Section: 5.2 Online abuse and harassment of women and girls

Abuse and harassment of women in public roles

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Abuse and harassment of women in public roles

Debbie Ging and Eugenia Siapera conclude their article titled ‘Special issue on online misogyny’1 by stating that misogynistic abuse inhibits women’s safety, freedom of expression, and participation in the workforce and democracy. This form of abuse is particularly heightened for women in public roles, such as journalists, politicians, and celebrities.

A 2020 article2 by Dr Julie Posetti identified three converging threat types against female journalists, which could also be extended to include other women in public roles.

  • Misogynistic Harassment and Abuse: This includes threats of violence such as sexual assault, rape, and murder, as well as verbal insults that attack a woman’s appearance, sexuality, and professionalism. These insults are intended to tarnish their reputation and undermine their confidence. The abuse can come from individuals, be part of a large, organic ‘pile on’, or stem from coordinated attacks by misogynistic groups.
  • Orchestrated Disinformation Campaigns: These campaigns utilise misogynistic narratives, falsely accusing women of professional misconduct, spreading smears to damage their reputations, and employing malicious misrepresentations like 'deepfake' porn videos, abusive memes, and manipulated images. The goal is to undermine their credibility, embarrass them, and deter them from engaging in public discourse and their professional activities.
  • Digital Privacy and Security Threats: For women in public roles, these threats increase the physical risks associated with online violence and involve the erosion of privacy. Common methods of compromising online privacy and security include malware, hacking, doxing, and spoofing. These attacks can expose sensitive personal information such as residential and work addresses and movement patterns, escalating the physical dangers these women face.

Gendered disinformation:

In this section we highlight research on the issue of gendered disinformation campaigns focusing on abuse and harassment targeting women in public roles.

What is gendered disinformation?

According to the EU DisinfoLab, misogynistic disinformation is often combined with different audience-dividing topics in order to polarise public opinion.

Gendered disinformation is defined by the EU DisinfoLab as the dissemination of false or misleading information attacking women (especially political leaders, journalists and public figures).3 In particular, this type of disinformation often portrays women either as adversaries in public debates or as victims, aiming to advance certain social or political agendas.4

Research4 done by the EU DisinfoLab in 2020 on misogyny and misinformation during the Covid-19 pandemic indicated that gendered disinformation reinforces negative stereotypes, undermines women’s credibility in positions of power or in debate, and discourages their participation in public life. The Center for Democracy & Technology’s 2021 report findings5 further underscored that misogynists often portray women, particularly in political roles, as intellectually unfit for leadership by spreading false information about their qualifications and experience, sometimes incorporating sexualised imagery as part of their tactics. These accusations are much less frequently aimed at their male peers.45 For example, The Independent reported that abuse on- and offline has led some UK women Members of Parliament to choose not to run for office again.6

Based on the findings of research into online violence against women in politics conducted in 2019 and 2020, a 2021 How-To Guide7 on addressing online misogyny and gendered disinformation by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) identified gendered disinformation as a specific manifestation of Online Violence Against Women in Politics (Online VAW-P). While not all instances of hate, threats, or gendered attacks against women and gender-diverse individuals constitute gendered disinformation, they all belong to the broader category of Online VAW-P. The NDI found that this type of online violence is often exploited by bad actors to distort perceptions and manipulate participation in political discourse, aiming to sway political outcomes. Essentially, the goal of gendered disinformation is to impede women’s free and equal participation in the political sphere, ultimately undermining the foundations of an inclusive and resilient democracy.

A 2021 commentary8 by Lucina Di Meco and Kristina Wilfore published by the Brookings Institute underscores that women in politics in many places in the world, including Europe, Ukraine, and Brazil, encounter similar challenges, particularly female political leaders from racial, ethnic, religious, or other minority groups, as well as for those vocal about feminist issues.

The literature shows that online gendered abuse and disinformation frequently involve intersectional elements, where abusers combine both sexual and racial narratives, intensifying the risks particularly for women of colour.

In a 2020 article9 on the reasons why disinformation targeting women undermines democratic institutions, Lucina Di Meco states that, “This type of disinformation is designed to alter public understanding of female politicians’ track records for immediate political gain, as well as to discourage women seeking political careers.”

A 2021 study conducted by the Wilson Center and Moonshot CVE10 analysed over 336,000 online comments directed at 13 female politicians across six social media platforms over a two-month period. A significant portion of the comments were identified as gendered disinformation. The majority of this abuse was sexual in nature.

