PARIS – Brigitte Macron, Michelle Obama, Jacinda Ardern are among some of the world’s most powerful women who have fallen victim to a growing trend: disinformation about their sex or sexuality to mock or, worse, humiliate them.
For months messages have appeared on social media claiming that Macron is a transgender woman originally named Jean-Michel. The fake news flared up in December, only a few months before presidential elections in April.
New Zealand’s prime minister Ardern and former US first lady Obama were also the target of false rumours, in 2018 and 2017, that they were born as men.
The rumours spread like wildfire on social media. It doesn’t matter that virtually nobody believes that Macron is a transgender woman; the lies open the door to insults, scorn and even cyber harassment.
While this “gendered disinformation” is particularly visible in repeated attacks on powerful women, in also affects women in general, and sexual or gender minorities with differing levels of responsibility in public life.
Disinformation targeting them is aimed squarely at sidelining women. Rumours started as disinformation have “an impact in the real world”, said Marylie Breuil, a member of the feminist collective Nous Toutes (All of us Women).
“Someone who talks openly can have their career totally trashed, including by online and often offline cyber-harassment”.
In Iraq, Intidhar Ahmed Jassim was forced to stand down as a candidate in parliamentary elections in early 2018 after being hounded online over claims that she had been recognised in a sex tape.
In 2013, former Italian parliament speaker Laura Boldrini was bombarded with sexist insults, rape threats and pornographic montages, following a rumour that she had danced on television in her underwear.
“There is a further gender dimension there of basically silencing women and eliminating women from the political sphere,” said Lucina Di Meco, a gender equality expert and co-founder of #ShePersisted, a global initiative fighting this disinformation.
The United Nations has voiced alarm, condemning in April “sexist online disinformation campaigns which are increasing” and which target particularly “female journalists, female politicians, and defenders of gender equality who voice their opinion on feminist issues”. “All women and other minorities know before they speak in the media that they are potentially exposing themselves at any moment to a surprise violent reaction,” said Jill-Maud Royer, joint head of the LGBTQ group of French political movement La France Insoumise.
By preventing or discouraging women from participating in public life, gendered disinformation contributes to the “erosion of democratic institutions”, said Di Meco, of #ShePersisted.
With Macron, trans identity is used as a “vehicle” to damage the reputation of her husband French President Emmanuel Macron, said Maud-Yeuse Thomas, an anthropologist and co-founder of the Observatoire des Transidentites (Observatory of trans identities).
Fuelling rumours about someone’s trans identity or supposed homosexuality increases the stigmatisation of LGBTQ people.
By accusing Brigitte Macron of “hidden masculinity”, those who spread this rumour are treating trans identity as a humiliation, said Marie-Joseph Bertini, professor of communications at the University of Nice.
But they also profit by reviving unsubstantiated rumours that her marriage is a sham designed to “hide” her husband’s homosexuality, which circulated during the 2017 presidential campaign.
In any case, it is clear that disinformation makes waves well beyond the powerful and influential people it sometimes targets.
“It is not far-fetched that disinformation campaigns and hate speech are contributory factors to the last few years’ increase in reported hate crimes against LGBTI+ people in Europe,” said a European Parliament briefing paper in July, using an alternative term for LGBTQ.