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Amna Sikandar

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Hilal Her

A Comb of Lies: Female Targeted Disinformation

May 2024

The matriarchal society of honeybees inherently depends on communication. A comb only matures when a worker-bee returns bearing information of a bunch of flowers bursting with nectar. A dance ensues as the rest of the hive is gathered and told of the whereabouts of such a bounty. Now, imagine if a certain step is miscommunicated. The bee society will fall apart, workers will be led astray, the matriarch will starve, and so will the larvae. The comb will wither, leaving their labour a waste. Thus, the women of today suffer at the hands of disinformation and gender-targeted misinformation.



 As the world grapples with the exponential growth of telecommunication, its inhabitants battle the scourge of misleading information, deep-fakes, scams, frauds, hoaxes and the deliberate spread of propaganda. In the midst of it all are women whose digital footprints are being trodden on and quietly eroded. The rapid advancement of artificial intelligence has led to its widespread adoption, enabling swift computer-based learning and simulation to replace tasks that were previously performed manually. Deep-fakes and Non-Consensual Intimate Images (NCII) manipulate both visual and audio elements to create false depictions of individuals in fabricated situations. Consequently, the distinction between what is real and what is made up becomes indistinct. Deep-fakes are employed for the dissemination of deceptive information and frequently exhibit hostile intent. 
Deep-fakes have a particularly significant effect on women, as their online safety is often compromised or is at stake. There exists a significant population of girls and women who have been victimized and are not only silent but also live in fear for their lives. They bear the burden of blaming themselves for bringing shame onto their family’s reputation and honour. There is a scarcity of assistance accessible to women in Pakistan. We live in an era where artificial intelligence can clone a person’s individualism to perfection. While deep-fakes are monetized and used to concoct humanoid interactive personas, the sexism and misogyny behind disinformation takes deeper root. Deep-fakes broaden the horizons of disinformation that can cause a widespread upheaval if not constrained by technological laws.
In 2023, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Cybercrime Wing received approximately 11,000 complaints in Pakistan. Among these, nearly 1,200 complaints were filed regarding deep-fakes and NCII, with a significant majority of the complainants being women. This year, FIA has received 1,020 complaints of the same nature. In 2023, the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), a non-profit organization dedicated to safeguarding women from cyber-harassment, reported receiving 155 deep-fake cases out of a total of 1,371 complaints. 
Ironically, the male users who bully women online often assume a female identity to devise scams and fraudulent activities. An unassuming female victim’s name, picture or idiosyncrasies are used to attract a targeted audience, often comprising of men. An elaborate scheme is used to seek banking details such as pin codes and debit card numbers under an alias to extort large sums. The annual survey carried out by Wakefield Research in countries across Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa (CEMEA) revealed that 52 percent of people indulging in online financial activities in Pakistan had fallen victim to a scam at least once, which is in accordance with the global average. 
Since the inception of the internet, the utilization of disinformation as a means to undermine a woman has become more of a weapon rather than a tool of propaganda. Unlike men, gendered disinformation aimed at women focuses on cultural beauty standards, social customs, character values, and physical appearance. According to a survey conducted by Amnesty International in 2017, 41% of women reported feeling fearful for their physical safety as a result of being cyberbullied by an unknown individual. Azmina Dhrodia, a researcher on Technology and Human Rights at Amnesty International, states, “The particular danger of online abuse is how fast it can proliferate – one abusive tweet can become a barrage of targeted hate in a matter of minutes.” 
The impact of disinformation on freedom of speech, particularly for women, has been significant. Once a woman is threatened with bodily harm to her and her kin, she is forced to yield her conviction and accept the mainstream opinion. The IPSOS MORI poll by Amnesty International (2017) showed that a staggering 32 percent refrained from ‘expressing their opinion’ on certain issues following cyberbullying and harassment. Not only does disinformation have a subduing effect on the female voice, but it induces a sense of vulnerability and fear. The poll also states that female victims of disinformation mostly get afflicted with an array of psychological issues e.g. low self-esteem, insomnia, lack of concentration and, in extreme cases, stress and panic attacks. 
Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD), a non-profit Pakistan organization in collaboration with the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and IFEX, organized its first regional consultation in 2023 titled, “Building Collective Resilience: Women Journalists and Human Rights Defenders Against Gendered Misinformation.” The three-day dialogue invited female journalists to expostulate on the effects of ‘organized misinformation campaigns’. Each participant shared their narratives of hardship and determination, making substantial contributions to the collective endeavours in combating gender-related disinformation. MMfD is also set to establish a ‘Hate Monitoring Unit’ in Pakistan to effectively track instances of hate speech. The primary objectives of this unit would be to expose false information, analyse different narratives, and hold the individuals responsible for hate speech accountable. 
The unveiling of ‘Trends Monitor’ as a tool to monitor public data across multiple social media platforms, proved to be a corporeal step by MMfD against gendered disinformation. Moreover, MMfD inaugurated ‘Digital Rights Monitor’; a news website that updates its users on tech and corporate accountability. It is further complimented by UNESCO’s progressing development in regulating the Big Tech. UNESCO aims at the creation of an independent regulator that would mediate all social media platforms, curbing disinformation and analysing information through reverse search.
Pakistan has also enacted a range of laws to address criminal activities in the digital realm, imposing severe penalties and imprisonment for those found guilty of such offences. The National Response Center for Cyber Crimes – FIA, an agency dedicated to combating cybercrime, acknowledges the gravity of offences such as hacking, identity theft, cyberbullying, cyberstalking, doctoring images, and digital piracy, all of which are subject to severe penalties. In addition, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) of 2016 imposes penalties for various offences such as cyberstalking, spreading false information to damage someone’s reputation, and unauthorized capturing of photos or videos of an individual.
By conducting regular public awareness campaigns, individuals can better discern between reliable information and disinformation, thus combating the spread of false narratives. Pakistan can enhance its resilience against disinformation campaigns, promote sustainable economic growth, and increase the well-being of its population by involving all the relevant stakeholders and creating a favourable environment for economic advancement and prosperity.


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Amna Sikandar

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