The research indicated that gendered abuse affected 12 of the 13 women studied, with nine experiencing targeted gendered disinformation narratives that were racist, transphobic, or sexual. X (formerly known as Twitter) was the primary platform for such abuse, particularly towards US Vice President Kamala Harris, who represented 78% of the instances recorded. Sexual narratives were the most common, comprising 31% of the total data collected, predominantly targeting Harris.

The report concluded that gendered disinformation not only poses a threat to the individual women targeted but also represents a broader democratic and national security risk. One of the major challenges in combating this issue is the coded nature of the abuse, which often evades automated detection systems. Additionally, they found that platform policies are inadequate, often leaving the responsibility of reporting and managing this abuse to the targeted women themselves.

Further reading

Studies and reports: What is gendered disinformation?

Features of gendered disinformation

Evidence reveals that harassment campaigns against women in public roles are networked and organised, extending to their families and social circles with deeply personal and sexualised attacks.

Misogyny perpetuated through disinformation, especially against women in public roles, exhibits distinct patterns, as noted by Dr Julie Posetti.2 Such online violence is often orchestrated and networked, involving coordinated attacks by groups. It extends beyond the individual to affect their families and colleagues, magnifying the psychological impact. Moreover, the attacks are intensely personal and sexualised, using intimate details to intimidate and degrade the victims. This targeted harassment not only disrupts the professional lives of women but also poses significant challenges to their personal safety and mental health.

In their 2021 report10 on how gender, sex and lies are weaponised against women online, Jankowicz and colleagues identify three defining characteristics of online gendered disinformation: falsity, malign intent, and coordination. They argue that gendered and sexualised disinformation, while related to broader gendered abuse, is a distinct phenomenon that requires specific recognition to enable social media platforms to devise effective countermeasures. They define it as "a subset of online gendered abuse that uses false or misleading gender and sex-based narratives against women, often with some degree of coordination, aimed at deterring women from participating in the public sphere. It combines three defining characteristics of online disinformation: falsity, malign intent, and coordination".

Examples and impacts

Researchers have suggested that disinformation targeting women impacts not just individual rights but also broadly undermines civil liberties and democratic institutions. It restricts women's freedom of expression, affecting their ability to participate fully in public discourse.

A 2020 UNESCO-ICFJ survey11 of 714 journalists, who identified as women, from 125 countries revealed a wide range of threat types experienced by respondents in the course of their work. This included threats of sexual assault (18%) and physical violence (25%), with 13% having threats against their family. Verbal abuse was also widespread, with 49% receiving hateful language and 48% receiving harassing private messages. Threats to personal reputation were reported by 42% of the respondents.

The survey11 also highlighted various forms of digital security attacks that these journalists faced. Surveillance was experienced by 18%, hacking by 14%, and doxing by 8%. Spoofing affected 7%. Image-based abuse, including manipulated images, impacted 15%. This category included both deepfakes, which affected 4%, and shallow fakes, affecting another 4%. Financial threats were also reported by 9% of the women.

The study11 also found that online abuse has professional and personal consequences. Thirty percent of female journalists censored themselves following online harassment or abuse, and 20% tried withdrawing from online participation altogether. Moreover, 20% of female journalists refused assignments because of online hate. Eleven percent of victims missed work to recover after online attacks, 38% made themselves less visible, 4% quit their jobs, and 2% left journalism entirely. Despite these impacts, female journalists didn’t report many of these online attacks, aligning with the generally low reporting rates for violence against women.

In many cases, women face coordinated campaigns of harassment by multiple perpetrators designed to silence and intimidate them.11 A 2022 study by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH)12 found that one in every 15 Instagram messages sent to five high-profile women contained abuse, including death and sexual violence threats. Similar trends were also observed on Twitter and Facebook.

A 2020 study13 by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue which examined online abuse towards congressional candidates during the 2020 US presidential elections found that female candidates faced a significantly higher risk of abuse on Twitter compared to their male counterparts, with abusive messages making up 15% of the messages they received. Women from minority backgrounds received higher levels of abuse. For example, Ilhan Omar had the highest proportion of abusive messages (39%) on Twitter while Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez received the highest proportion (28%) on Facebook. The abuse often targeted their gender, focusing on their looks and questioning their competence.

