IN the build-up to the 2023 Lagos State Governorship election, a photo of a lady smoking hookah in the club went viral on social media. Within a short space, she was falsely identified as the running mate of the Labour Party gubernatorial candidate in the state, Abiodun Islamiyat Oyefusi.
While in Adamawa, the agitation for a female governor was condemned. Aishatu Dahiru Ahmed (Binani), the All Progressives Congress (APC) gubernatorial candidate on the state, was ostracized for vying for a leadership position as women are not allowed to rule in Islam.
When former Minister of Education, Dr Oby Ezekwesili, declared her intent to run for the presidential election in 2019, there were speculations of her starting unnecessary political battles as she lacked the emotional capacity to be elected President.
These kinds of attacks typify the concept of disinformation suffered by the female gender in Nigeria, which has made it difficult for women to attain leadership heights in the country.
In the 2023 general elections, Nigeria recorded a dearth of female participation, which led to a lesser fraction of elective positions. President Bola Ahmed Tinubu has also recently sent 47 ministerial nominees to the National Assembly (NASS) with just seven (7) women. His other appointments so far still show a wide disparity.
What is gendered disinformation?
Gendered disinformation is a subset of misogynistic abuse and violence against women that uses false or misleading gender and sex-based narratives, often with some degree of coordination, to deter women from participating in the Public sphere.
Dr. Kehinde Oyesomi, an Associate Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Covenant University, Ogun state says, “it is a serious problem that calls for concern and proactive action because of the possible harm and insecurity it poses on women. It could cause physical and emotional damage.”
It typically frames women as untrustworthy and unintelligent or pits women against other women.
Gendered disinformation is a global threat to women’s participation in politics, elections and other sectors where women can attain leadership roles. When the act of sexualising or hyper-sexualising girls and women has failed, there is always an attempt to paint emotions as undesired traits for leadership.
In its thematic report published in August 2023, the United Nations Human Rights office notes that gendered disinformation has implications for the right to freedom of expression, saying there can be no trade-off between women’s right to be safe and their right to speak.
Research findings written by Nina Jankowicz et al and published by the Wilson Centre have shown that gendered disinformation is not the same as gender-based violence, although both incite abuse which can cause harm and is targeted towards a particular gender. This is most times, a hurdle for women from engaging in politics and discourages young women who consider having a political career which may or may not be limited to leadership roles.
Recent examples of gendered disinformation in Nigeria
It has also encouraged the harassment and abuse of female politicians and public office holders – especially in the digital space. A typical example was the case of Oyefusi earlier mentioned.
“Remember the divorce story of the footballer who was said to have registered all his wealth in his mother’s name; that disinformation was believed across continents because people already hold biased opinions about women married to rich men and celebrities in Europe and America.
“Even news organisations published the disinformation. Their bias didn’t allow them to check the accuracy of that claim,” says Dr. Ganiyat Tijani-Adenle, a Senior Lecturer in Journalism Department, Lagos State University, Lagos.
Gendered Disinformation manifests in several forms, including sexist and misogynistic content, criticizing feminism, posting fake sexualized information, images and videos that violate what is considered socially acceptable behaviour for men or women, and posting doctored images, videos and memes to discredit or ridicule women. Moreover, an example of this was when Elon Musk announced Linda Yaccarino as Twitter’s new CEO and AI-generated images of a lady with her cleavages were circulating claiming to be the new Twitter CEO which were false.
Gendered disinformation campaigns mostly use narratives on gender roles, gender equality and sexual orientation to disunite public discourse, undermine social cohesion and spread fear.
Most times, these gender narratives are often combined with narratives or roles to achieve the desired aim while employing special tactics. Some of these tactics include manipulating traditional stereotypes about women and men, promoting stereotypes of women as victims always in need of male protection while also occasionally showing women as aggressors, such as maintaining that a woman’s place is in the kitchen.
Another is creating myths and lies about gender equality, one of which is by mobilizing individuals around an anti-gender discourse which argues that gender equality is anti-family, pro-gay and anti-life ideology.
“It is important to create awareness on the danger of disinformation. Continuous sensitization and campaign are key.
“Everyone can be part of a disinformation campaign. This could be through engaging with social media bots, sharing manipulated and framed images, or watching deepfakes videos that have been digitally altered and many more,” Dr. Oyesomi opines.
Countering gendered disinformation in Nigeria – way forward!
To counter gendered disinformation, it is important to know the platforms and actors through which it emerges and is spread, as it would help in spotting the issues and challenging them. Some of the people who push gendered disinformation are not limited to religious extremists, trolls, foreign state and non-state actors.
After identifying the actors amplifying gendered disinformation, the following steps could be taken to address the challenges.
The first step is using the E.S.C.A.P.E formula, designed by Adelphi University with support from Facebook, which works by evaluating the information encountered (gendered disinformation) and attempting to provide answers to the six (6) critical questions below:
- Evidence: Do the facts hold up? Look for the information you can verify, e.g. names, numbers, places, documents etc.
- Source: Who made this, and can I trust them? Trace who has touched the story, Authors, Publishers, Funders, Aggregators, Social media users etc.
- Context: What’s the big picture? Consider if this is the whole story and weigh other forces surrounding it, e.g. current events, cultural trends, political goals, financial pressures etc.
- Audience: Who is the intended audience? Look for attempts to appeal to specific groups, image choices, presentation techniques, language content etc.
- Purpose: Why was this made? Look for clues to the motivation. The publisher’s mission, persuasive language or images, money Making tactics, Stated or unstated agendas, calls to action.
- Execution: How is this information presented? Consider how the way it is made affects the impact, style, grammar, tone, image choices, presentation and layout.
A clarion call…!
Another step is to provide alternative narratives on gender issues in line with the Nigerian government’s gender equality commitments. Also, a multi-stakeholders’ engagement with the gender policy implementers is essential to deploy tools needed for gender training to identify dimensions of disinformation and understand how to counter it.
For Dr. Tijani-Adenle, who was also a 2021 postdoctoral fellow in information disorder with Dubawa, the first (immediate and short time) way to tackle gendered disinformation in Nigeria is to tackle it the same way all other forms of disinformation are tackled – fact-checks.
“The second (long term and sustainable way) to tackle gendered disinformation is gender equity focused media literacy. This means two things. The first is that we enlighten people generally about media literacy, how contents are created and published and how they can be weaponised by some people to achieve their selfish interests. Then we enlighten them about gender equity and the need to not see the opposite gender through the “us versus them” or “men versus women” lens.
“When people are open to equity for all genders and do not hold biased views and perspectives about particular genders, then they are more likely to query and fact-check the disinformation about that gender.
“People who are not media literate and who are biased about specific genders and more likely to believe disinformation and spread misinformation about the gender that they are biased against compared to people who are media literate and who do not hold biased opinions about specific genders,” she explains.
In addition, there should be measures in place to mitigate the risks attached to gendered disinformation, such as offering psychological support to journalists and researchers who may suffer from trauma while investigating disinformation on sexual violence and protecting personal data and additional security measures for journalists and contributors debunking disinformation on controversial gender issues.
In conclusion, if gendered disinformation takes place online, the public should actively get involved by reporting the accounts and contents. This would discourage people not to engage with the disinformation campaigns and constantly remind people of the roles they play in the society in the spread of contents that trivialize harassment, establish gender stereotypes, and denounce women’s capability in governance, elections and leadership roles.
If it takes place offline, you could dissuade from it by not interacting with sexist jokes and “talking to the individual constructively about their behaviour,” wrote Dr. Fiona O’Rourke and Dr. Craig Haslop, co-researchers from the University of Liverpool, England.