How gender focused misinformation impacts women in Ugandan politics

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How gender focused misinformation impacts women in Ugandan politics
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As Uganda approaches its 2026 general elections, the nation faces a pressing and multifaceted challenge, the surge of gender focused  disinformation.

This insidious form of misinformation specifically targets individuals based on their gender, often aiming to discredit, intimidate, or silence them.

With the power to undermine democratic processes and exacerbate gender inequalities, combating gendered disinformation has become crucial for ensuring a fair and just electoral landscape.

Experts define gender disinformation as the falsified representation or presentation of an individual based on their gender, with the intent to cause harm to the individual or their reputation.

Phillip Ayazika, programs director at Pollicy, a feminist civic-tech organization that works at the intersection of data, design, and technology to promote the responsible use of data by citizens and governments towards inclusive development, told the Nile Post that women have been the larger victims of gendered disinformation, a problem that has further marginalized women from participating in decision-making processes that define a democratic society.

For instance, in 2018, Sylvia Rwabogo, the then Kabarole Woman Member of Parliament, sought legal justice against cyber stalking from Brian Isiko, who was a male student of YMCA.

Her experience was misrepresented and trivialized on the internet, with falsified information and manipulated facts aimed at shaming, silencing, and undermining her political career. This incident portrayed her as weak and extreme, while downplaying the severity of her abuser's actions.

In 2022, Dr. Miria Matembe, a seasoned politician and women's rights activist, filed a defamation suit against Ofwono Opondo, the Government spokesperson, following false and defamatory remarks made about her on national television.

Opondo's statement falsely claimed that Matembe's husband left her for house girls, highlighting how gendered disinformation targets and distorts the public image of women in politics.

Similarly, prominent women politicians like former Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga, Doreen Nyanjura, the Deputy Kampala Lord Mayor have faced false information regarding their personal and public affairs.

In Uganda, common forms of gendered disinformation include information manipulation through AI and other tools, demonization of intellectual ideals such as gender equality, and various forms of abuse such as trolling, insults, body shaming, sexualized comments, and gender-based attacks.

Women in leadership positions often face online abuse, known as online violence against women in politics which includes offensive name-calling, sexual harassment, stalking, threats of violence, non-consensual intimate image sharing, hate speech, and misrepresented information aimed at undermining their credibility and public image.

Ayazika emphasized their research findings, particularly from Pollicy's "Amplified Abuse: Report on Online Violence Against Women in the 2021 Uganda General Election" and Byte Bullies, which illustrate these tactics and highlight the pervasive nature of gendered disinformation.

The report revealed that men and women experience online violence differently during elections.

Women are disproportionately targeted with trolling, sexual violence, and body shaming, whereas men are more likely to face hate speech and satirical comments.

The report also noted a higher incidence of sexual violence against women online, highlighting the specific vulnerabilities faced by women in digital spaces.

While both men and women engage in online activities, women's increased online presence correlates with higher levels of online violence compared to men.

Women journalists and human rights defenders are particularly vulnerable to gendered disinformation, as they often represent the forefront of women's voices in national discourse.

This targeting aims to silence their advocacy and diminish their influence in public debates on political, economic, and social issues.

The impact of gendered disinformation extends beyond individual harm to affect the integrity of information and public discourse. Misinformation compromises information accessibility, utilization, and receptiveness, undermining women's credibility and hindering meaningful engagement with constituents.

Margaret Sentamu, executive director of the Uganda Media Women's Association, highlighted that women's willingness to engage in politics is significantly hindered by pervasive disinformation and intimidation tactics they face.

"This creates a disorienting and intimidating environment," she emphasized. Despite well-planned participation strategies, women often achieve less than 50 percent of their potential and many withdraw from political processes altogether.

The ramifications of this withdrawal are profound. Women's voices and concerns are excluded from policymaking, resulting in laws that neglect their perspectives. Sentamu cautioned that such policies could favor the voices that are heard, leading to societal losses overall.

Sentamu also criticized current media laws as gender-blind. A gender analysis of these laws identified significant gaps, which were presented to parliamentary committees responsible for potential reforms last December.

Despite efforts to lobby the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) and the Ministry of ICT, progress has been slow, and parliament's response has been indifferent.

Sentamu expressed frustration over the lack of urgency in addressing these critical issues.

