Centre for Internet & Society

On 14th and 15th March 2024, Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) collaborated with Point of View (POV) to organise a consultation in Mumbai to explore the phenomenon of gendered information disorder in India, spanning various aspects from healthcare and sexuality to financial literacy, and the role of digital mediums, social media platforms and AI in exacerbating these issues.

The event was convened by Amrita Sengupta (Research and Programme Lead, CIS), Yesha Tshering Paul (Researcher, CIS), Bishakha Datta (Programme Lead, POV)  and Prarthana Mitra (Project Anchor, POV)..*

The event brought together experts, researchers and grassroots activists from Maharashtra and across the country to discuss their experiences with information disorder, and the multifaceted challenges posed by misinformation, disinformation and malinformation targeting gender and sexual identities.

Understanding Information Disorders: The consultation commenced with a look at the wide spectrum of information disorder by Yesha Tshering Paul and Amrita Sengupta. Misinformation[1] was highlighted as false information disseminated unintentionally, such as inaccurate COVID cures that spread rapidly during the pandemic. In contrast, disinformation involves the intentional spread of false information to cause harm, exemplified by instances like deepfake pornography. A less recognized form, malinformation, involves the deliberate misuse of accurate information to cause harm, as seen in the misleading representation of regret rates among trans individuals who have undertaken gender affirming procedures. Yesha highlighted that the definitions of these concepts are often varied, and thus the importance of moving beyond definitions to centre user experiences of this phenomenon.

The central theme of this discussion was the concept of “gendered” information disorder, referring to the targeted dissemination of false or harmful online content based on gender and sexual identity. This form of digital misogyny intersects with other societal marginalizations, disproportionately affecting marginalised genders and sexualities. The session also emphasised the critical link between information disorders and gendered violence (both online and in real life). Such disorders perpetuate stereotypes, gender-based violence, and silences victims, fostering an environment that empowers perpetrators and undermines victims' experiences.

Feminist Digital Infrastructure: Digital infrastructures shape our online spaces. Sneha PP (Senior Researcher, CIS) introduced the concept of feminist infrastructures as a potential solution that helps mediate discourse around gender, sexuality, and feminism in the digital realm. Participant discussions emphasised the need for accessible, inclusive, and design-conscious digital infrastructures that consider the intersectionality and systemic inequalities impacting content creation and dissemination. Strategies were discussed to address online gender-based violence and misinformation, focusing on survivor-centric approaches and leveraging technology for storytelling.

Gendered Financial Mis-/Dis-information: Garima Agrawal (Researcher, CIS) with inputs by Debarati Das (Co-Lead, Capacity Building at PoV) and Chhaya Rajput (Helpline Facilitator, Tech Sakhi) led the session by highlighting gender disparities in digital and financial literacy and access to digital devices and financial services in India, despite women constituting a higher percentage of new internet users. This makes marginalised users more vulnerable to financial scams. Drawing from the ongoing financial harms project at CIS, Garima spoke about the diverse manifestations of financial information disorders arising from misleading information that results in financial harm, ranging from financial influencers (and in some cases deepfakes of celebrities) endorsing platforms they do not use, to fake or unregulated loan and investment services deceiving users. Breakout groups of participants then analysed several case studies of real-life financial frauds that targeted women and the queer community to identify instances of misinformation, disinformation and malinformation. Emotional manipulation and the exploitation of trust were identified as key tactics used to deceive victims, with repercussions extending beyond monetary loss to emotional, verbal, and even sexual violence against these individuals.

Fact-Checking Fake News and Stories: The pervasive issue of fake news in India was discussed in depth, especially in the era of widespread social media usage. Only 41% of Indians trust the veracity of the information encountered online. Aishwarya Varma, who works at Webqoof (The Quint’s fact checking initiative) as a Fact Check Correspondent, led an informative session detailing the various accessible tools that can be used to fact-check and debunk false information. Participants engaged in hands-on activities by using their smartphones for reverse image searches, emphasising the importance of verifying images and their sources. Archiving was identified as another crucial aspect to preserve accurate information and debunk misinformation.

Gendered Health Mis-/Dis-information: This participant-led discussion highlighted structural gender biases in healthcare and limited knowledge about mental health and menstrual health as significant concerns, along with the discrimination and social stigma faced by the LGBTQ+ community in healthcare facilities. One participant brought up their difficulty accessing sensitive and non-judgmental healthcare, and the insensitivity and mockery faced by them and other trans individuals in healthcare facilities. Participants suggested the increased need for government-funded campaigns on sexual and reproductive health rights and menstrual health, and  the importance of involving marginalised communities in healthcare related decision-making to bring about meaningful change.

Mis-/Dis-information around Sex, Sexuality, and Sexual Orientation: Paromita Vohra, Founder and Creative Director of Agents of Ishq—a  multi-media project about sex, love and desire that uses various artistic mediums to create informational material and an inclusive, positive space for different expressions of sex and sexuality—led this session. She started with an examination of the term “disorder” and its historical implications, and highlighted how religion, law, medicine, and psychiatry had previously led to the classification of homosexuality as a “disorder”. The session delved into the misconceptions surrounding sex and sexuality in India, advocating for a broader understanding that goes beyond colonial knowledge systems and standardised sex education. She brought up the role of media in altering perspectives on factual events, and the need for more initiatives like Agents of Ishq to address the need for culturally sensitive and inclusive sexuality language and education that considers diverse experiences, emotions, and identities.

Artificial Intelligence and Mis-/Dis-information: Padmini Ray Murray, Founder of Design Beku—a collective that emerged from a desire to explore how technology and design can be decolonial, local, and ethical— talked about the role of AI in amplifying information disorder and its ethical considerations, stemming from its biases in language representation and content generation. Hindi and regional Indian languages remain significantly under-represented in comparison to English content, leading to skewed AI-generated content. Search results reflect the gendered biases in AI and further perpetuate existing stereotypes and reinforce societal biases. She highlighted the real-world impacts of AI on critical decision-making processes such as loan approvals, and the influence of AI on public opinion via media and social platforms. Participants expressed concerns about the ethical considerations of AI, and emphasised the need for responsible AI development, clear policies, and collaborative efforts between tech experts, policymakers, and the public.

* The Centre for Internet and Society undertakes interdisciplinary research on internet and digital technologies from policy and academic perspectives. Point of View focuses on sexuality, disability and technology to empower women and other marginalised genders to shape and inhabit digital spaces.

[1] Claire Wardle, Understanding Information Disorder (2020). https://firstdraftnews.org/long-form-article/understanding-information-disorder/.

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