Examples of tactics of disinformation campaigns

The American Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) highlighted various tactics employed by disinformation campaigns in its 2022 informational resource.14 These tactics are designed to lend credibility to disinformation or manipulate target audiences, often exploiting political or social divisions to make the audience more receptive to false narratives. Key tactics include:

  1. Cultivating Fake or Misleading Personas and Websites: Creating false online identities or misleading websites to support disinformation efforts.
  2. Creating Deepfakes and Synthetic Media: Utilising advanced technology to produce highly realistic but fake audiovisual media that can be hard to distinguish from real footage.
  3. Devising or Amplifying Conspiracy Theories: Developing or promoting unfounded theories to stoke fears and uncertainties.
  4. Astroturfing and Flooding the Information Environment: Posting massive amounts of content from inauthentic accounts to simulate grassroots support or opposition, known as astroturfing. Flooding involves overwhelming social media with repetitive messages to shape narratives or silence opposition.
  5. Abusing Alternative Platforms: Utilising lesser-known social media platforms with lax moderation policies to spread disinformation more effectively among certain user groups.
  6. Exploiting Information Gaps: : Utilising lesser-known social media platforms with lax moderation policies to spread disinformation more effectively among certain user groups.
  7. Manipulating Unsuspecting Actors: Enlisting prominent individuals and organisations, often unknowingly, to amplify disinformation narratives.
  8. Spreading Targeted Content: Producing and distributing content tailored to resonate with specific audiences, building trust over time to enhance the effectiveness of future manipulations.

Below we will discuss the use of synthetic media such as image manipulation and false identity attribution to discredit women by sexualising them.

Eleonora Esposito discusses these two tactics in her 2022 paper ‘The visual semiotics of digital misogyny: female leaders in the view finder’.15 These tactics reproduce different variations of the trope of ‘woman as whore’.

A strategy of image manipulation is to insert the head or face of the targeted person in an existing picture. Examples include an image of Laura Boldrini, former President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, which showed her head photoshopped onto the body of a sex worker.15 This was in the wake of her announcing that she would file lawsuits against all her social media abusers, which increased the abuse she received.16 Similar tactics were used against Italian MP Maria Elena Boschi, who was depicted accidentally revealing a G-String as she leaned forward.1517 In 2022, news reports in New Zealand revealed the online spread of false images of former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s face photoshopped onto the body of a sex worker.1819 Another incident involved posters depicting her next to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and one carrying a gun with the slogan “police state”.20

According to Esposito,15 fake identity attribution involves the viral spread of an unaltered image alongside a deliberate misattribution of identity, typically targeting women in pubic roles. The strategy relies on two main elements: firstly, the woman in the photo bears a facial resemblance to the targeted individual; secondly, the image typically depicts the woman in revealing attire or nude. A critical component of this tactic is the use of captions, which are crafted to convince viewers that the woman in the image is indeed the targeted high-profile woman, not merely someone who resembles her. This combination of image and misleading caption manipulates perceptions and spreads misinformation effectively on social media. Boschi was also a victim of this tactic when an intimate image of a similar-looking sex worker was shared, with the poster claiming it was her.15 The same happened to Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock.2122 In 2022, a topless beach picture of a Russian television presenter was shared by an internet user who claimed it was Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska.21

The women journalists surveyed by ICFJ and UNESCO1123 said they had been subjected to a wide range of online violence, including threats of sexual assault and physical violence, abusive language, harassing private messages, threats to damage their professional or personal reputations, digital security attacks, misrepresentation via manipulated images, and financial threats.

These methods of attack are growing more sophisticated and evolving with technology such as artificial intelligence. They are also increasingly networked and coordinated across platforms, sometimes involving state or political actors, and even male journalists have been approached to assist. Results of the survey showed that 41% of women journalists had been targeted as part of an organised digital disinformation campaign. Journalists in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Arab States reported higher than average rates of disinformation attacks which intended to discredit them, including deepfakes and stories about affairs or sexual orientation. Harassment then increased for 16% of women who reported such attacks.1123

Further reading

Studies and reports: Examples of tactics of disinformation campaigns

Under the spotlight: harassment of women in public roles in New Zealand

Research indicates that, consistent with global trends, women in public roles in New Zealand –including journalists, researchers, politicians, and activists – experience misogynistic online and offline abuse and harassment.