George Musisi, a lawyer at PACE advocates, highlighted that women frequently become targets of false information, often disseminated in sexist ways aimed at tarnishing their reputation in our “predominantly patriarchal society”, thereby dissuading many from engaging in politics.

He added that while there are laws like the Computer Misuse Act addressing disinformation broadly, there are no specific policies targeting gendered disinformation in the pipeline.

Experts highlight that globally, few countries have mechanisms specifically addressing gendered disinformation. In Africa, the lack of gender data integration in legal reforms remains a significant barrier to combating hate speech effectively.

Moreover, the accountability of technology platforms to national governments is limited by weak international, regional, and national frameworks that have not adapted adequately to the role of digital technologies in perpetrating online violence.

Regarding laws addressing gendered disinformation in Uganda, while specific legislation is lacking, several existing laws play a role.

These include the Computer Misuse Act 2011, UCC Act 2013, Data Protection and Privacy Act 2019, Penal Code Act, and provisions in Uganda's Constitution which collectively promote equal and fair participation for all individuals.

Antonio Kisembo, a multimedia journalist, trainer and co-founder of the Media Challenge Initiative (MCI), stressed the necessity of a clear regulatory framework and adherence to industry standards to combat disinformation effectively.

Kisembo underscored the importance of responsible use of digital platforms and implementing best practices.

"Institutions and the government need a robust regulatory framework to support efforts against disinformation," he stated.

Ayazika emphasized that there is a pressing need to establish standards tailored to local contexts and languages to effectively combat disinformation.

"To date, there are limitations and a lack of shared understanding regarding accountability between labor and data-providing countries versus those that control innovation markets, resulting in unregulated and harmful algorithms," he explained.

He noted the need for policies and regulatory frameworks at both self-regulation and statutory levels to foster shared responsibility in preventing and punishing gendered disinformation, which often verges on defamation.

He highlighted a concerning rise in low self-esteem and mental health challenges among women leaders due to such abuses, leading to self-censorship online and limiting their right to participate publicly in the digital realm, while their competitors capitalize on social media platforms for campaigning.

"Gendered disinformation has tarnished the political careers of numerous women in politics, forcing many to withdraw from political participation and setting discouraging examples for other women," Ayazika lamented.

Kisembo outlined critical strategies to address gendered disinformation during Uganda's elections, emphasizing education, awareness, and collaboration with fact-checking organizations to counter negative narratives targeting female politicians.

Kisembo stressed the importance of widespread education and awareness efforts to inform the public about the nature and impact of gendered disinformation.

"Through workshops, seminars, and community programs, we can educate people about the consequences of gendered disinformation," he suggested.

To counter negative narratives, Kisembo advocated for amplifying the voices of female politicians.

"Providing platforms for female politicians to share their stories is crucial," he emphasized. This approach ensures diverse perspectives are heard and understood, challenging harmful stereotypes and misinformation.

Collaboration with fact-checking organizations was another key strategy highlighted by Kisembo. He stressed the importance of verifying information to combat disinformation effectively.

"Partnering with fact-checking organizations helps verify information and ensures accuracy during elections," he noted, essential for maintaining information integrity.

Kisembo urged the government to implement tools to track disinformation, particularly on social media platforms, and collaborate with these platforms to remove harmful content.

"Government partnerships with social media companies are crucial for removing harmful content and creating a safer online environment for political discourse," he asserted.

He noted that MCI is actively involved in training young people through various programs to tackle gendered disinformation, highlighting their efforts in equipping journalists with skills to identify and counter disinformation.

He emphasized the organization's commitment to eradicating gendered disinformation during elections.

Drawing lessons from successful regulatory measures in other countries, Kisembo suggested Uganda could benefit from studying models that hold digital platforms accountable.

He pointed to initiatives like the African Union's efforts in countering cyber harassment and promoting digitalization as potential models for Uganda.

Moreover, Kisembo advocated for learning from grassroots initiatives in countries like Nigeria, where community-based fact-checking networks have proven effective.

He emphasized the importance of public-private partnerships involving government, tech companies, and civil society to combat disinformation comprehensively.

Sentamu also stressed the need for resilience and realistic expectations regarding legal protections.

She underscored the importance of preparing women to navigate these challenges effectively. This includes training media professionals to avoid perpetuating gendered stereotypes and ensuring critical examination of such information before publication.

Sentamu acknowledged the absence of specific laws governing digital platforms and called for extensive awareness and education efforts to address this regulatory gap.

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