Sep 10, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Women's groups fight disinformation campaigns against Harris

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Getty Images photo: Dimitrios Kambouris

Women’s groups are spending millions in battleground states to ward off gender-based smears against Kamala Harris, as misinformation campaigns and misogynistic memes proliferate.

Why it matters: They worry that sexist branding of Joe Biden's running mate by forces supporting President Trump could depress turnout by Black and Latina women who don't consistently vote but would likely support the Biden-Harris ticket if they did cast a ballot.

The attacks on Harris go well beyond standard fare of criticizing her as "phony" or even as "radical," veering into misinformation and salacious insinuations that she leveraged her sexuality for professional gain.

  • Harris, who is married and a stepmother, is a graduate of Howard University and the University of California-Hastings law school. She's a former prosecutor, district attorney of San Francisco and California's attorney general before her election to the U.S. Senate.
  • But Rush Limbaugh, the American Spectator and other conservative outlets have seized on Harris' relationship with former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown in the mid-1990s, more than a decade after he and his estranged wife separated, to suggest Harris behaved unethically or that her political achievements are not legitimate.

A meme that falsely suggested that Harris was sexually promiscuous circulated so widely that one photographer contracted by the NBA casually shared one on Facebook — and lost his job for it, Yahoo Sports reported. He later said he deeply regretted the move and that it didn't reflect his own views.

  • Amazon was selling T-shirts with the same phrase (they later removed them from their marketplace after facing backlash).
  • Trump said suggestively at an August campaign rally in New Hampshire that "I want to see the first woman president also, but I don't want to see a woman president get into that position the way she'd do it," charging that Harris was "not competent."

Details: PACRONYM, Black PAC, WOMEN VOTE! and Planned Parenthood Votes, have launched a $10 million ad campaign to support Harris and other groups are conducting weekly polling to monitor how disinformation is sticking.

  • The coalition is targeting 5 million voters across MI, WI, PA, NC, AZ, and GA to persuade them to vote for the Democratic ticket — with an emphasis on women of color under 40 who live in urban and rural areas and typically consume little political news.

Between the lines: Rather than pull voters to Trump's side, activists say, gender-based attacks on Harris are designed to keep low-information Democratic voters home by turning them off.

  • "That’s really the challenge we’re trying to overcome here," said Tara McGowan, founder and CEO of progressive nonprofit ACRONYM and its super PAC. "When [misinformation] reaches individuals in a vacuum and that’s all they’re getting, they’re more likely to believe it."
  • PACRONYM ads currently on Facebook focus on Harris' record of taking on big banks. Others bill her as a fighter for equality and justice. None directly addresses the gender-based attacks.

The big picture: More than 11,000 online news articles were flagged by TIME'S UP Now, a group formed in the wake of the #MeToo movement, as using sexist or racist language about Harris in the first two weeks after her announcement.

  • They also found 21 million people actively engaged with this type of content with the potential for a far broader reach. Voters are "absorbing these messages without fully understanding that it’s devaluing Black women," Tina Tchen, president and CEO of the group, told Axios.

Be smart: Women's groups anticipated sexist and false attacks no matter which female running mate Biden selected — and were discussing potential strategies for months before Biden decided on Harris.

Go deeper