How gendered disinformation on social media harms Kenyan women seeking political office

Illustration by Giovana Fleck/Global Voices.

Gender-based violence has crept up in the digital era in the form of online violence against women and girls, especially affecting women with political ambitions. Part of this violence entails gendered disinformation. This form of disinformation uses gender stereotypes to attack women and influence debates by promoting certain political, social or economic goals. It seeks to intimidate, discredit, humiliate and embarrass women, and push public debates.

According to Byte Bullies, a report by feminist think tank Pollicy, two out of five women candidates experienced sexual harassment on their X (formerly Twitter) accounts during the 2022 Kenyan general election. Added to this, 55.7 percent of Facebook accounts belonging to women candidates received some form of online violence compared to 35.4 percent for Facebook accounts of men candidates. Online violence manifested in the form of sexual harassment, hate speech, trolling, body-shaming and disinformation.

Seemingly, a woman’s personal life supersedes her résumé. “A closer look at the keyword network of sexual comments revealed underlying themes of comments attacking women’s appearance with words like “old” and “ass,” as well as themes of discouragement with words like “pathetic” and “nonsense.” Data also showed the two greatly targeted women candidates as being Anne Waiguru (who was vying for the position of governor for Kirinyaga County) and Martha Karua (2022 candidate for the position of deputy president.),” according to the Byte Bullies reports.

In the spectacle that is social media and the hand that women with political ambitions are dealt, trolls fixate on their bodies, age, and sexual and personal lives, forcing women out of social media platforms — sometimes out of the political race altogether, thus widening the gender gap in public discourse and leadership. Seven out of the 29 Kenyan women candidates interviewed for the report said they avoided using social media during campaigns because it attracted humiliation and also brought about physical abuse.

Some of the candidates stopped using social media to notify their constituents of the places where they would be campaigning because in huge crowds, they would, at times, experience physical abuse, such as groping. One of the interviewees said her husband beat her up and divorced her after photoshopped images of her having sexual encounters with another man circulated online. Another candidate lost a parliamentary seat she was contesting for, after intimate pictures of her were circulated on Facebook and WhatsApp groups.

As the internet is increasingly used for campaign communications, gendered disinformation as a political strategy has become increasingly common. Is it possible that the next potential woman president will not be voted in because of disinformation? Especially with the advent of generative artificial intelligence (AI) and its damning prospects in generating deep fakes?

In 2022, trolls targeted the age of the candidate for deputy president, Martha Karua. The 66-year-old was profiled as a grandmother who should be home taking care of her grandchildren instead of pursuing politics. While Karua’s Twitter bio describes her as “Proud Grandmother,” it also lists “Senior Counsel” and “National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) Kenya party leader.” It’s telling that trolls fixated on a small section of her bio, conveniently forgetting that she was elected to parliament in 1992, at the age of 35, where she ran for a whole decade, and is known to have played a key role in advocating for Kenya’s democracy and multi-party system. She is also one of only four women who have ever run for president in Kenya’s history.

The disinformation targeting Martha Karua is similar to what former Speaker of the United States (U.S.A) of Representatives Nancy Pelosi faced. Pelosi’s speeches have been doctored on different occasions: once to make her sound drunk and, in another case, that was reshared by Donald Trump and Fox News, to make her stammer. Pelosi was 79 years old at the time. Fox News reporters used the doctored videos to claim she was “worn down,” in reference to her age.

So, is there a recourse for female politicians targeted by disinformation campaigns?

In theory, Kenyan law provides safety and protection. The Bill of Rights guarantees equality. Additionally, the Political Parties Act of 2011 includes clauses designed to protect women's political involvement by upholding the two-thirds gender rule. Further, the Data Protection Act of 2019 and the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act of 2018 are meant to protect women against online harassment and abuse.

According to Advocate of the High Court of Kenya Reginalda Obara, most cases connected to online violence are civil cases, not criminal cases, and they hardly involve law enforcement or arrests. Instead, the court imposes damages on the defendant as a last resort in case settlement negotiations fail. Victims file a complaint through a lawyer; the defendant is served and expected to file a response to the complaint before settlement negotiations begin.

In a phone interview, Obara said that Kenyan women — politicians or otherwise — hardly seek legal redress over online abuse for a number of reasons. “Women often don’t sue because they don’t actually know that the law can protect them. Also, because of the stigma around it, and the fact that people have normalised cyberbullying to the point where it seems pointless. You would get mocked for paying lawyers to sue someone who made a comment you didn’t like online instead of using the money to buy a piece of land.”

Four out of 29 respondents interviewed for the Byte Bullies report identified their perpetrators of online violence and had them arrested and jailed. However, most cases were never pursued further.

Kenya’s Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act 2018 provides penalties for common offences like identity theft, phishing, child pornography, cybersquatting, cyber harassment, hate speech, and knowingly publishing false information. Cyber harassment, for instance, attracts a fine not exceeding KES 20 million shillings (USD 153,846 ), imprisonment for 10 years, or both.

The Data Protection Act, on the other hand, grants women and the general public agency over their personal information. The Act protects against collecting, processing, disseminating or selling personal data. This data includes personally identifiable information such as phone numbers, emails, location or any information that can be used to identify an individual, including their IP address. Violation of the Data Protection Act can attract a fine not exceeding  KES 5 million shillings (USD 38,461), imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, or both.

Notably, there have been attempts to adjust the litigation process, paving the way for more cases connected to online violence. Part of this includes the revision of the Evidence Act to allow electronic records, such as screenshots, to be submitted as evidence in court. Obara remarked that more women can now report cases connected to online violence. Screenshots, however, can be fabricated or edited. This is a classic example of the ever-evolving digital space and legal frameworks that can only play catch-up.

Former Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, in her book, “Lean In,” talks about the leadership ambition gap among women. She notes that women are often reluctant to take up leadership roles, because, “Women are not thinking about having it all, they’re worried about losing it all.”

The fight against gendered disinformation continues. It encompasses a multifaceted approach that involves not only legal and institutional reforms but also a broader cultural shift towards recognizing and valuing women's contributions in politics. As digitalization increases, the urgency to address this issue grows. 

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.