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Soon after Joe Biden announced last year that he would pick a woman as his running mate, Democratic congresswoman Jackie Speier began warning Facebook executives: Female politicians receive the most vile online attacks, and the company's filters were failing to stop them.
"We showed them 20 examples that were disgusting — and they were still up!" said Speier, of Hillsborough, whose meetings included one with Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. Facebook's response gave her little comfort. "Keep sending us these horrific examples," she said executives told her, "and we'll take them down."
Speier's concerns that the first female vice president would attract outsize assaults and venomous lies from social media's ugliest players have now been validated. Research shows that Kamala Harris may be the most targeted American politician on the internet, one who checks every box for the haters of the fever swamps: She's a woman, she's a person of color and she holds power.
It's not just the amount but the type of harassment that makes the Harris slurs stand out. President Biden gets his share of smears, but they tend to focus on his age, often repeating former President Trump's "Sleepy Joe" moniker; a few call him creepy or worse. Those directed at Harris, however, tend to reference sex, violence or misogynistic accusations that she does not deserve her position.
"Abuse directed at women is highly personalized, often attacking them based on their appearance and denigrating their intelligence,” said Cecile Guerin, a researcher in London at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that seeks to counter extremism, disinformation and polarization. "It is also more likely to imply that they should quit politics and that they don’t belong in the public space."
Guerin led a recent study that did not include Harris but showed that American female politicians were two to three times more likely to receive abusive Twitter comments than male counterparts.
Such findings elevate widespread concerns that women, still significantly underrepresented in political and corporate offices, will avoid or give up leadership jobs that leave them vulnerable to online abuse. "It certainly discourages women from getting engaged in politics," Speier said, given worries about family and personal safety.
For example, some female members of the British Parliament cited online abuse and threats in declining to run for reelection in 2019, prompting advocates there to push for better online safety training.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand until they’ve gone through this sort of thing how much time it takes, how exhausting it is,” said Nina Jankowicz, a fellow at the Wilson Center whose focus on the topic has made her a target of disinformation and harassment as well.
The Jan. 6 attacks on the Capitol exposed a thinning membrane between the online world and the real one, with public figures subject to actual threats from individuals or groups inflamed by content on social media. It is no longer hard, for example, to imagine violent conspiracists acting on the posted lies that Harris is a plant bent on taking over the government.
Online attacks against Harris, now that she is vice president, are monitored by the Secret Service. Her aides declined to comment other than to say threats to her and her family are taken seriously.
Facebook and other social media companies defend their efforts to detect and remove harassing content but concede that some material, especially coded or sarcastic posts, eludes automated filters powered by artificial intelligence. Jankowicz described several such tactics, such as sending images of empty egg cartons to women in their 30s who do not have children, an inference that they are infertile and bitter.
Jankowicz led a study released last month analyzing more than 300,000 posts against 13 politicians in four English-speaking countries in the couple of months before the U.S. election. Harris was targeted 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 leading targets of abuse on Twitter and Facebook in Guerin's study.
Older white women such as Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, were less likely to be the target of gender-based attacks than younger women or women of color. Even a younger Republican woman with a high profile, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, did not receive as many attacks as her Democratic counterparts in Congress. Jankowicz's study did not include Facebook because the data set was more complete from six other platforms, including Twitter.
It showed that many of the attacks and disinformation lobbed at Harris echoed tropes against Barack and Michelle Obama: that she is insufficiently Black or Indian because of her mixed-race heritage, that she cannot legally serve as vice president because her parents were immigrants, that she slept her way to the top, that she has a secret plan to steal authority from Biden and, perhaps most outlandish, that she is secretly a man.
That last lie, apparently started by the QAnon cult, involves what's known as a "cheap fake," a crudely doctored image of Harris alongside a man supposedly named Kamal Aroush.
Jankowicz said the anti-transgender smears leveled at Michelle Obama and Harris, though not as rampant as other misinformation, follow a pattern of targeting women in power with a twisted misogynistic logic: "There's no way that you can be in a position of power. There has to be something duplicitous about you. It must be that you're a man."
Other posts involved more direct attacks using racist and sexist language and images.
Nathan Barankin, Harris' former Senate chief of staff and a top deputy when she was California's attorney general, said the abuse isn't new, only the volume and intensity are. “I am unaware of any job she has ever had in which there were not a steady stream of very real and viable threats to her safety," he said. "And those are physical, digital, email and otherwise.”
Barankin would not disclose security precautions taken for Harris in her prior positions, but said they were greater than those for other officials because of the nature of the threats.
“This is a person who started out her career prosecuting murders and rape," he said of Harris, who began as a line prosecutor in Oakland. "She knows what evil is out there.”
Facebook and Twitter officials said they continue to improve their monitoring systems. Facebook data show the company took actions against 6.3 million abusive posts in the last three months of 2020, compared with 3.5 million removed in the previous three months.
But just over half of those were identified only after a user complained, much as Speier had. Emily Cain, a Facebook spokeswoman, said the standards of acceptable language allow more leeway for posts about public officials because "we want to allow discourse, which can sometimes include critical commentary of public figures."
Yet they "must comply with our community standards, and we will remove content about public figures that violates other policies," she added.
The inability to halt abusive, over-the-line attacks has left social media companies, already under fire from both parties, open to further criticism.
“We have seen sustained levels of abuse, and that stays quite stable despite all the studies that have highlighted the problem,” said Guerin, of the London institute.
Speier and Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, have both warned the companies of further regulation if they fail to alleviate the threatening harassment.
"Every major platform needs to do a whole lot more to respond to and protect against attacks on women," Wyden said in a statement to The Times, suggesting the Violence Against Women Act, a quarter-century-old law that is up for renewal next year, could include stronger online protections.
Speier, who co-chairs the House Democratic Women's Caucus and has been active on the issue of online harassment, said she has quit collecting examples of toxic material for Facebook. The problem is too big and the company won't hire enough staff to police it, she said. Besides, she added, the algorithms are still biased toward elevating explosive material.
For the congresswoman, concern that threats and misguided beliefs can turn deadly is hardly hypothetical. In 1978, Speier survived five gunshot wounds when her boss, Rep. Leo Ryan (D-San Francisco), was assassinated by cult members during the Jonestown massacre in Guyana. Since the Jan. 6 Capitol siege, she noted, lawmakers were authorized to use their office budgets on bulletproof vests. She has yet to buy one.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.