The Greatest Threat to Democracy Might Not Be What You Expect

The Greatest Threat to Democracy Might Not Be What You Expect

By Shaan Merchant


Because tweets directed at women more often than not seek to discredit or threaten them.

By Shaan Merchant

When news broke of Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Twitter released a statement banning “tweets that wish for death, serious bodily harm, or fatal disease against anyone.” While this may seem like a reasonable statement for the sake of digital civility, it raised the eyebrows of many women, especially women of color, who have consistently been on the receiving end of Twitter death threats and worse for years.

Acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay asked, “Does this also go for Black and Brown women who have long been and continue to be harassed and threatened with assault and death on this platform or nah?” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wondered, “So … you mean to tell us you could’ve done this the whole time?” And words evaded a shocked Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, the reported recipient of hundreds of regular threats, who could simply respond with a meme. 

Twitter later responded saying, “We hear the voices who feel we are enforcing some policy inconsistently. We agree we must do better.” 

“It’s a slap in the face to women,” says Soraya Chemaly, activist, writer and director of Women’s Media Center. In 2014, when a campaign that Chemaly co-founded approached Twitter about helping create pathways for targeted women, “Twitter shut it down. Roundly rejected it. They were condescending and aggressive,” she says. Facebook only made limited concessions (like removing pages that fantasized about raping women or named the “bitches they would like to shoot”) after Chemaly and company went directly to advertisers and got them to pull $20 million in advertiser dollars. 

While this particular “inconsistency” may be particularly egregious, women in politics are no strangers to inequitable treatment. From acts as seemingly “harmless” as Mike Pence’s heavily interrupting performance at the vice presidential debate to the recently thwarted, horrifying plan to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, we see the ways women in politics are often undermined, harassed or at risk of worse. But this inequity exists — and is even heightened under the relative guise of anonymity — in the digital sphere. 

Sarah Sobieraj is a sociologist at Tufts University and a preeminent scholar in the rising field of digital hate. She and I conducted original research published earlier this year that examined nearly 2,500 tweets directed toward politicians across race, gender and party lines, analyzing for attempts to discredit, intimidate or shame. Each of these categories saw women facing significantly more hate than men, most of the time with women of color seeing the most.

Almost 60 percent of tweets directed toward female legislators were attempts to discredit their authority.

An eye-opening 83 percent of tweets directed toward Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for example, fell into this category during our study. Female legislators were three and a half times more likely to receive tweets that threatened physical or reputational harm.

Tweets directed toward the female legislators were also almost three times more likely to mention gender or the body than those directed at their male counterparts, those themes were twice as likely to be mentioned to women of color than white women. 

Of course, from angry constituent calls to campaign mudslinging, politicians are no strangers to criticism. A 1991 study, “Threatening and Otherwise Inappropriate Letters to Members of the United States Congress,” analyzed letters to legislators, over 20 percent of which were threatening. But the intimacy and immediacy of the internet make these threats feel different.

In her book, Credible Threat: Attacks Against Women Online and the Future of Democracy, Sobieraj explains that this online abuse is more than interpersonal bullying. It is a visceral response to the threat of equality in digital conversations and arenas that men would prefer to control. The Venn diagram below illustrates her research, showing what might make women more vulnerable to online harassment. Falling under multiple axes of marginalization (LGBTQ, overweight, disabled, being a person of color), being feminist or noncompliant (hoping to change the status quo), or working/being vocal in a typically male-dominated space each adds a layer that makes one a greater target. 

From Sarah Sobieraj’s Credible Threat

The impact of this digital harassment is significant and not only makes the digital sphere — where so much of today’s discourse lives — an unpleasant or even uninhabitable space for women, but it can also creep its way into public life and systematically silence female voices. “It’s not just an embarrassment, it’s a threat to our democracy,” says Chemaly, who got into this work after being targeted herself for her writing. “A fundamental requirement for democracy that we don’t talk about that much is physical security,” she adds, and women “don’t have the luxury of a distinction” between the digital world and the “real” world. 

Chemaly recalls the Facebook groups that popped up during the 2016 election so that women could have a safe place to discuss politics. “As a society, we did not care that women were not safe enough to participate in robust political debate.” A search of Kamala Harris’ name after the recent debate shows the vile language used against a candidate, who falls in the center of the Venn diagram.

While those not on the receiving end can be blind to this hate, its threat to discourse and democracy is startling. It can be the “ghost that hovers over the keyboard” for prominent women online, describes one interviewee in Sobieraj’s book.

Solutions are neither quick nor easy. This is “part of the fabric of societal norms that tolerate high levels of violence against women. The platforms are never going to solve that on their own,” Chemaly explains. But as we do the long-term work to shift societal behavior, we can also educate ourselves, hold social platforms accountable and shift the frame through which we as individuals and institutions — political parties, media, academia — see this, from embarrassing cyberbullying to a significant threat to our democratic system.