Misogyny on Twitter: Who are the trolls really?

More misogynistic tweets originate from women than from men, according to a new study by British think tank Demos.

Kacper Pempel/Reuters
People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo. Many aggressive and degrading messages directed at women on Twitter also originate with women, according to analysis conducted by the British think tank Demos.

Half of all misogynistic tweets are posted by women, suggests a new study by British think tank Demos, challenging preconceptions about the kinds of people who engage in such behavior.

The study, published Friday, coincides with the launch of the Reclaim the Internet campaign, headed by several British members of Parliament, which seeks to engage the public in an online forum, brainstorming ideas as to how to reduce the amount of sexism, racism, anti-homosexual rhetoric, and other forms of harassment.

While some have cast doubt on the results, and the researchers themselves admit it presents far from a full picture, the implications are startling – providing yet another window into the pioneering online world, where social norms appear so far removed from what existed before the advent of the Internet.

"While this analysis is unable to highlight individual women’s experiences of online trolling, or definitively say how serious each case is, it does hint at the scale of aggressive misogyny online and shows why we need campaigns like Reclaim the Internet," writes Jack Dale of Demos.

This latest research by Demos follows a similar 2014 study, but a major difference this time round was the deployment of a Natural Language Processing Algorithm, which sought to drill deeper into the different uses of two derogatory words for women chosen to represent misogyny, seeking to provide a more nuanced picture.

While Twitter is the vehicle chosen for both studies, Mr. Dale is keen to point out that such behavior is no more prevalent on this platform than any other, but "Twitter simply facilitates research like this by providing an easy-to-access, substantial data set in a relatively short space of time."

Just under 1.5 million tweets, using the two defining terms, were collected from around the globe over a 23-day period. A little more than half were advertising pornography. Of the remainder, 213,000 were classified as aggressive.

Fully 50 percent of these aggressive tweets were sent by women, compared with 40 percent by men and 10 percent by organizations or users whose gender was unclear.

"This study provides a birds-eye snapshot of what is ultimately a very personal and often traumatic experience for women," Alex Krasodomski-Jones, a Demos researcher involved in the study, told The Telegraph. "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."

Moreover, it contradicts the stereotype that would portray all misogynistic, abusive Internet users as part of a "cabal of angry white men hidden behind a computer," writes Barbara Speed of New Statesman.

"As with rapists, it's unhelpful to see all 'trolls' as a specific, evil group who are very different from 'ordinary' people," writes Ms. Speed. "As the study shows, far more ordinary people than we realise, of all genders, are willing to abuse others online with little provocation. If we figure out a way to combat this effect, then perhaps we’d be able to reduce all types of misogyny online."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.