The landscape in New Zealand

A paper released by DPMC,2425 provided an overview to the COVID-19 Chief Executives Board (CCB) of the landscape of misinformation and disinformation in New Zealand during the pandemic. There was a reported increase in online and real-world harassment and threats directed towards elected officials, health professionals, journalists, academics, frontline workers and vulnerable communities including women, Māori and ethnic communities.

A 2021 study26 by The Disinformation Project looked at the spread of mis- and disinformation in New Zealand from 17 August to 5 November 2021 across different social media platforms. This study highlighted a trend of mis- and disinformation specifically directed at key individuals and groups such as women, Māori, Pacific, migrants and ethnic minorities, gender minorities, people with disabilities and LGBTQIA+ people who work across government, academia, public service, journalism, Māori leadership, and other forms of public life. The study notes that leading public figures and officials such as Members of Parliament, journalists, health officials, academic and community leaders were also targeted and subjected to abuse. The study also found that these targeted attacks disproportionately affected public figures, particularly those from minority groups.

New Zealand women journalists

A 2022 study of women journalists27 in New Zealand and Australia revealed that the growth of digital media has led to an increase in abuse against journalists in both countries. Women journalists, in particular, were targeted by various forms of harassment such as trolling, rape threats, death threats, and sexist slurs. An unpublished survey2728 carried out in December 2021 of 148 New Zealand journalists working for Stuff found that 66% of them faced violence or threats of violence related to their job, with approximately 65% experiencing the threats online. The threats they encountered included threats to their lives, families or their homes. Nearly all women journalists surveyed reported receiving online abuse, with some facing it on a weekly basis.

According to the study, the nature of online abuse targeting women journalists tended to be more gender-specific and tied to their race, sexuality or religion and often linked their gender with their inability to do the job. They experienced this type of abuse at more than twice the rate of their male counterparts. While all journalists, regardless of gender, reported facing threats or actual acts of violence, women journalists tended to report more disturbing encounters including being followed, receiving unsolicited gifts or messages at their homes and threats against their children. In contrast, male journalists tended to report incidents of random physical attacks. Furthermore, the study found that 25% of journalists self-censored when covering certain topics to avoid abuse and women respondents were more likely to indicate they had considered leaving journalism compared to their male counterparts.

Similar findings were reported in a 2022 survey29 of 359 journalists in New Zealand undertaken by the Worlds of Journalism Study (WJS) Group as part of a global survey including 120 countries to map changes in journalism since 2016. The first global results will be available in 2024. This report provides preliminary results from New Zealand as part of the WJS study. The researchers found that around 68% of all respondents reported experiencing demeaning and hateful speech sometimes or often, with over one third experiencing it often or very often. Women journalists reported feeling much less safe than their counterparts in the workplace and experiencing higher levels of hateful and offensive speech, public discrediting, doxing, stalking, other threats and intimidation, questioning of personal morality, workplace bullying and sexual harassment.

The increase in online harassment, abuse and threats of violence during the occupation of Parliament contributed to the downgrading of New Zealand’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index. In 2022, New Zealand’s ranking for media freedom dropped to 11th place, then to 13th out of 180 nations in 2023.30

New Zealand female politicians

Eva Corlett highlighted in a 2022 article31 for The Guardian some of the challenges faced by female politicians in New Zealand due to an increasing wave of online misogyny. The article reported that female MPs were encountering a barrage of sexist, misogynistic and abusive behaviour, predominately through anonymous social media accounts. This abuse targeted female MPs from all political parties and included death threats, commentary on their appearance and how they should behave.

In 2022, in an article32 published by Stuff, the Speaker of the House stated there had been a significant increase in abusive behaviour over the previous five years. Women MPs had been particularly targeted with personalised and hateful comments. This led some of them to take measures such as installing home security systems and seeking support from Parliament. The abuse also extended beyond Parliament.

Another news 2022 article33 discusses the experience of misogynistic abuse by women in local government, with elected officials facing various forms of abuse, including death threats. These observations align with the 2023 Parliamentary independent review(p19)34 that found that staff, MPs, and Ministers reported a rise in “vicious social media comments, hate speech, increased threats and physical security risks”.

In 2022, Susanna Every-Palmer, Oliver Hansby, and Justin Barry-Walsh conducted a survey of 54 New Zealand parliamentarians, consisting of 34 women and 20 men, focusing on their experiences of stalking, harassment, gendered abuse, and violence. Published in 2024,35 the study revealed that 98% of respondents had faced harassment ranging from disturbing communications to physical violence, with 96% encountering such harassment via social media, letters, and emails. Specific threats included physical violence (40%), sexual violence (14%), and death threats (27%), showing a marked increase since a similar 2014 survey.

