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By Lidija Pisker

For nine months, NewsMavens’ fact-checking squad fought false news and biased reporting against women in Europe. The project is over but the battle is far from the end.

Women with an index finger longer than their ring finger are “cheaters,” according to several Ukrainian online media sites. Feminists are women “who nobody wants to have sex with,” a journalist in Serbia wrote in his article. In Germany, a politician described women who are hired because of gender quotas as “stupid, lazy, ugly and obnoxious.”

Those are some of the claims published by European media, which were analyzed by a group of fact checkers gathered around the project #FemFacts between October 2018 and June 2019.

The #FemFacts project was designed by NewsMavens, a pan-European virtual newsroom of women journalists who curated the news coming from their countries and region – but from a female perspective. The outlet was established in September 2017. In the second year of existence, NewsMavens has launched a fact-checking platform to raise awareness about the increase in content propagating misleading, false or manipulative information about women throughout Europe. Both NewsMavens and its #FemFacts project closed down in June this year.

All selected problematic claims (which have occasionally been suggested by NewsMavens’ readers) have gone through a fact checking process and are rated according to the #FemFacts fact-checking methodology. The analyzed news could have fallen into the categories of “fake news,” “disinformation,” “manipulation of facts,” “conspiracy theory,” “pseudoscience,” “biased reporting,” “spin,” “censorship,” “clickbait,” or “advertising”. The categories that have been used to contextualize the fact checked content were, among others, “violence against women,” “sexual objectification,” “biological determinism,” and “antifeminist backlash.” This rating system allowed for readers to get a broader understanding of both media literacy and gender issues.

In total, #Femfacts has published fact-checks written by 22 authors from 14 different European countries. As one of them, I contributed analyses from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia and Bulgaria.

In the Balkans, where there is too much media disinformation about women, it was at times very difficult to choose among many cases that needed #FemFacts debunking. Women are used as bait online, as is one of the conclusions of the final #FemFacts report: “Disrespect for women’s privacy and the tendency to reduce women to sex objects is particularly noticeable in media located in countries of the Balkan Peninsula. In some cases, the targets of such reports were not even public figures, but private persons who never agreed to appear in the public eye – and who would not be exposed in this manner if they were men.”

In my When a selfie is a crime analysis about the public shaming of a Bosnian female teacher, I elaborated a striking example of how popular media outlet Dnevni avaz invaded a woman’s privacy, manipulated the facts and attempted to destroy her reputation without any consequences to the reporters or their editors. Other local and regional media used elements of Dnevni avaz’s article lacking any verification, whilst adding on complementary disinformation and manipulation of facts to make the story even more clickable and more shareable.

Another illustration of Dnevni avaz’s misogynist reporting I monitored for #Femfacts was a series of stories about a Bosnian man who murdered his three children and then committed suicide. While searching for his motives for such a crime, Dnevni avaz and other local media accused his wife, presenting allegations that she was unfaithful, and that the couple had financial difficulties, among other possible triggers for the misdoing. The storm of negative comments and hate speech against the wife and the mother followed on social media. Many of them argued that she was to be blamed for the crime, that it is entirely her fault and that her behavior led to the tragedy. To have to read such misogynist content, which demonized a woman whose children had just been slaughtered by their father, was among the most difficult tasks I had as #FemFacts fact-checker.

But not everything was so dark. I have also worked on debunking pseudoscience, yet another pile of online media content with a high clickbait potential. Most of the pseudoscience content analyzed by #FemFacts dealt with issues related to health and sexuality, but not all pseudoscientific articles analyzed by #FemFacts were been rated as sexist. It was actually quite entertaining to work on a piece about menstrual cups being promoted as pregnancy devices, when I have been tracking variations of the same line of argument (that menstrual cups can help in conceiving) which was started by the US company producing menstrual products, taken over by Australian parenting websites and ended up on Bosnian news portals.

Another great thing is that NewsMavens’ readers, most of whom are women, have reacted in a very positive way to our reports. It was very encouraging to learn that my Women without kids deserve no respect report was the most read and the most shared among all #FemFacts reports. The analysis dealt with biological determinism and antifeminist backlash displayed in the work and statements of Bosnian self-help author Sara Sabri, who portrayed women without children or with just one child as failures and destined to an isolated life and undignified death. Sabri, who calls herself a “mother, wife, writer, lecturer and interlocutor”, is an influential public figure in the Balkans. Yet, she refused my request for interview. Her blog post (which was part of her attempt to glorify women who are mothers and humiliate those who have no children or have only one child) was removed from her website after my e-mails. That’s still a victory.  

No matter how challenging it has been at moments, to work on #FemFacts helped me better understand the motives, tactics and tools of media campaigns targeted against women and their rights and freedoms. The work that we have done was a pioneering attempt to dig into media content and show how much dirt there was when it comes to representation of women across Europe.

“This is what happens when women choose the news,” was a slogan of NewsMavens’ efforts to encourage women’s perspectives on the news, which are often underrepresented in newsrooms. #FemFacts could have easily gone under the slogan: “This is what happens when women debunk the news.” Someone has to continue to dig the dirt.

Lidija Pisker is freelance journalist from Bosnia and Herzegovina living in Italy. Reporting about human rights, society, culture and everything in between. A dog person with cat personality.