When a group of Las Vegas men stole Laura Hunter’s identity and turned her into the face of an alt-right conservative Facebook page during the summer of 2016, she thought it might be an unlucky coincidence. According to Hunter, the page had had less than 1,000 followers when a friend first flagged it to her. The posts on it were so obviously fraudulent that Hunter wasn’t unduly alarmed, but concerned enough to report the page to Facebook.
Months later, a watchdog site contacted Hunter to tell her that her likeness had become a highly-rated political pundit for a right-wing propaganda website called the Conservative Daily Review (now called the Conservative Daily Post). The fake Facebook page posted multiple articles driving people to the site daily, and had accumulated hundreds of thousands of followers as Election Day drew near.
Hunter is certain she wasn’t targeted by Gravitas Works, the agency behind the fake page, for her political beliefs. She leans left but never expressed her political opinions on social media and rarely ever in public. It’s more likely that she caught the attention of the Las Vegas men because of how she looks. Hunter, who is a photographer, commercial actress, and model, also happens to be a beauty queen and Ms. World 2016.
The symbolism of this is significant. It’s no surprise that the political propaganda machine upholding Donald Trump at its center used a beauty queen’s image to advance its agenda. Beautiful women have always been at the center of Donald Trump’s communications playbook. Before the presidency, Trump’s celebrity transcended his accomplishments as a real estate developer and reality TV show star. He developed a public persona as an old-timey ladies man with an endless roster of Playboy models, Hollywood actresses, and Miss Universe contestants to dangle on his arm. The president brought his arsenal of attractive women to the White House, too. Melania, Ivanka, and Hope Hicks are all former models and Trump has vocalized his preference that female staffers “dress like women,” whatever that means.
Just as Trump’s comments and attitudes revealed his underlying abusive behavior and discriminatory business practices, the use of women’s imagery in the fake news industry points to a similar system of gender-based degradation. A phony image of Emma Gonzalez ripping up the Constitution circulated on Twitter as she campaigned for gun reform in the wake of the Parkland shooting. Russian-operated Twitter bots employ a strategy of using stolen images of attractive women to target male users. Misogyny is both the input and output that keeps the fake news industry afloat.
In the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, Hunter began receiving a barrage of Facebook messages daily in response to the highly incendiary posts the fake Facebook page published. Sometimes she would try to comment on the posts from her real account to set the record straight.
“I would try to respond and would say, ‘I didn't say that. This isn't me. I don't agree with this.’ And then I would just get like 100 people who would post under it what a bitch I am. C-word, B-word, F-word,” Hunter told Refinery29 in a phone interview.
People began stopping her on the street– usually supporters of the page who sometimes harassed her after finding out she wasn’t the Laura Hunter they had come to know online. Some even accused her of lying.
“It's like an extreme form of gaslighting to tell somebody that their experience – a very traumatic experience – not even that it didn't happen, but also that you're responsible for it,” Hunter said. She described the kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde response she became accustomed to responding to: an excited “fan” complimenting her work who inevitably turned angry and suspicious after she told them the truth.
One of the most damaging impacts of Gravitas Works’ identity theft was the isolation Hunter experienced from her own left-leaning community. She had to close her photography business after client inquiries dwindled to nothing. “I realized they wanted nothing to do with me because they think I'm this horrible conservative, ultra right-wing Nazi,” she said.
And then there’s another type of response the incident unleashed on Hunter. It came in the form of unrelenting messages from older men on Facebook. “You wouldn't believe the number of weird creepy men fans that I have on my Facebook. I delete hundreds of messages a day.” Having been a woman in the public eye as an actress, model, and beauty pageant contestant, Hunter was not unaccustomed to online attention and harassment, but this reached a whole new level.
Sexist Men, Sexist Systems
Using attractive women as a tool to advance a political agenda is nothing new. Fox News has been doing it for years, and Twitter “bimbots” have been ubiquitous peddlers of Russian-operated misinformation since the inception of fake news. The CEO of Cambridge Analytica, the data company for Donald Trump’s campaign in the 2016 election was recently suspended after he was filmed by undercover journalists describing plans to send beautiful women to entrap politicians in his election influence efforts.
Given the deeply held sexist beliefs of the men at the center of the fake news industry– Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin– we can expect any systems emanating from their power to be discriminatory to their core. Just as people in marginalized communities suffer as a result of Trump and Putin’s policies and rhetoric, the communication structures designed by and for these men will disadvantage women minorities the most.
