Digital misogyny - a debate that extends beyond Donald Trump

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan October 18, 2016
The Trump/Clinton election campaign has put misogyny high up on the political agenda, nowhere more so than in the online abuse flying back and forth. Good timing for a powerful new report on masculinity and misogyny in the digital age.
Liam Hackett at the study launch in Westminster

As Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton face off for the final US Presidential Debate this evening, it’s against a backdrop where misogyny is no longer an undercurrent of the campaign, but a fully-fledged electoral issue.

Much of that misogyny has been played out online with social media platforms such as Twitter used as a universal bully pulpit, which makes the publication of a new report - Masculinity and misogyny in the digital age - particularly well-timed.

The study, from anti-bullying organization Ditch the Label and social media monitoring agency Brandwatch Analytics, examined nearly 19 million English-language tweets from the US and UK over a 4 year period – from August 2012 to July 2016 (prior to the height of the recent Trump misogyny outcry).

One of the most startling findings from the research is that misogyny is not defined simply by gender divide, with over 50% of misogynistic posts on Twitter in the US and UK written by women. Females were also were slightly more engaged than males across pejorative conversations (52 % to 48%).

Women were found most likely to use derogatory language pertaining to promiscuity, appearance and animals, whereas men used language relating to anatomy, intelligence and sexuality. Misogynistic language is used in mostly female-to-female exchanges.

Source - Masculinity and misogyny in the digital age/Ditch The Label

Liam Hackett, CEO and founder of Ditch The Label, theorises that much of this misogynistic behavior stems from wider societal pressures and influence, citing research from last year that found that half of teenage girls want to change their appearance:

You have kids as young as 13 who want to have plastic surgery. Girls are brought up to believe they are only valued by how they look. They are objectified by society. So you see appearance-based misogyny is highest.

It should be pointed out at this stage that at a time when political apologists for Donald Trump’s taped comments on women argue that those comments are nothing more than “locker room” banter, the study’s analysis has weeded out cases of misogynistic language being used clearly ironically - “bitch, please!!!” etc - to focus on instances of language being used to intentionally attack, offend or undermine women.

The report breaks down specific categories of use of misogynistic language:

  • Literal use (eg: 'When sluts moan on Valentine’s that annoys me, ask yourself why nobody loves you, hoe.')
  • Generic negativity (eg: 'Don’t be such a l’il bitch about it.')
  • Appropriation (eg: 'All girls are bitches. We need to be…so be a bitch and don’t apologize for it.')

Neutral misogynistic discussion was around two times more visible than misogynistic insults, according to the study. In relation to the Trump/Clinton election campaigns, the study found that:

Neutral conversation spiked around August 3rd 2015, due to the GOP Debate and Donald Trump controversy, with ‘Megan Kelly’ and ‘sexist comments’ emerging as sub-topics [on Twitter]. The politician’s elevated ‘sexist attacks’ towards the Fox TV news moderator were noted by Mashable, demonstrating broader interest in political standpoints with regards to discrimination.

Hackett says the danger of a frontline political figure like Trump is the influence they have over certain types of people, providing validation for views that otherwise go unaddressed and amplifying messages that are unacceptable.

Not just the US

Of course this isn’t an issue strictly limited to the current US election. For example, the Scottish Independence referendum in the UK saw an uptick in offensive tweets directed at women. Consider the following, aimed at UK actress Frances Barber who was an outspoken opponent of independence:


And that’s a relatively tame selection. Elsewhere today in UK political circles it’s been confirmed that openly gay MP Angela Eagle was the subject of online abuse as part of a wider campaign of intimidation during her short-lived leadership campaign as head of the Labour Party.

Hackett recognises the trend:

It seems that if you have women who are outspoken and presenting qualities that are respected in men, then there’s going to be a sub-group who wants to bring them down, often using sexually-aggressive language. Twitter and other online platforms give people a  false sense of security.

Hackett explains that the study took place against a wider backdrop of looking at masculinity and in particular what he terms ‘toxic masculinity’. Ditch The Label defines masculinity by four things - looks, personality, behavior and preferences. Certain things - such as drinking wine rather than beer - are regarded as less masculine and lead to online abuse and bullying. The  bigger challenge, says Hackett, is:

Can we understand and re-define what it means to be masculine?

My take

An important and ongoing conversation to be had. Ditch The Label  this week opened up a presence in the US, an appropriate time many might think when a toxic election campaign has exposed damaging societal, gender, religious and sexual divides across the country. This is a digital diversity debate we shall be covering long after whatever shenanigans emerge from Las Vegas tonight.

Image credit - YouTube/Twitter

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