Disinformation, a fearsome weapon against powerful women

Former first lady of the United States, Melania Trump, and Brigitte Macron, professor and wife of French President Emmanuel Macron.

Former first lady of the United States, Melania Trump, and Brigitte Macron, professor and wife of French President Emmanuel Macron.

Photo: AFP Agency

Brigitte Macron, Michelle Obama or Jacinda Ardern, all of them powerful women, have in common having been victims of false information about their gender identity or about their sexuality, with the aim of making fun of them or humiliating them.

Malicious acts that concern the UN, which last April denounced in a report a growing number of “online sexist disinformation campaigns”, especially against “women journalists, politicians and defenders of gender equality who tend to speak out on feminist issues ”.

For months, messages on social networks have argued that Brigitte Macron, wife of French President Emmanuel Macron, would be a transgender woman whose birth name was Jean-Michel. A false information that became viral in December, a few months before the presidential elections next April.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and former US First Lady Michelle Obama were also the subject of rumors, in 2017 and 2018, that they were male at birth.

Rumors that spread like wildfire on the internet. It matters little that no one or almost no one believes that Brigitte Macron is a transgender woman, such information gives rise to insults, humiliations and even acts of cyberbullying.

This “gender-biased misinformation” actually affects a much broader population, beyond powerful women, especially women belonging to sexual or gender minorities engaged in public life, with greater or lesser degrees of responsibilities.

The gossip seeks to “silence them and remove them from the political sphere,” says Lucina Di meco, a feminist activist and co-founder of #ShePersisted, a global initiative to combat disinformation.

In addition, they have an “impact on real life”, underlines Marylie Breuil, of the French feminist collective Nous Toutes, involved in the fight against sexist, sexual or economic violence.

Because of these rumors, “the career of anyone who exposes himself publicly can be totally destroyed”, a phenomenon that is often accompanied by acts of harassment, both online and offline.

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Gender stereotypes

In 2013, a rumor that she had danced in her underwear on television cost Laura Boldrini, former president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, thousands of sexist insults, threats of rape and pornographic montages.

Intidhar Ahmed Jassim, a candidate for Iraq’s parliamentary elections in early 2018, had to give up running after being harassed by netizens who claimed to have recognized her in a sex tape.

By preventing women from participating in public life, or by pressuring them to stop doing so, gender-biased disinformation only favors the “erosion of democratic institutions,” says Lucina di Meco.

This type of misinformation, with a gender bias, tends to convey stereotypes, attacking what “it perceives as not complying with a classic heteronormative model”, explains Réjane Sénac, director of research at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.

In the rumors about Brigitte Macron, transidentity is used as a “vehicle” to “break the reputation of someone with a position of power in the social hierarchy” (Emmanuel Macron in this case), points out Maud-Yeuse Thomas, anthropologist and co-founder of the Observatory of Transidentities.

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Spreading rumors about an alleged transidentity or homosexuality reinforces the stigmatization of LGTBI + people (lesbian, gay, trans, bisexual, intersex and other gender minorities).

By stating that Brigitte Macron has a “hidden masculinity”, those who spread the rumor use transidentity, which they see as a humiliation, as a throwing weapon, analyzes Marie-Joseph Bertini, professor of Information and Communication Sciences at the University Nice Sophia Antipolis (South of France).

But, in addition, they take advantage of the gossip to reactivate another, which circulated widely during the 2017 presidential campaign, which claimed that Emmanuel Macron “hides” an alleged homosexuality.

In any case, beyond how they have been able to affect influential people, these disinformation campaigns have probably contributed “to the increase registered in recent years in hate crimes reported against LGTBI + people in Europe,” the European Parliament warned in July.

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Disinformation, a fearsome weapon against powerful women