Research reveals full extent of online misogyny

A study has revealed the huge scale of misogyny on social media, and how much of it is perpetrated by women.

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This piece was first published by the World Economic Forum.

JOHANNESBURG - Research by UK think-tank Demos has revealed the huge scale of misogyny on social media - and how much of it is perpetrated by women.

Focusing on Twitter, Demos collected and analysed 1.5 million tweets mentioning the words "slut" and "whore" over the period 23 April-15 May this year.

Within the UK, 6,500 unique users were targeted by 10,000 explicitly aggressive and misogynistic tweets.

Internationally, more than 200,000 aggressive tweets using the words "slut" and "whore" were sent to 80,000 people during those three weeks.

The study builds on Demos' previous research, conducted in 2014, which found that "slut" and "whore" dominate misogynistic language on Twitter, and that both male and female users are responsible for the abuse.


Perhaps the most surprising element of the survey is the fact that so much of the abuse is perpetrated by women.

In this latest study, 55% of the propagators were found to be women, and they were using the same language as men in their abuse.

In its 2014 report, Demos said that women were "almost as likely as men to use the terms 'slut' and 'whore' on Twitter," and that women were "increasingly inclined to use the same derogatory language that has been, and continues to be, used against them."

Women in the public eye attract the most abuse on Twitter, according to the study. Within the three-week period, American rapper Azealia Banks, UK newspaper columnist Katie Hopkins, online gamer Lea, and Hillary Clinton received the most abuse.


National UK newspaper The Guardian commissioned research into its own online comments, which number 70m since 2006, and found that, of the 10 most abused writers, eight were women. Conversely, the 10 least abused writers were all men.

Articles written by women got more blocked (i.e. abusive or disruptive) comments across almost all sections.

The newspaper's research also found that there was a direct correlation between the amount of blocked comments on women writers, and the areas in which they were writing. When they wrote within male-dominated sectors, such as sport and technology, they received more abusive comments.

It also found that, while articles about crosswords, cricket, horse racing and jazz were respectful, those about articles about feminism or rape attracted very high levels of blocked comments.

At its most extreme, online abuse takes the form of threats to kill, rape or maim. Thankfully, such abuse was extremely rare on The Guardian's website, - and when it did appear it was immediately blocked and the commenter banned.

Less extreme "author abuse" - demeaning and insulting speech targeted at the writer of the article or another comment - is much more common on all online news sites, and it formed a significant proportion of the comments that were blocked on the Guardian site, too.

Whilst some news organisations have taken the step to ban comments altogether, The Guardian insists that active participation is key to its journalism, pointing out that only 2% of its comments end up being blocked.


In February this year, Twitter, which has regularly been criticized for not doing enough to tackle abusive tweets, announced that it would do more to end harassment and abuse on its network. It has established the Twitter Trust and Safety Council, which has more than 40 organisations and experts from 13 regions joining as inaugural members.

"To ensure people can continue to express themselves freely and safely on Twitter, we must provide more tools and policies. With hundreds of millions of tweets sent per day, the volume of content on Twitter is massive, which makes it extraordinarily complex to strike the right balance between fighting abuse and speaking truth to power," Twitter said in a statement.

"As we develop products, policies, and programs, our Trust & Safety Council will help us tap into the expertise and input of organisations at the intersection of these issues more efficiently and quickly."

Commenting on the findings of the 2016 Demos study, Alex Krasodomski-Jones, one of the researchers, said: "It is clear that just as the digital world has created new opportunities for public debate and social interaction, it has also built new battlegrounds for the worst aspects of human behaviour.

"This study provides a bird's eye snapshot of what is ultimately a very personal and often traumatic experience for women. While we have focused on Twitter, who are considerably more generous in sharing their data with researchers like us, it's important to note that misogyny is prevalent across all social media, and we must make sure that the other big tech companies are also involved in discussions around education and developing solutions.

"This is less about policing the internet than it is a stark reminder that we are frequently not as good citizens online as we are offline."

Alex Gray is a senior writer of formative content at the World Economic Forum.