Mon, 09 Dec 2019

Study: Social Media a Double-Edged Sword for Female Politicians

Voice of America
12 Nov 2019, 16:05 GMT+10

WASHINGTON - On Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren's Facebook page, you can find videos ranging from an announcement in Des Moines, Iowa, that her campaign has reached $2 million in donations ...

... to one with the Massachusetts senator looking into the camera, explaining her plan to help U.S. teachers.

It's on Twitter that Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican from Tennessee and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee Tech Task Force, calls on followers to safeguard their personal data.

A recently published study by a Washington think tank indicates that women in public office - or those seeking it, whether in the United States or abroad - are increasingly bypassing traditional media, relying instead on social media to bolster their image and broadcast their message in a more nuanced and unfiltered way.

According to Wilson Center Global Fellow Lucina Di Meco, who authored the study for the organization's Global Women's Leadership Initiative, social media enables female leaders to connect directly with constituents and allows them to be "authentic, to really go beyond very scripted images that we had seen in the past, to really try and show a little bit more of themselves."

Based on 88 interviews with female leaders from 33 countries, Di Meco's research indicates that, despite a highly toxic media environment, female candidates often have been able to use both Twitter and Facebook to support their political ambitions by creating a robust network of online support.

Equalizing force

Crystal Patterson, Facebook's Global Civics Partnership manager, said messaging via social platforms is a more surefire way to shape one's own message.

"You are not asking a reporter to change a quote or asking for local news to recut the story," she said. "You can put the video up that you want; you can put the message up that you want in a way that you want it to be shown to people. That's often the best way to get truthful information about yourself out there - and to counter bad information."

While the 2018 midterm elections saw an unprecedented number of female candidates win congressional seats, Rebecca Schuller, executive director of Winning for Women, an organization that supports female Republican leaders, said right-of-center female candidates are working to build a similar kind of momentum online.

"Maybe they are not getting the attention because they just don't have the history that some of their male peers have, or maybe they are Republican women in a very purple district and it's a challenging media environment," she said.

Even then, social media is still a useful tool that enables them "to kind of take the reins and do it for themselves," Schuller said.

While social media can be a great equalizer at a time when women politicians remain underrepresented in traditional media, Virginia-based political consultant Christine Matthews said the success of individual candidates in driving their message on social media depends largely on their skills in the medium.

"A candidate who can use it [social media] effectively and authentically is going to be more powerful and have a better message," Matthews, president of Bellwether Research and Consulting, told VOA.

Matthews points to New York Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat, as one who is savvy at using social media. For last month's pointed cross-examination of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Ocasio-Cortez sought questions from her Twitter followers to ask the tech mogul.

Candidates who use social media in a "risk-averse way, I think you're going to have more difficulties," she said.

Double-edged sword

Despite myriad benefits of direct online engagement, broader online exposure can cut both ways, the Global Women's Leadership initiative study found.

Not only are women targeted for harassment on Twitter more frequently than that their male counterparts, but the nature of the criticism is different, the study, headed by Di Meco, found.

"Twitter conversations, for example, looked more at their [the women's] personality and character instead of their policies," Di Meco said, adding that females also are more likely to be targeted by fake accounts.

Consultant Matthews said all candidates - particularly women - should have an established strategy for responding to online harassment before hitting the campaign trail, such as identifying fake accounts and training staff in digital literacy.

"What women in particular are going to need to do is think about, What is my strategy for responding to trolls or negative criticism or attacks,' " she said. They also need to consider real-time response logistics, from staffing size to specific skillsets of workers, in order to respond effectively, she added.

Matthews also said it is imperative that party officials at all levels tell constituents and online commenters that offensive memes and misogynistic attacks, regardless of the target's political affiliation, aren't acceptable.

Political consultant Jenna Golden, former head of political and advocacy sales at Twitter, said even if candidates face an unbearably toxic environment online, withdrawal from the political arena shouldn't be the solution.

"The solution is not to walk away, the solution is to say, 'We belong here, this is a place for us, this is an opportunity for us to communicate,' " she said during an October panel discussion at American University on challenges facing female candidates. "As a result, we have to look to all these groups of people and entities and say, 'How can we come up with a solution together?'"

Evolving responses

Another key finding in Di Meco's report: Women are increasingly savvy about responding effectively to harassment on the campaign trail.

While female candidates have historically been advised to "take the high road" and ignore sexist attacks, Di Meco said new research indicates that many women are seeing an uptick in popularity when responding to harassment by calling it out, whether that's online or on the campaign trail.

"It was found that the better response is, in fact, to call it out, to say that those things aren't acceptable," Di Meco said. "When a female politician does that, she recovers in credibility and improves her likability."

Due to technology's rapid advance, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are only now offering guidance on navigating social media platforms, partnering with digital-literacy advocates to train political professionals on how to maximize their reach and impact while shielding themselves from attack. The Women and Politics Institute at American University, for example, offers a WeLead training program that offers guidance to young women who want to run for office or run a political campaign.

Asked whether the expanded online engagement can translate into more votes, Di Meco said results of the 2018 midterms are a positive sign.

"We did see an uptick in the number of female politicians elected. And so I would think that the younger generations are politically active both online and offline," she said.

This story originated in VOA's Albanian Service.

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