Kamala Harris is a top target in online fever bogs

Shortly after Joe Biden announced last year that he would be picking a woman to work with, Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier warned Facebook executives: Women politicians get the most heinous online attacks and the company's filters couldn't stop them.

"We showed them 20 examples that were gross – and they were still awake!" said Speier of Hillsborough, whose meeting included a meeting with Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. Facebook's response gave her little comfort. "Pass on these terrible examples to us," she said, "and we will take them down."

Speier's concerns that the first female vice president would attract oversized attacks and venomous lies from the ugliest social media players have now been confirmed. Research shows that Kamala Harris is the most targeted American politician on the internet, checking every box for the fever swamp haters: she's a woman, she's a black person, and she has power.

It is not just the amount, but the type of harassment that sets the Harris Arches apart. President Biden gets his share of cutbacks, but they tend to focus on his age and often repeat former President Trump's nickname "Sleepy Joe". Some call it creepy or worse. However, those directed to Harris tend to relate to sex, violence, or misogynistic allegations that she does not deserve her position.

"Abuse against women is highly personalized and often attacks them for their looks and denigrates their intelligence," said Cecile Guerin, a London researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank working to counter extremism, disinformation and polarization. "It's also more likely that they should get out of politics and not belong in public space."

Guerin led a recent study that didn't include Harris, but it did show American politicians were two to three times more likely to receive abusive Twitter comments than men.

Such results raise widespread concern that women, who are still significantly underrepresented in political and corporate offices, are avoiding or giving up managerial roles that make them vulnerable to online abuse. "It definitely prevents women from becoming politically active," said Speier, given concerns about family and personal security.

For example, some women in the UK Parliament cited online abuse and threats The rejection of re-election in 2019 prompted proponents to campaign for better online safety training.

"I think a lot of people don't understand until after going through something like this how much time it takes, how stressful it is," said Nina Jankowicz, a Wilson Center staff member who has focused on the subject of disinformation and harassment.

The January 6 attacks on the Capitol exposed a thinning membrane between the online world and the real world, where public figures were exposed to actual threats from individuals or groups ignited by content on social media. For example, it is no longer difficult to picture violent conspirators responding to the published lies that Harris is a plant that the government wants to take over.

Online attacks against Harris, now that she is Vice President, are being monitored by the Secret Service. Her aides declined to comment other than saying that threats against her and her family are being taken seriously.

Facebook and other social media companies defend their efforts to detect and remove harassing content, but acknowledge that some materials, especially encoded or sarcastic posts, escape automated filters with artificial intelligence. Jankowicz described several such tactics, like sending pictures of empty egg cartons to women in their thirties who have no children, a conclusion that they are sterile and bitter.

Jankowicz led a study published last month Analysis of more than 300,000 jobs against 13 politicians in four English-speaking countries in the months leading up to the US election. Harris was affected in 78% of the posts, more than other high profile women of color in the study, such as Democratic Reps Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, the main targets of Twitter and Facebook abuse in Guerin's study.

Older white women like Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, have been less likely to be victims of gender-based attacks than younger women or women of skin color. Even a young, well-known Republican, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, didn't receive as many attacks as her Democratic counterparts in Congress. Jankowicz 'study did not include Facebook because the dataset was more complete on six other platforms, including Twitter.

It found that much of the attacks and disinformation thrown on Harris reflected the tropes against Barack and Michelle Obama: that she is not sufficiently black or Indian because of her mixed heritage, that she cannot legally serve as Vice President because of theirs Parents were immigrants. They slept upstairs that she has a secret plan to steal Biden's authority and, perhaps most eccentrically, that she is secretly a man.

This final lie, apparently started by the QAnon cult, involves what is known as a "cheap forgery," a harshly treated picture of Harris next to a man supposedly named Kamal Aroush.

Jankowicz said the anti-transgender tradeoffs at Michelle Obama and Harris, while not as prevalent as other misinformation, follow a pattern of targeting women in power with a twisted misogynist logic: "There is no way to be in a position of power. " There must be something double about you. It must be that you are a man. "

Other contributions included more direct attacks using racist and sexist language and images.

Nathan Barankin, former Harris Senate chief of staff and senior deputy when she was attorney general in California, said the abuse wasn't new, just its volume and intensity. "I don't know of any job she's ever had that didn't have a steady stream of very real and viable threats to her security," he said. "And that's physical, digital, email, and others."

Barankin would not disclose any security precautions taken for Harris in their previous positions, but said the nature of the threats made them bigger than other officials.

“This is a person who started his career pursuing murders and rape,” he said of Harris, who started out as a line attorney in Oakland. "She knows what the evil is out there."

Facebook and Twitter officials said they would keep improving their surveillance systems. Facebook data shows that the company has taken action 6.3 million abusive posts in the last three months of 2020, compared to 3.5 million removed in the last three months.

But just over half of those weren't identified until after a user complained, much like Speier's. Emily Cain, a Facebook spokeswoman, said the standards of acceptable language allow more leeway for posts about civil servants because "we want to allow discourse that can sometimes include critical comments from public figures."

However, they must "meet our community standards and we will remove content about public figures that violates other guidelines," she added.

The inability to stop abusive over-the-line attacks has left social media companies that have already been targeted by both parties open to further criticism.

"We have seen persistent abuse and it remains fairly stable despite all the studies that have highlighted the problem," said Guerin of the London Institute.

Speier and Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, have both warned companies against further regulation if they cannot alleviate the looming harassment.

"Every major platform needs to do a lot more to respond to and protect themselves from attacks on women," Wyden said in a statement to The Times, proposing the Law Against Violence Against Women, a quarter-century-old law that needs to be renewed next year could include stronger online protection.

Speier, co-chair of the House Democratic Women & # 39; s Caucus and active in online harassment, said she has stopped collecting examples of toxic material for Facebook. The problem is too big and the company won't hire enough staff to oversee it, she said. In addition, the algorithms are still geared towards increasing explosive material.

For the Congresswoman, the concern that threats and misguided beliefs can become fatal is hardly hypothetical. In 1978 Speier survived five gunshot wounds when their boss, Rep. Leo Ryan (D-San Francisco), was murdered by cult members during the Jonestown massacre, Guyana. Since the siege of the Capitol on January 6, lawmakers have been allowed to use their office budgets on bulletproof vests. She hasn't bought one yet.

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