Why women remain the main target of internet bullies
New research proves that online abuse is often gender-related. Writer Vicki Notaro, a victim herself, reports
The pernicious modern-day phenomemon of online abuse has become one of the bugbears of our age. It's been the bane of media outlets who want their websites to be places where open discussion is actively encouraged, but who instead have found that much of what is posted online is nasty, offensive, inflammataory - and even, at times, criminal.
We've long suspected, too, that women are far more often the victim of online harrassment, and that suspicion seems to have been confirmed this week by new data released by the Guardian.
The UK media organisation used the 70 million comments left on its site as a unique data resource to investigate the nature of online abuse. The researchers found that trolling might have a lot more to do with gender, race and sexuality than initially believed.
We're told that everyone who puts themselves out there online gets a bit of the bad with the good. But according to the Guardian, since 2010, articles written by women have consistently attracted a higher proportion of blocked comments than those written by men.
In fact, of the top 10 abused writers on their website, eight are women, and the remaining two are black men. Even more interestingly, the top 10 least abused writers are all men.
According to social media psychologist Dr Ciaran McMahon, this isn't surprising. "I've research from 20 years ago talking about 'gender wars in cyberspace', and the 'boys' club locker room atmosphere' online. We have had two decades of innovation in technology, but very little progress in basic online civility.
"Women and minorities tend to be targeted because while some progress has been made, we still live in an unequal society. Social systems tend to work to justify themselves, and what we are seeing in online abuse is often an attempt to maintain that status quo."
"I think there's something of a perceived vulnerability when it comes to women and minorities online," says psychologist Mark Smyth, a member of the Psychology Society of Ireland who has a special interest in social media and online behavior.
"Trolls will underestimate someone based on gender or race, and this simply shows the limitations of their insight. These could be remnants of the old stereptypical patriarchal society, where women and minorities didn't have the opportunity to share their opinion."
As a journalist, I've certainly received abuse; a couple of years ago, several disgruntled readers created Twitter accounts to virtually shout at me because they disagreed with a concert review I wrote, and I've always had comments on my appearance and perceived intellect.
What motivates the people who go online and spew venom at people they've never met?
"Our culture in general views combat as a form of entertainment, so not only are trolls entertaining themselves, they're also entertaining other people," says Dr McMahon.
"The research in terms of trolling is still in its infancy," explains Mark. "But a widely cited Canadian study has shown that the motivations of those who troll are to upset, get a reaction and cause pain. These are people who enjoy making others feel bad, and the most common characteristic is sadism.
"A lot of trolls use anonymous accounts, and that allows them to lift the moral ethical constraints and say things they would never say in public. They think it's only online, so it can't hurt anyone, but the effects of trolling are real, and can lead to the target feeling anxiety and sadness, and becoming withdrawn."
Dr McMahon says that there is a general assumption that what goes on online simply isn't as important as what occurs in real life. "We have to get away from this thought process because it gives the people who engage in this behavior a sense that it's not real or important."
Author and comedian Tara Flynn is often on the receiving end of abuse online, and although she doesn't go looking for it, it still comes and finds her.
"I never read the comments on anything I've made, and I don't deliberately go searching for my name. I learned long ago that that way madness lies. I find it's easy to brush off one or two rude comments, and rationalise that it's someone who's bored or feels powerless lashing out. But every now and again, it lands with me, especially if it's coming from a few angles or is particularly personal or vicious. Then I think it's good to call them out, so people know it's happening to everyone and that we're not afraid."
Tara was recently targeted on her own personal Facebook account, but found the website's abuse reporting system lacking.
"I could click to report and block him myself, but that lad still gets to pursue his pathetic hobby, and that's not good enough. I find that you also get abuse for counterattacking abuse. You get abuse for being online, full stop."
Author Louise O'Neill is also frequently and personally attacked for her feminist views. "It's interesting to see how much more abuse women receive online and how gendered it is. It tends to be either insults about your weight or appearance or threats of rape. It can feel like if you're a woman with strong opinions that people seem to be threatened by that, and are eager to put you in your place.
"Most of the time I find it funny - some of the abuse I receive is ridiculous - but after a while it does have a cumulative effect and I'm left feeling exhausted by it.
"The trolls seem to forget that I'm a human being and that my parents and my sister also see their comments and are deeply upset by it. I also feel as if they're waiting for me to make a mistake or say something stupid - which is bound to happen sooner or later, I have never promised to be perfect - so they can pounce on it."
"Trolling is status-enhancing to some," says Mark. "It basically says 'notice me', and makes the troll feel powerful. When self-esteem is low, negative attention is better than none at all and people can feel validated by this."
But what can we do to stop abusive comments creeping off the internet and in to our consciousness?
"The saying 'don't feed the trolls' is getting out there, and in a way it's best not to.
"You can block and report people and comments, but it's not possible to get rid of trolling altogether. We should strive for harm reduction rather than elimination altogether, and in some cases maybe just step away from it for a while."