Annalena Baerbock has received much more harassment online than her top two competitors, and it may have undermined her campaign, according to a report published Thursday.
The report, published by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank, found that Baerbock was subject to more conspiracy theories and disinformation than Social Democrat candidate Olaf Scholz and Christian Democrat candidate Armin Laschet. She was also the recipient of sexist attacks that the other candidates, both men, did not receive.
The institute found that Facebook and Telegram posts aimed at Baerbock pointedly referred to her gender, including sexist slurs. When referring to Baerbock, users put chancellor candidate in quotation marks and used other forms of belittling language, like calling her “the little one,” which users did not apply to the other candidates. Several posts questioned the competence of women in politics altogether.
Baerbock, along with Laschet, Scholz and a host of other candidates, is seeking to replace German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a woman, who has led Germany since 2005 but is stepping down this year.
Thursday’s report adds to the growing consensus that Baerbock’s campaign has been disproportionately targeted. A Kremlin-backed disinformation campaign has also targeted Baerbock in particular, possibly for her anti-Russia stance.
Baerbock’s campaign was ahead in the polls initially, but has since given way to both the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, following a series of missteps, such as failing to report supplementary income from the party and inconsistencies on her CV.
Yet the gender-specific campaign against Baerbock could have an impact on the German election because of “the public receiving a distorted picture of those affected,” the report stated.
MEPs Hannah Neumann and Terry Reintke — both German, Greens and women — said they have similar experiences online.
“Women get judged more harshly,” Reintke said in an interview. “When I speak about certain issues like the 2015 refugee crisis, I received lots of gendered, sexualized hate speech,” she said.
Neumann said misogynist threats and abuse online are normalized, noting how many more threats her female colleagues receive compared with men in the European Parliament.
Both MEPs worry that online harassment will deter women and other groups from entering politics. “It’s not just what it does to me … But what it does to young female followers,” Reintke said. “Women are less represented in political institutions, political parties and other fields … than men … Women of color and queer people are even more targeted.”
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pledged to propose a new EU law to combat violence against women by the end of the year. The proposal will cover online as well as offline abuse.
Both MEPs said legislation is needed to combat online abuse, but they said more ought to be done. “We should not accept this as normal behavior even if everyone gets it. We don’t treat each other like that offline,” concluded Neumann.