“The tabloids made it look like she was having a mental breakdown,” Dr. Krook said. “It plays into the idea that women are too emotional for politics.”
Another approach paints female politicians as hyper-sexualized. That was what former President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic of Croatia encountered when tabloids ran pictures of another woman in a bikini and falsely claimed it was her. The photo’s subject was later identified as Coco Austin, the partner of American rapper Ice-T — but the damage to Ms. Grabar-Kitarovic’s reputation was done.
“If people aren’t critical and willing to take a moment to assess whether a story or image is real, the effects end up getting magnified,” Dr. Krook said.
Other female leaders have also found themselves the target of fake nude photos, like the former Ukrainian parliament member, Svitlana Zalishchuk, and a Rwandan female presidential candidate, Diane Rwigara. “It is one of many tactics that has been used to silence me,” Ms. Rwigara told CNN in 2017.
Once the disinformation is out there, it is difficult to counter, says Dr. Krook: It is hard to ensure a retraction reaches everyone who saw the inaccurate post, and even if it is seen, it might not change minds. Disinformation spreads rapidly, Dr. Krook added, because it taps into and reinforces existing sexist beliefs about female political leaders.
With social media, attacks on high-profile women can occur at an unprecedented scale, often anonymously and with impunity. And only in recent years have policymakers begun to focus on the risks that women face because of these online attacks, by publicly addressing them and accounting for them in policymaking.
Last fall, federal and state authorities revealed a detailed plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan. Ms. Whitmer had become a target of right-wing and anti-government activists because of measures she had taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The group that plotted the kidnapping spied on Ms. Whitmer’s vacation home, met regularly for firearms and combat training, and made plans to buy explosives.