US women say they will fight sexism, ‘ugly’ attacks on vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris

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Chicago: In the weeks before Joe Biden named Senator Kamala Harris his running mate, women’s groups were readying a campaign of their own. The women’s groups were shutting down sexist coverage and disinformation about a vice-presidential nominee. They said that she is headed for months of false smears and ‘brutal’ attacks from internet haters. The groups put the media on notice in recent days that they will call out bias. One campaign is dubbed ‘We Have Her Back’. It has established a ‘war room’ to refute sexist or false attacks as they happen.

They didn’t have to wait long. Within minutes of the presumptive Democratic nominee’s announcement Tuesday, false information was circulating on social media. The information claimed that Harris had called Biden a ‘racist’ and that she is not eligible to be vice-president.

The women’s groups say their efforts are informed by the sexism Hillary Clinton faced from Donald Trump. Some of Trump’s supporters and the media during the 2016 campaign also used the sexism card.

“This time we understand the patterns, and this time we have the organisational infrastructure to push back. No sexism around this time,” said Shaunna Thomas. She is executive director of the women’s advocacy group ‘UltraViolet’. The group released a 32-page guide for media along with a coalition of groups including ‘Colour of Change PAC’, ‘Planned Parenthood Votes’ and ‘Women’s March’.

While the groups have primarily been led by Democrats, their efforts are backed by non-partisan groups and some Republicans also.

The war room will call out bias and disinformation against women in both parties up and down the ballot, said Tina Tchen. She is the CEO of ‘Time’s Up Now’, which fights sexual harassment in the workplace.

The groups said intense scrutiny of the vice-presidential nominee is to be expected. However, women are often unfairly criticised as overly emotional, weak or unqualified. The attacks, which include false smears and threats of violence online, not only hurt campaigns but also dissuade women from seeking office.

Christine Todd Whitman, a former New Jersey governor and Republican, said Biden’s running mate Harris will be at the centre of an ‘ugly’ social media campaign from online bullies. “This is going to be brutal because these platforms allow people to do things anonymously, saying things anonymously,” Whitman said.

Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris PTI Photo

If elected, Harris would be the country’s first Black vice-president. Her mother is from India and her father is from Jamaica. That has invited not only sexist but also racist commentary and misinformation around her candidacy.

Harris, who was born in Oakland, California, has been the victim of online falsehoods. One of them say she is not eligible to become president because her parents were not born in America.

More recently, Facebook users added a new twist to the misinformation. They said since Harris is not eligible to be president, if Biden didn’t finish his term, the presidency would automatically default to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat.

There is no truth to that – Harris is a natural-born US citizen who’s eligible to be president. Yet the misinformation has been shared by thousands of Facebook users. Facebook has labeled the posts as false but has not removed them from its platform.

The latest attacks on Harris’ citizenship were highlighted in a letter from more than 100 female lawmakers from across the world. The letter was sent to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. It called on them to remove misinformation, as well as posts or accounts that threaten women.

“Much of the most hateful content directed at women on Facebook is amplified by your algorithms which reward extreme and dangerous points of view with greater reach and visibility,” said the letter, which was spearheaded by Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California.

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