Noor Tagouri’s experience as a victim of misinformation was very different than Laura Hunter’s, but similar in its potential to seriously harm her. Tagouri is a journalist and speaker whose image was incorrectly used by several media outlets in stories about Noor Salman, the wife of Orlando nightclub shooter, Omar Mateen. Noor Salman does not wear a hijab, while Tagouri does. Tagouri doesn’t know how or why her image was used beyond the implicit assumption that these outlets assumed Tagouri looked “more Muslim” because of her hijab.
Tagouri underscored just how dangerous this kind of mistake could be for her. Earlier in the day, before she had even seen the tweet improperly using her photo, two men harassed her in a store. “I remember coming home really upset and then seeing the tweet and being like ‘Oh my gosh, if these guys had seen the tweet then what happened earlier would have been a lot worse.’”
This wasn’t the first time Tagouri was misrepresented in the media and she says she wasn’t entirely surprised. “This isn’t something that just happens to Muslim women. It happens to several women in marginalized communities, she explained. “That doesn’t mean just misusing their photo. It means misusing their narrative and their storyline and their experience and exploiting that.” In the context of the Trump administration’s xenophobic, racist, and anti-immigrant agenda, misinformation systems put women of color at risk in particular.
In their book, “The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility," Tufts professors Sarah Sobieraj and Jeffrey Berry discuss the ways that outrage rhetoric in news media is both good for ratings and bad for American discourse. “Outrage thrives because of the hyper-polarization of American politics,” Berry said in an email. “The Outrage Industry didn’t cause this polarization but has intensified it and coarsened our culture.”
The rampant distribution of fake news– the most insidious vehicle for outrage rhetoric– in an increasingly xenophobic and misogynistic culture puts us at risk for devolving into a post-truth dystopia of political division.
This may sound like an episode of Black Mirror, but as the digital world makes up a larger part of our everyday reality, the stakes for seeking out and preserving truth are much higher. We are inundated with more information than ever before, so it’s more important that this information is both credible and responsible. If not, we risk producing and reproducing stereotypes, generalizations, and inequalities that can be weaponized against us.
“We must consider the democratic costs of gender-based harassment, in addition to the personal ones.”
Add to the mix the data suggesting that women spend more time on social media than their male counterparts, and there is a strong case to be made that women are more likely to be consumers of misinformation as well as targets of it. A 2016 Nielsen report found that Gen X women in particular are more likely to be interacting with Facebook while watching primetime television, where cable news reigns supreme. The disbelief of the Florida woman who was manipulated by Russian operatives to run a pro-Trump support group shows just how subtle deceptive information can be. It has become as natural as the air we breathe – so much so that we don’t even realize when we are the targets of it.
The Rewards — and Consequences — of Misinformation
Here’s the thing about the fake news industry: it benefits groups already in power. That is, old, white men. In fact, they’re making money off it. “Outrage isn’t merely behavior, it’s commerce,” Jeff Berry explained to Refinery29. Businesses like Gravitas Works that disseminate outrage and misinformation do so because it is really lucrative. Laura Hunter's image and name were viewed over 20 million times on the fake page, translating to what Hunter's lawyer estimates to be over a million dollars in revenue for a small team of three men.
And in large part, the cost of this profitable business comes at the expense of women. Berry’s co-author Sarah Sobieraj wrote a whole paper about the ramifications of gender-based attacks online for democracy: “When digital sexism succeeds in pressing women out of digital spaces, constrains the topics they address publicly, or limits the ways they address them, we must consider the democratic costs of gender-based harassment, in addition to the personal ones.”
“I have a surefire way of not being a Facebook victim,” Laura Hunter told Refinery29, “I can not be on Facebook.”
That this is the conclusion of a woman who relies on the digital space to operate her business and build her platform as a public figure, is indeed a tragedy for democracy and American society at large.
Hunter has not reopened her photography business since the Gravitas Works incident. Instead, she’s focusing her attention back to the pageant world, where she has taken on a director role. “Daily I wonder if I would have twice as many contestants had this not happened to me,” she said. “The things on that site were so egregious. They weren't even things that most conservatives would be okay with. So I always wonder, how much am I losing on a daily basis still?”
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