Tamara Yesmin Toma

Researcher, Dismislab
Weaponizing gendered attack and sexuality: disinformation in online political campaigns
This article is more than 6 months old

Weaponizing gendered attack and sexuality: disinformation in online political campaigns

Tamara Yesmin Toma

Researcher, Dismislab

Just a few days ago, the student wing of the ruling party posted photoshopped images of an opposition leader wearing sarees and bangles on their verified Facebook page, and these images went viral. After facing criticism, they removed the post. The trolling was based on a fake quote attributed to Mirza Fakhrul, which claimed, “If we fail to overthrow the government on October 18, I would wear bangles.” It was circulated along with the counterfeit logo of a prominent media outlet, Prothom Alo. The fact-checkers had already debunked the fake quote before Chhatra League posted it. And even after they removed it after criticism, those pictures of Fakhrul continued to circulate on Facebook through political ads from another page involved in an active campaign.

The main issue here isn’t the creation of cartoons or political satire about Fakhrul. In an ideal democratic process, political satire shouldn’t be considered a crime. However, when we delve deeper, the real problems become apparent. The campaigners not only propagated a fake quote but also used it to demean Fakhrul through a cheap, misogynistic campaign. Even if we assume that Chhatra League was unaware that the quote was fake, as an organisation with decades of history, they should have had smart individuals on their social media team who understand that wearing feminine attire doesn’t symbolise weakness and posting these images actually demeans all the other female politicians in the country, most of whom choose sarees and bangles as their formal attire. In fact, this includes their own party leader, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who elegantly wears sarees and bangles on a regular basis.

With the 12th national election just two months away, the online political campaign has been more intense than ever before. Along with this, disinformation has also been on the rise. In 2021, the Awami League initiated training workshops with the Centre for Research and Information (CRI) to train online activists to combat rumours and propaganda on social media and promote developmental activities. This was a praiseworthy initiative, and this is how a political party in a democratic country should expand its campaign efforts in an era when a vast number of voters are active online. Even the government had initiated a campaign named ‘Asol Chini’ to curb fake information and rumours. But where are the results?

Recently, Dismislab analysed a fact-check database from January to September and found that false or misleading political information increased by more than 56 percent from July to September compared to the preceding three months (a full report to be published soon). So, where did the investments made to combat rumours and propaganda go? How is it that the student wing of the party itself is now spreading misinformation through a misogynistic campaign? What kind of developmental campaigns can they run when they lack even a basic understanding of gender sensitivity?

Sometimes, the issue goes beyond disinformation and includes hate speech, the use of slurs, and vulgar language. Just before Fakhrul was targeted, Peter Haas was also subjected to accusations that he was not “manly enough”. Homophobic campaigns have been run against Nobel laureate Dr. Mohammad Yunus and several dissenting journalists. However, they never revealed their sexual identity or orientation, and even if they do so, this shouldn’t be a problem in a country where a ‘liberal government’ is in power and running heavily invested campaigns for the sake of ‘inclusivity’. Also, the same Facebook pages that run pro-government campaigns shouldn’t be involved in these activities.

In Bangladesh, online gendered attacks and campaigns have been running for several years now. Many may recall the so-called cyber army CP gang, which was accused of targeting prominent female activists, journalists, and even lawyers with vulgar and offensive language. Ironically, this group initially united to seek justice for war crimes, condemned the heinous acts of war rape, and ran campaigns for the justice of ‘war heroines’. This raises significant questions about how the same group could involve themselves in character assassination against celebrated women in society, some of whom were actively involved in the prosecution. Such hypocrisy has left us with many unanswered questions.

As a fact-checker, I regularly see these gendered disinformation campaigns and gendered attacks, particularly targeting women political leaders from both parties. Women leaders are sometimes shown as partying, attending nightclubs, and consuming alcohol, all through AI-generated or edited photos or videos, or images of someone else are falsely attributed to them. Even family members of politicians, such as the wife of Sajeeb Wajed Joy and the daughter of Tarique Rahman, have fallen victim to such disinformation.

The problem is that Bangladesh is already a conservative country, and the participation of women and other genders in politics is quite low. In this environment, the spread of disinformation through a political campaign can potentially ruin a woman’s entire political career and personal life, discouraging more females from participating in political debates. And while all these are already going on, the male politicians are now also targets, facing gendered remarks meant to undermine them.

In recent times, disinformation tactics have become more sophisticated, making it increasingly challenging for the average person to discern what’s true. People find themselves asking: Is this true? Did that politician actually say these things? Is it really not her? With AI-generated content appearing so realistic, it’s now more difficult than ever to detect the authenticity of information. These technological advancements are, unfortunately, having a more pronounced suppressive effect on women and other marginalised groups.

I believe that social media platforms are not doing enough. While it’s true that over-enforcement can be misused by political parties to stifle voices, it’s concerning to see Fakhrul’s cartoon persist even after fact-checkers have debunked it as a fake quote. The advancement of technology won’t guarantee more sophisticated political content or campaigns, but without sufficient efforts, it could indeed pose a threat to the democratic process, evolving from merely an insensitive political campaign into a broader campaign against other marginalised gender and sexual minority groups.