I’ve spent the last week reading research papers which focus on the use of misogynist language in various places online, as well as two papers looking at the approach to anonymity and trolling within the online community 4Chan. I also made contact with a journalist on BuzzFeed who received some misogynist remarks following piece she posted 18 months ago about The Simpsons cartoons.
I’m in no doubt that that the most vile misogyny exists out there on the www, and if you want to find it its only two – three at most – mouse clicks away. 4Chan in particular is a rich source of material, but even Reddit has a series of pornographic threads. It even uses the term ‘fuckstruggle’ which – according to Google trends – hasn’t been used as a search term (in any significant numbers) prior to 2015. I would say this word has evolved as an alternative to the more obvious ‘rape’.
As a break from reading and note-taking, I decided to spend a few hours looking for some evidence of misogynist language in a few locations online. I’ve got quite a list of words / word combinations / short phrases to look for now. However, it doesn’t appear ‘everywhere’ and it isn’t always in the places I expected to see it, or even in the form that makes it easy to pick up and use in a dissertation.
I couldn’t help starting with content, which illustrates very well why machine learning might have a hard time spotting misogyny left to its own devices. The Daily Mail writer, Sarah Vine (wife of George Osborne, dontcha know), is frequently critical of women’s looks and behaviour, which is something that, on the whole, men don’t do to other men. The fact that it’s a woman doing it makes it worse. Using phrases like ‘skimpy outfits’ and ‘looked like she got dressed in the dark’ aren’t exactly in the same league as ‘your boyfriend took one for the team’ or ‘tits or GTFO’, because the language is used in a more subtle way. Nevertheless, the inference is clear: women, some more so than others, are objects. The definition of misogyny implies a ‘hatred’ of women, and although Sarah Vine’s comments aren’t necessarily outright hatred per se, if you add similar comments from other articles together, the overall impression IS of ‘hating women’.
I moved on then to look at the comments made following various articles on the websites of tabloid newspapers, BuzzFeed, Reddit, and a couple of gaming magazine sites. It quickly became clear that a) the sites that encouraged commenters to register and also provided a quick log-in via Facebook had fewer negative responses. Frankly, I struggled to find anything misogynist. Of course, there is a tension between commenting on web sites and advertising revenue. Huffington Post encourages commenting because they want to build an on-line community, which in turn provides them with valuable data they can then use to extract revenue from advertisers by selling them advertising space that can be more accurately targeted at the individual. Data is the new gold. I believe they use an algorithm that filters out offensive comments (for example, comparing any political party with the Nazis), and after that they have ‘gamified’ the feeds in that commenters ‘like’ other comments. Enough ‘likes’ and a commenter can achieve ‘top commenter’ status’, all of which discourages trolling.
It seems to me that certain elements have to come together in order to provoke the kind of vicious comments one of my key researchers refers to as ‘e-bile’ happen. These are:
- Being able to comment anonymously. Not essential, but preferable.
- A female journalist / person writing about something that is regarded as ‘male’ territory, such as gaming or cartoons. If she’s young, so much the better.
- Someone that starts the ball rolling with the first comment.
This last point is especially interesting. I have absolutely no evidence for this, and I imagine such evidence would be extremely difficult to find, but I picture rogue individuals roaming the www, looking for suitable victims. Once identified, they swoop down and leave a shocking comment, and then call their troll-friends in so that they can ‘have some fun’ at the victim’s expense. Thereafter, they compete with each other to cause the maximum distress.
The ‘gamification’ of trolling was suggested in one of my key research papers, and would make an excellent subject for a PhD. However, game or not, I believe that it exposes an underlying misogyny that appears to be just underneath the surface of the society we all live in. If you’re ‘posh’, you might refer to it as social or cultural capital, but whatever you call it the effect is still the same. Women are under-represented just about everywhere, but especially in fields regarded as ‘traditionally male’ like science, computer science, engineering etc. Of course there are other factors to take into consideration, but the more I read, and the closer I look, I find myself appalled by the attitude of so many towards women’s place in, and value to, society.