In a matter of days, Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour will arrive in Australia. From across the country, thousands will gather to see their icon performing live, the real deal, in the flesh. However, it’s the manipulation of the ‘real deal’ that’s dominating headlines, in the place where anticipation should be. Popularity, power, and wealth have given little protection against a faceless evil. It’s a story with a warning: “Girls beware, don’t draw attention to yourselves, and whatever you do, don’t publicly share a political opinion… ever”.

Image by: Jeronimo Ramos - Adobe Stock

Taylor Swift has become a powerful icon for women around the world. The combination of her fierce approach to sisterhood and female empowerment and her independent and unapologetic domination of the music industry - as evidenced by the success of her billion-dollar Era’s Tour and six Grammy nominations for 2024 - makes her one of the most successful female artists of her generation.     


But last week, Taylor found herself the target of serious online abuse. Alleged members of a Telegram group dedicated to sharing “abusive images of women“ made her the focus of deepfake pornography.  This content soon migrated to X, where it went viral.  The Verge reported that one such post was viewed over 45 million times before it was removed. 


Why? Well, the long version involves conspiracy theories pervasive with the far-right, but the more likely short version is - Taylor voiced a political opinion in 2020 (pro-Biden, anti-Trump) and that opinion is once again relevant as the US heads into an election year. 


Targeting Taylor Swift with deepfake pornography is emblematic of a broader crisis of online abuse against women who directly or indirectly join public political discourse. Such harassment not only raises alarms about the misuse of digital innovation but also casts a shadow over the critical discourse on gender participation and politics. 


A recent poll on the professional platform LinkedIn suggested that 80% of professional women who might consider a career in politics, would be deterred from doing so, in fear of online abuse.  It supports the view expressed by Julia Gillard back in 2016: “…women feel and fear it, and that it is preventing women from standing up and serving in public life”. These words, spoken at a memorial to the slain UK MP Jo Cox, came eight years ahead of the current proliferation of AI enabled abuse.


Online abuse targeting women who are in, or aspire to, political roles is not only a form of gendered violence but a form of political violence, aiming to silence and sideline women’s voices in the public sphere through fear and intimidation. 


Whilst policy makers continue to pressure mainstream platforms, including Facebook and TikTok to do more, users are simply flocking to alternative unmoderated sites.  According to Pyrra Technologies, a company whose AI-for-good platform identifies threats across alternative social media (alt-social), 2023 marked a significant year for alt-social media channels, with high growth in unmoderated sites such as Telegram, 4chan, and Donald Trump’s Truth Social. 


“The increasing popularity of alternative social media sites such as these is largely driven by the absence of robust content moderation and fact-checking mechanisms across these forums, making them highly attractive arenas for users to push conspiracy theories, hateful rhetoric and misinformation with little to no impunity.”  Rebecca Jones


Australia grapples with the same stark reality. Former MP Nicole Flint used her 2022 valedictory speech to shine a light on the extreme abuse she received in office. Contemporary analysis using Pyrra highlights that a persistent threat remains targeting Australian women politicians and political commentators (with examples including Penny Wong and others), details too abusive to relay here.  


“It’s increasingly common for us to see politicians targeted by the far right or left, but when these politicians are women, they become frequent targets of hate speech. Sites such as KiwiFarms exist to harass and target members of the queer community, while Incels attracts members who share an often-violent hatred towards women.” notes Rebecca. 


According to a 2023 UN Women report, approximately 10 percent of countries have a woman as Head of Government, and at current rates of change, it will take over four decades to close the leadership gender gap. Whilst a brief by the Inter-Parliamentary Union on ‘Sexism, harassment, and violence against women MPs’ shows that 85 percent of respondents had experienced psychological violence, of whom 46.9 percent reported having received death threats or threats of rape or beatings.  


Despite positive work by UN Women and others, escalating online abuse targeting women in politics creates a relentless and twisted Whack-A-Mole dynamic, where efforts to advance women’s political participation are constantly undermined by evolving adverse forces.


There’s no straightforward answer.  Cultivating a respectful digital ecosystem relies on the absence of deliberately malicious actors.  The situation calls for a multi-faceted approach with a strong policy stance, counterbalanced by civil liberties. Policy which drives users away from the mainstream is proving counterproductive and finding the legislative sweet spot will be key.  And with the legislation there must be enforcement – strong, decisive penalties that reflect the harm caused.  Where online abuse is both gendered violence and political violence – the penalties should be consequent.

This month, Australia will watch Taylor perform with vibrancy and passion, an untainted icon.  But for many, the pernicious tide of online abuse results in a modern form of sequestration, pushing women out of the public political sphere and into the shadows, a retreat that carries with it profound implications for the vibrancy and representativeness of our democracy.

Alison Howe and Rebecca Jones

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