III. The politics of misinformation and disinformation

Misogyny and the politics of misinformation

Sarah Banet-Weiser'

In 2016, the Oxford Dictionary named post-truth the word of the year. In 2017, Merriam-Webster named feminism the word of the year. Despite their proximity as terms that define the Zeitgeist, there is little consideration about how they might intersect and, in fact, constitute one another. Gender is rarely acknowledged as a key context for the very notion of post-truth. The potential connection between feminism and post-truth has not been acknowledged, despite their both reaching fever pitch at the same time in the same political climate, one that gave way to the renaissance of popular feminism as well as the rise of the contemporary crisis of post-truth. They are part of the same cultural ecosystem.

The post-truth ‘crisis’ is often framed as the downfall of hitherto functional ‘rationality’ in politics, the decline and waning of expertise and Enlightenment values. ‘Democracy’ is the normative foundation for this crisis; it is the foundation that needs to be returned to as ‘normal’. And, despite the contemporary focus on misinformation and ‘post-truth’, with scores of books and articles published focusing on this apparently novel ‘crisis’ (some more historical and critical than others), I think it is crucial to have historical specificity when considering the relationship between gender and misinformation; a historical perspective from the standpoint of gender unseats the assumptions around truth and democracy and urges us to consider alternative futures. The concerns around post-truth — misinformation, disinformation, outright lies — are proclaimed to be a crisis in knowing, in subjectivity, in citizenry; they are seen as affronts to all these ontological and, indeed, scientific claims of being and knowing. Yet this has been the material context for women for centuries, especially for women of colour. In other words, the relationship between misogyny and misinformation is not a new one.

With roots in the Enlightenment and ideas of‘masculine rationality’, women were, and continue to be, understood as being governed by their emotions, subjective in their understandings of the world, not even capable of speaking the truth or even having access to the truth because their emotions block the truth. Thus, I argue, they are always already the bearers of ‘misinformation’. In this context, in a familiar public/private binary, men are the bearers of public truths while women, at best, are seen as ambassadors of private truths. Men’s ‘truths’ have long been positioned as universal while women’s truths have been positioned as incidental, subjective, and unique, even in the most ‘rational’ corners of the natural sciences (e.g. gender bias in medical research, exclusion of women from drug trials, heart attack symptoms, etc.).

Yet there are specifics of the current moment that mobilise choosing these two cultural and discursive practices — the post-truth and feminism — as words of the year. What were posttruth and feminist discourses responding to in the early aughts? Post-truth characterises a very contemporary cultural moment that responds to increased digital circulation of misinformation about a number of things, from news to health to politics. Contemporary feminism, also in digital circulation, is most often a response to misogyny, though this, too, varies, from resisting online harassment to rape culture to misinformation campaigns. Yet, although feminist theories have long explored the ways in which womens bodies, affects, practices, and ideologies have been framed as subjective compared to the ‘objective’ masculine spheres and both misogyny and misinformation have been growing concerns in the contemporary digital era, the relationship between these two contemporary discursive practices hasn’t been thoroughly explored in scholarship. (There are key exceptions; see Manne 2018; Marwick and Lewis 2015; Jane 2016, and others.)

Again, post-truth and popular feminism each has a foil they are positioning themselves against: misinformation and misogyny. Arguably, both misogyny and misinformation are linked to new forms of digital hate speech. They are both mechanisms of control: misogyny and misinformation control dominant narratives, practices, policies, and bodies; both promote an agenda that is about controlling groups of people. Misinformation is broadly defined as a strategic, deliberate practice of altering the truth or a set of facts as a way to redirect or redefine a narrative (see the introduction to this volume). The digital era has seen misinformation proliferate, in part because of the flexibilities offered by digital media platforms; that is, at the centre of the circulation of current forms of misinformation are digital media and communication platforms which centrally use misinformation to mobilise citizens and communities (Marwick and Lewis 2015). Historically, the public anxiety about truth claims and who can and should be a truth teller has as a core logic the relationship between truth and democracy, as well as the relationship between a rational subject and truth. This relationship is seen to be profoundly disrupted in the current moment. As William Davies, writing in The Guardian, put it: ‘A sense that the game is rigged now fuels public debate’ (Davies 2019). While ‘truth’ is an often-contested concept, it has nonetheless always depended on the assumption that certain actors tell the truth and that these actors have been authorised with the mantle of veracity in their understandings of the world and of themselves. Yet the idea that the ‘game is rigged now fuels public debate’ belies a long history, one that suggests that the game is rigged differently at different historical moments and that for women and people of colour, the game has always been rigged.

The current decade is also one in which a networked, digital misogyny has taken hold, described as ‘a basic anti-female violent expression that circulates to wide audiences on popular media platforms’ (Banet-Weiser and Miltner 2015); the logics and affordances of media platforms allow for an amplification of what philosopher Kate Manne has described as “the system that operates within a patriarchal social order to police and enforce women’s subordination and to uphold male dominance” (Manne 2018). The emergence and heightened visibility of networked misogyny, often centred around a space in online culture called the ‘manosphere’, offer yet another plane in the conjunctural logic of contemporary mechanisms of controlling and disciplining women and have had a central role in the creation and circulation of misinformation (Ging 2017; Jane 2016; Marwick and Lewis 2015).

Misogyny is one of the core common logics in racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobic expressions and movements.2 Thus, 1 argue here that these two cultural phenomena — misinformation and misogyny — are often mutually constitutive in this historical conjuncture. In the following pages, I explore some of the connections, intersections, and contradictions between misinformation and misogyny and map these connections in two dimensions: (1) misogyny as a main tactic in the extreme rights misinformation campaigns, mobilised and weaponised against women as a way to secure or ‘take back’ power and (2) extreme right communities claiming that accusations of misogyny (by feminists, women, and others) are themselves misinformation, thus functioning as a kind of funhouse mirror (Banet-Weiser 2018). 1 conclude with a discussion of the historical context for these different tactics and point out the long duree of the relationship between misogyny and misinformation.

 
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