Home Politics How to combat gendered disinformation ahead of Ghana’s 2024 poll

How to combat gendered disinformation ahead of Ghana’s 2024 poll

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Women in Ghanaian politics are usually the primary targets of coordinated political attacks during election periods and this year would not be any different.

What we have failed to appreciate over the years is that when a woman is targeted by disinformation campaign and abusive messages, it is not only her personality and many years of experience that are under-siege. Also, the political system and the democratic gains made are equally under attack.

Commendably, the number of women in political leadership in Ghana has increased marginally over the years although a lot requires to be done to improve the situation for the better. Female representation in Ghana’s Parliament increased from as low as 16 (8%) females as against 184 (92%) males out of the 200-member legislature in 1992 to 40 (14.5%) females as against 235 (85.4%) males in 2020, a United Nations (UN) data has shown. The present 14.5% female representation in Ghana’s law-making body is 15.5% short of the UN benchmark set at 30% female representation in decision-making positions.

The situation at the local assembly level is slightly worse than the average national picture as data showed a sharp decrease in the number of women’s participation, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has said in 2023. Researchers Gyimah and Thompson (2008) reported that women’s participation in local politics in the Nadowli District in the Upper West Region of Ghana is low because of factors such as intimidation, lack of recognition and illiteracy. At the national level, the researchers singled out lack of resources to finance campaigns, gender-based violence, lack of political will by parties to support women, and political parties favouring male candidates as some of the core factors inhibiting the effective participation of women in Ghanaian politics. Other researchers have cited corruption, ignorance, discrimination, lack of self-confidence and unsupportive family as some factors that affect women participation in national politics.

The common thread running through the factors identified by these researchers to be responsible for the low participation of women in Ghana’s politics is discrimination or gender-based violence within the political space.  Studies have shown that female politicians are far more likely than men to be targeted by disinformation campaigns and abusive messages, including sexualised image-based abuse. These coordinated political campaigns have nothing to do with the competence or otherwise of the female candidates. Their goals, as data has revealed are rather to silence these female targets by discrediting their experiences, force them to abandon a particular space they find themselves, and reinforce discriminatory practices and biases. It is this campaign targeted at women and girls that researchers have described as gendered disinformation or gender-based disinformation.

The United States Department of State has defined gendered disinformation as a “subset of misogynistic abuse and violence against women that uses false or misleading gender and sex-based narratives, often with some degree of coordination, to deter women from participating in the public sphere.” Also, an independent non-profit research organisation, EU DisinfoLab, has noted gender-based disinformation “focuses on the intersection between disinformation and gender, where women…and marginalised groups are disproportionately targeted and harassed by spreading deceptive or inaccurate content about them.”

It is important to stress that gendered disinformation is not only about the intentionally false or misleading information that targets individuals based on their gender, but also any attack that seeks to undermine women’s rights and reinforce stereotypes form part of it. “The techniques for diffusing gendered disinformation are diverse, and can comprise misogynist comments that reinforce gender stereotypes, the sexualisation and diffusion of graphic content, online harassment, including threats of violence, and even cyber-attacks,” the EU DisinfoLab said in 2022.

Research has revealed that gendered disinformation mainly targets women in positions of power and visibility, including journalists, activists, celebrities, and politicians. According to Plan International, gender-based attacks and disinformation threaten democracy by deterring girls and women from active political or civic participation and perpetuate the notion that decision-making is a “man’s job.” Also, other studies have shown that as young women witness the systematic inaction of the public and government in the face of misogynistic abuse, they are discouraged from public-facing careers. This robs the country of the experiences and competence of women in decision-making at both local and national levels.

As Ghanaians head to the poll in December 2024 to elect the successor of President Nana Akufo-Addo and 275 lawmakers, political campaigns targeting female politicians have started in the media. Already, Samira Bawumia, the Second Lady of Ghana and wife of the Vice President and the 2024 Presidential candidate of the governing New Patriotic Party (NPP), Dr Mahamudu Bawumia, has been a victim of this vitriolic political attack. And so is Professor Jane Naana Opoku-Agyemang, the Vice-Presidential candidate of the flagbearer of the opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC), John Dramani Mahama.

