In the cauldron of fake news: The supposed spinster ridiculed by the manosphere who has been married for years

The story of a woman taken out of context years later to criticize feminism has gone viral following a chain of events that highlights the complexity of misinformation

Véronique documental de RTS
A scene from the 2017 documentary with Véronique playing with her cat.RTS
Javier Salas

A link arrives in a WhatsApp group with news about a spinster: a sad woman, without children, who lives with her cats and regrets that it’s too late for her to be a mother. The link is met with jokes, laughing emojis and something else. But the woman is real. And now she’s frustrated at how her pain has been distorted: “It makes me feel desperate.” It is disinformation in its purest form, containing a whole tangle of complexities. For starters, the supposed spinster has been married for years.

In December 2016, Swiss health authorities revealed that 36% of Swiss people felt lonely. A few months later, the country’s public television decided to do a report on the issue, titled A Life of Solitude, which starred seven people with different backgrounds: Pierre-Alain, Stéphanie, Véronique, Raffaele, Nancy, Isabelle and Alain. But only one of them, Véronique, is the object of ridicule seven years later.

A network of anti-feminist groups has resurrected her story — decontextualized and manipulated — to spread a sexist message that has ended up in outlets such as Spain’s conservative newspaper ABC and the Mexican daily Milenio. Clickbait, ideology and people motivated by their worst emotions have done the rest. Véronique has been turned into a laughingstock, with trolls claiming she is a victim of the women’s liberation movement.

“It is very frustrating not to have any control over the consequences of the program,” Véronique tells EL PAÍS. Her public ridicule shines a light on the cauldron of misinformation. It is a story that highlights the complexity of the phenomenon, as governments around the world seek to put a stop to it.

In the 2017 documentary, Véronique acknowledged she was sad and lonely about the fact she didn’t have children, and admitted through tears that no one had told her: “I love you.” “I would have liked to have heard that sometime in my life, and now I’m 55 years old, and I’m afraid that no one ever say it,” she says. Véronique had been looking for a long-term relationship, but she hadn’t found one: “I wonder why I always choose those who don’t commit.” The narrator of the documentary says that she has had a fulfilling professional career, spending lots of time abroad, but does not claim that this has hurt her love life.

But the clip from the documentary that went viral does make that connection. On May 25, a user with the questionable name “prtpsmkgtvbnmw” uploaded an old, edited and poor quality version of Véronique’s interview to their YouTube account, which has since been viewed 29,000 times.

That same day, a user shared the video on the Spanish forum Forocoches, a platform similar to 8chan. The discussion thread — titled “Successful 55-year-old woman is very sad about not having had children” — has since received more than 900 comments. The first set the tone of the debate: “This is how many women will end up, what an epidemic is to come. Feminist shit has put it into their heads that they have to have a professional ‘career,’ instead of focusing on starting a family.”

The account that uploaded the video to Forocoches, previously shared another video from the same YouTube account (prtpsmkgtvbnmw, which only has three other videos about feminism), but it failed to spark any discussion.

In the YouTube video and Forochoches thread, Verónique’s story was totally reframed from how it was presented in the original video (about loneliness in modern Switzerland) to send a completely different message. But the fake news cauldron did not stop there: there was one more twist to go.

On May 26 (one day after the post of Forocoches), the newspaper ABC published a story with this headline: “A woman who prioritized her career regrets not having children at 55.” The subheading added more fuel to the fire: “Véronique gave up motherhood to put her professional life and casual relationships first, something she regrets now that she is alone.” None of this is true, it just clickbait.

The story was then picked up by the X user Capitán Bitcoin — an account that regularly shares fake news against the so-called “progressive dictatorship” — who posts a nearly identical message to the Abc headline, which has more than 380,000 impressions.

But the ABC story achieves even greater reach. Its Facebook post about Véronique is among the five most viewed on its account in recent weeks (according to the network monitoring tool Spike). Its first message on X received four million views, partly due to critics who reshared the post and inadvertently broadened its reach.

The story went viral, and it also signalled the importance of engagement: the inflamed feelings that provoke comments, reposts and more clicks. The Abc article is by an SEO editor, journalists who prepare news aimed at attracting traffic from Google and social media. And it is published in the newspaper’s light news section, which features stories on celebrity weddings and the washing machine programs.

But Véronique’s story is not just clickbait, it is also misinformation. She now regrets appearing in the documentary. “It is a lesson, and it is also the time in which we are living, it makes me feel desperate…” she tells EL PAÍS, reflecting on how her story has been turned into a moral against women’s liberation.

It takes just five minutes to find Véronique’s email address and Instagram account, where she has posted photos of her wedding in July 2020. “I met my husband thanks to the program!” she says. It would not have been difficult at all to cross-check the low-quality video from a dubious YouTube account.

The danger of misinformation

“It’s pure manosphere in a serious newspaper, they have broken the last barrier,” says Elisa García-Mingo, who has been investigating misogyny in social media for years. The manosphere — the diverse collection of websites, blogs, and online forums promoting misogyny and opposition to feminism — seeks to spread its sexist and reactionary ideas as far as possible, a process they call “pollinating.” And the viral Abc story about Véronique is an example of successful pollination.

García-Mingo explains that the manosphere uses jokes and a light-hearted approach to push its agenda. “It’s hard to establish the line between a viral news story to make you laugh and the macho discourse, but that’s the real role of the manosphere,” she explains, “to break the consensus, the social pact against sexism, to sneak misogyny through the back door, with humor and funny messages.”

The researcher points out another aspect of the problem, arguing that the media is “profiting from and monetizing misogyny, it’s making clickbait with it, because it sells economically. Serious media cannot afford that.” Almost all news websites have a section dedicated to viral stories, with little in the way of filters, where they collect inconsequential stories mostly taken from social media or TV programs, such as that of a lonely woman in Switzerland.

But sometimes it is also driven by ideology. García-Mingo says that she has been seeing a rise of stories about “women who do not define themselves as feminists, but who are under the dictatorship of feminism, who are told: ‘Wake up, you are going to be alone.’”

Mainstream media play an important role when it comes to fake news. A recent study on misinformation on social media, published in Science, found that misleading headlines from mainstream media are more dangerous than false news from more questionable sites. Jennifer Allen, an MIT researcher and co-author of the article, explained: “Competition for clicks is a challenge, but I don’t think that absolves the media of responsibility.”

The ecosystem of fake news, conspiracies and reactionary messages “is very porous,” says García-Mingo, and its messages leak through in many ways. Some 81% of Europeans believe that fake news is “a problem for democracy.” Sometimes they are just a link to joke about with friends in a WhatsApp group.

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