The research highlighted that female MPs were particularly vulnerable, experiencing higher rates of gendered abuse and threats towards their families. Social media was a common venue for such harassment, with 96% of MPs reporting it, and over half experiencing direct threats. Harassment frequently transitioned from online platforms to physical confrontations, with 35% of MPs being approached in public and 9% at their homes.

The harassment often manifested in racial abuse, sexualised comments, and threats related to sexual orientation. The study's quantitative analysis highlighted that women were significantly more likely to report social media harassment involving gendered abuse (62.5% vs 25% for men), sexualised comments (40.6% vs 10% for men), threats of sexual violence (20% vs 0% for men), and threats toward their family (28.1% vs 5% for men).

Participants also expressed increasing concerns over a 'changing landscape' of online discourse, marked by racist, misogynistic, and extreme right-wing rhetoric, which seemed to embolden more direct confrontations. MPs expressed a significant "fear" for personal safety, influenced by the threatening messages received, which was markedly higher among women – 69% of female MPs reported feeling fearful for their safety due to social media messages, compared to 33% of male MPs.

Under the spotlight: gendered abuse towards the former Prime Minister

The intensity of online abuse and harassment directed at former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was highlighted in a 2023 quantitative study36 conducted by Dr Chris Wilson and his team at Hate & Extremism Insights Aotearoa (HEIA). The study analysed online discourse from 2019 to 2022. The research, which examined content across fringe platforms like Gab, 4chan, select New Zealand Telegram channels, Reddit, and 8kun, found that following the Prime Minister's resignation, Ardern faced a rate of online abuse 50 to 90 times higher than any other high-profile figure.

This aligns with information released by the NZ Police to Newshub37 which showed that threats to Ardern which involved the police increased from 18 in 2019 to 32 in 2020 and further to 50 in 2021.3839 A 2022 study40 by The Disinformation Project also found that Ardern was among a group of politician who were “consistently targeted with extremely misogynistic, vulgar, violent, and vicious commentary and content.”

Suze Wilson, in a 202241 and 202342 articles for the Conversation, examined the hostility towards Jacinda Ardern, particularly due to her COVID-19 policies like vaccine mandates and border controls. A significant portion of the hostility, Wilson argues, can be traced back to sexist and misogynistic attitudes. She describes how Ardern is often depicted in online discourse through misogynistic tropes that portray her as manipulative or evil, a typical portrayal of powerful women as deceitful.

Wilson points out that the gendered nature of online violence disproportionately targets women, with insults on social media often reflecting and perpetuating traditional sexist beliefs. Examples include the diminutive nickname “Cindy,” which infantilises Ardern, and the label “pretty communist”43 which trivialises her based on her appearance but also insinuate deceit, suggesting her looks mask nefarious intentions.

Findings a 2022 study44 by the Disinformation Project on dangerous speech and misogyny highlighted an increase in misogynistic language directed at female leaders and public figures in New Zealand, marked by dehumanising insults and imagery. This included the use of animal references, depictions of insects and diseases, and associations with witchcraft and Satanism, aimed at diminishing and vilifying these women.

Echoing these findings, Wilson4142observed that such vitriol not only involves demeaning and dehumanising language but also escalates to threats of violence, death, and sexual assault, underscoring the severe nature of misogyny in public discourse.

When we look at the bigger picture of gender-based violence and disinformation, it becomes evident that women in public roles, whether or not they hold high-profile positions, often face targeted campaigns of harassment and abuse. Threats made online often lead to offline harassment and abuse, and real-life violence against women – and vice versa.


We understand that this research could be confronting or upsetting for some readers. If you or someone you know needs to talk:

  • Free call Women’s Refuge 0800 733 843 for support for women and children experiencing family violence.
  • Visit Netsafe to complete an online form to report any online safety issues or free call 0508 638 723 for support.
  • Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.
  • Free call Youthline 0800 376 633 or text 234 to talk with someone from a safe and youth-centred organisation.
  • Free call Safe to Talk 0800 044 334 or text 4334 anytime for support about sexual harm.
  • Free call OutLine Aotearoa 0800 688 5463 any evening to talk to trained volunteers from Aotearoa's rainbow communities.