In the weeks before Joe Biden named Sen. Kamala Harris his running mate, women’s groups were readying a campaign of their own: shutting down sexist coverage and disinformation about a vice presidential nominee they say 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” — and 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, claiming that Harris had called Biden a “racist” and that she is not eligible to be president.
The women’s groups say their efforts are informed by the sexism Hillary Clinton faced from Donald Trump, some of his supporters and the media during the 2016 campaign.
“This time we understand the patterns, and this time we have the organizational infrastructure to push back,” said Shaunna Thomas, executive director of the women’s advocacy group UltraViolet, which released a 32-page guide for media along with a coalition of groups including Color of Change PAC, Planned Parenthood Votes and Women’s March.
While the groups have primarily been led by Democrats, their efforts are backed by nonpartisan groups and some Republicans.
The war room will call out bias and disinformation against women in both parties up and down the ballot, said Tina Tchen, CEO of Time’s Up Now, which fights sexual harassment in the workplace.
The groups say intense scrutiny of a vice presidential nominee is to be expected, but women are often unfairly criticized as overly emotional, weak or unqualified, or for their appearance or demeanor in a way that men are not. 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 will be at the center 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.
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 for more than a year that 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: that 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 U.S. 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.