was limited to certain platforms that have open APIs. It relied heavily on Twitter, as well as platforms like Parler, 4chan, GAB, 8chan — the platforms that you can scrape. You can’t do that on Meta platforms (Instagram and Facebook). YouTube also has restrictions related to that. And it makes it really difficult to see the level of abuse on those platforms.

It’s really important to continue to press platforms for data access for researchers, especially for issues related to hate speech and the right to free speech. That’s an obstacle right now, because we don’t have the whole picture of what’s going on across the internet. And often [online abuse] is quite networked across platforms.

Another obstacle is what we called in our Wilson Center report “malign creativity.” This is a way that abusers avoid the detection of the harassment that they’re doing. So rather than writing “bitch,” they’ll write “b!tch” so that the AI doesn’t pick up what they’re writing. And there’s so many iterations of the abusive language that they’re using.

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There are still people who believe, frankly, that there is no qualitative or quantitative difference in the amount of abuse that women receive online and the amount of abuse that men, their counterparts, receive. We need to continue to build up that body of evidence so that this isn’t a point of debate anymore.

G: Why does this type of harassment matter? Can’t women just opt out of social media if they are experiencing online harassment?

NJ: I think you certainly could, but when you do that, you’re closing yourself off to opportunities. … Everything that I have done in my career has, in some degree, been amplified — or the very connections that I have made have been because of the internet. I’ve met people all around the world; they’ve found my work that way. I get media requests that way.

Increasingly, especially in the covid era, online is such an important part of how humans connect with one another, and such a huge part of our political discourse and social discourse. So, by saying to women, “If you can’t take it, just get offline,” we’re essentially barring them of their right to free speech and right to express themselves.

The online environment has become an extension of the real world in a way that it has never been before. It’s a primary means of communication. And it’s really unfair to tell people to just get off when their white male counterparts don’t have to think about that, don’t experience that and don’t have any repercussions like that on their lives or careers.

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G: As you lay out in your preface, it would be insane to expect kind of that level of treatment on your daily commute in the “real world.” But women and people from marginalized communities come to expect this online. Why do you think that the internet gives rise to this level of harassment and targeting?

NJ: Particularly in the U.S., our political discourse and social discourse has gotten so polarized. And while people do tone it down a little bit in person, the internet definitely brings out that vitriol and incentivizes that vitriol. We know that the more enraging content is on social media, the more engaging it is.

But the other part is that people know there are consequences for that behavior IRL, and they don’t recognize, or don’t see, any consequences being enforced for that behavior online. And that’s on the social media platforms. Most of this behavior is outlined in their terms of service and community standards, but there isn’t much enforcement going on. And that’s not only because of a lack of context and manpower and investment, but also just a lack of understanding and design on these platforms that put the experiences of women and marginalized communities first.

It’s a difficult situation, but that doesn’t mean that the social media platforms don’t have to try harder so that abusers, when they levy their abuse, recognize that, “OK, if I do this, there’s a chance that not only my content will be taken down, but that my entire account will be shut down and I’ll be barred from the platform for life.” There’s not enough of that happening.

I wouldn’t say that this is a restriction on those people’s freedom of speech, because what they’re doing inherently is attempting to silence their targets. It’s the targets who are being restricted, not these abusers.

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G: In addition to social media platforms doing more, what are some of the solutions that you lay out?

NJ: I take women through the IP and physical security considerations that they need to have if they’re going to have a public profile — or, frankly, even if they’re just going to have a middling online presence and accidentally go viral one day, you want to make sure that you’re not susceptible to being doxxed, that your private information isn’t out there, that it’s not easy to discern where you live or where you work.

I go through all of the ways to interact with certain trolls and abusers online and hopefully empower women to use block and mute buttons more often. We are socialized to be nice and to give people second chances. For too long, I wasted my time on social media thinking, “It’s my job to build awareness, it’s my job to engage, I’m going to try to give these people the benefit of the doubt,” when clearly they were not operating in good faith.

And then I talk about building community, which is so important when you’re dealing with harassment. Without the online communities that I’ve built, over time, very deliberately, and the kind of friendships and connections that I’ve really, really deliberately pursued, I would have been so lost when I was dealing with my own harassment. It’s just so important to have somebody in your stable who gets it.

The rest of it is just a call to action. If we take up space online and refuse to kowtow to the people who wish to silence us, then there will be ripple effects for the people who come after us. That’s something that inspires me when the going gets tough online. I think about my future daughter or my future nieces, who deserve to be able to express themselves without the burden of what we carry around every day: that being a woman online means that you’re going to get harassed. I don’t want that to be reality for future generations.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Anya van Wagtendonk
    Anya van Wagtendonk

    Misinformation Reporter

    Anya van Wagtendonk is the misinformation reporter at Grid, focusing on the impact of false information on policy, elections and social behavior.