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Opinion Biden’s VP should be prepared for an onslaught of online misogyny unlike anything seen before

Former vice president Joe Biden with Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), center, and Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) after a Democratic primary debate in Houston in September.
Former vice president Joe Biden with Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), center, and Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) after a Democratic primary debate in Houston in September. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
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Memo to Joe Biden’s running-mate-to-be: Congratulations for standing on the cusp of history!

Now, get ready for an onslaught of online misogyny unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

The 2020 Democratic primary offered a preview of how a national candidate who happens to be a woman can expect to be hit, particularly on social media.

Lucina Di Meco, who studies gender and leadership issues at the Wilson Center, employed data analytics from the nonpartisan firm Marvelous AI to track how the half-dozen Democratic contenders at the front of the presidential pack were treated on Twitter at the outset of their campaigns.

She found that the three leading women — Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) — faced more attacks than their male competitors from right-wing and fake-news sites between December 2018 and April 2019.

The Fix’s Amber Phillips analyzes how the vice presidential search has impacted Joe Biden’s campaign less than three months before the 2020 election. (Video: The Washington Post)

“In addition, the social media narratives about female candidates are more negative and mostly concerned their character, as opposed to their policies,” Di Meco noted. Her report, “#ShePersisted: Women, Politics and Power in the New Media World,” was released in November.

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Twitter chatter about Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and then-Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., focused on their electability; meanwhile, Harris was portrayed as inauthentic, Warren was accused of lying about her ethnic heritage, and online conversation about Klobuchar kept coming back to reports that she had been mean to staffers.

This is the dark side of the empowerment, visibility and connectivity that women have found on social media in recent years as the #MeToo movement brought to light their stories of sexual abuse.

As Hillary Clinton put it last year in a speech: “I do think there is a reaction to a lot of the success of women and the roles of women right now. And I think social media has lit that up, in a very destructive and toxic way. People may have thought a lot of things in the past, but now it is amplified and it is viral.”

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who has been among the most vocal critics of the misogyny that has flourished on social media, says that the rap against women in politics tends to fall into three categories: “They’re untrustworthy, they’re emotional or they’re dumb.” Speier added that she personally makes a practice not to read what is being said about her on Facebook and Twitter.

But other recent research offers reason for optimism. A poll to be released Thursday, at a forum on hate speech and misogyny on social media being held at George Washington University, found that Americans are growing more aware and sophisticated about the prevalence and source of the toxicity they scroll through every day.

Lake Research Partners surveyed 1,300 likely voters last month. More than 6 in 10 of them said that, over the past few years, they have noticed more Internet content that promotes hate and lies.

They also appeared less willing to shrug off such content as, say, the stray ranting of an eccentric uncle they ignore or perhaps should unfollow. Fully 84 percent agreed with the statement that “some groups intentionally spread misinformation about people and events on social media as a tactic in order to keep people divided.”

All of which suggests that these malevolent actors may — at last! — have to pay a political price, as might the social media platforms that have allowed them to mobilize their armies of bots.

Survey respondents singled out Facebook in particular as problematic, with 48 percent saying they have heard “a lot” about false and misleading information being purveyed on its platform. By comparison, 35 percent said the same about Twitter, while YouTube and Instagram had somewhat better reputations, with fewer than 20 percent saying they had heard “a lot” about false information on each of those platforms.

Surprisingly, given the widespread sexism on social media, male respondents indicated they were both more aware of growing amounts of misleading information on these platforms than women were (66 percent vs. 57 percent), and were significantly more likely than women to say they would challenge a false and inflammatory post on social media (55 percent vs. 45 percent).

A Lake Research Partners analysis accompanying the poll speculated: “Women may be less likely to flag content because to a degree they perceive this content as normal, or because they hesitate to take an action that would be perceived as divisive within their social network.” No doubt women also realize that by objecting to sexism on social media, they are more likely to become a target themselves.

All of which brings us back to Biden’s soon-to-be-named running mate and what awaits her.

“We need to surround her and be there to promote her,” Speier said. “It’s our job to be the flank.”

Vigilance, especially by other women, could be the difference between whether Biden’s choice is a footnote to history — or changes its course.

Read more:

Michele L. Norris: Does the Democratic Party have a problem with strong Black women?

Max Boot: What will Trump do to win? Here are nine possible October surprises — and one November surprise.

Matt Bai: The one thing Joe Biden should think about in a running mate

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Biden’s running mate matters. So does his Cabinet.