When the Deputy Spokesperson of Mr Mahama’s campaign, Beatrice Annan called out Mrs Bawumia on social media for wearing heavy make-up to public functions, she received the applause of some leading members and supporters of the NDC. The grassroots of the party heavily defended the comment made by the young Ghanaian lawyer to the chagrin of well-meaning Ghanaians. In a reprisal response, some supporters of the NPP began to circulate images of Beatrice on social media accompanied by unspoken words about her personality. The private legal practitioner sustained the campaign against the Second Lady until some well-meaning members of her party prevailed upon her to stop. It is unfortunate that until this day, Beatrice Annan does not see the effect of the seed she sowed.

The amiable Professor Jane Naana Opoku-Agyemang was announced as the running mate of the NDC Presidential candidate, John Mahama, in a video that continues to attract both admiration and criticism, depending one’s political stance. The former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Coast (UCC) paired with Mr Mahama in the lead up to the 2020 Presidential election, which they narrowly lost to President Nana Akufo-Addo and Dr Bawumia. As anticipated, her second outdooring as a running mate has courted the displeasure of her political opponents who have repeatedly attacked her personality and not her competence. Her age has been one major weapon her political opponents have not stopped exploiting to discredit her astounding years of experience in the education sector, sacrifice and contributions to the development of Ghana. The first attack was initiated by the Majority leader, Alexander Afenyo-Markin who ridiculed her in the full glare of other lawmakers at a time the issue for discussion in the legislature had nothing to do with Professor Opoku-Agyemang.

When he rose to conclude the debate on the State of the Nation Address delivered by President Nana Akufo-Addo on March 11, 2024, the lawyer had this to say: “It is the same old John Mahama…even if you look at his choice of running mate, he could not get somebody that one could say that they are planning for the future. The person is over 70 years, we have no succession plan. From day one, their government will be in crisis. They went to pick the very old person who could not perform at the Education Ministry. As I submitted earlier, if you even look at how they paraded their leadership, clearly, they have not put in place a visionary leadership for the country’s long-term future.”

Weeks later, the Minister for Agriculture, Bryan Acheampong also attacked the personality of the Professor when he addressed a gathering of NPP supporters during the Easter holidays. “The 2024 election will be about the youth. Dr Bawumia is 60 years old, [while Ex-president] Mahama is 65 years and his [Mahama’s] running mate is 72 years and when you combine their ages you will have 137 years. Today, Ghana needs young people to lead it, so Mahama and his running mate will retire with [the current] President Nana Akufo-Addo in December 2024 for the youth to govern the country,” he said in the Twi language.

These are not the only examples of gendered disinformation recorded this year and as the country prepares for a major election in a few months’ time, we are likely to see many of such incidents. The coordinated nature of these attacks makes it harder for women to recover and reaffirm their credibility.

To minimise the direct harm of gendered disinformation and promote the smooth functioning of democracy, the government, civil society organisations, political parties, think tanks, and media organisations need to establish shared principles to address the issue taking into consideration the voices of women and their experiences both online and offline. The Ghanaian government will need to support the collection of data to better understand the threat of gendered disinformation, advance national legislation, and rope in the education sector and other norm-formative institutions to combat the problem. Also, the media in Ghana will need to serve as a watchdog for gendered disinformation topics, engage in cross-sectoral collaboration to amplify its impact, and strengthen the capacity of their staff to understand the problem of gendered disinformation.

It is recommended that civil society organisations and other organisations should design and deliver audience-specific capacity building and training programmes across the country. Again, these organisations should invest in the understanding of the context behind gendered disinformation, raise awareness of the threat of the issue in a survivor-centred and impactful way, and engage women, women-led partners and men in addressing the issue.

The telecommunication companies operating in Ghana and social media platforms should not be left out since they can help with content moderation on gendered disinformation and related harms as well as punish persons who produce and disseminate gendered disinformation.

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The author, A. Kwabena Brakopowers, is a private legal practitioner, journalist, development communication practitioner, and fact-checking consultant who has written extensively on matters concerning information disorder, brand communication, and international politics. You can reach him at Brakomen@outlook.com

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