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Why women get attacked by trolls: A new study unpacks the digital gender safety gap

A Pew report breaks down the dramatic differences in the way men and women are treated online


Soraya Chemaly
October 23, 2014 8:30PM (UTC)

Yesterday, Pew released its most recent research study on online harassment. Forty percent of 2,849 web users surveyed earlier this year reported experiencing online harassment, categorized as name calling, purposeful embarrassment, stalking, sexual harassment, physical threats and sustained harassment. Age and gender were the most consequential factors contributing to whether or not a person has been harassed.  People between the ages of 18-29 were the most likely say they’d been harassed.  The survey also revealed important differences between men’s and women’s descriptions of “harassment” and provided insight into the frustrations regularly articulated by women living with widespread hostility online.

The survey found that, in general, men are more likely to experience online harassment, but they are experiencing less severe forms and significantly fewer emotional, personal or perceived reputations harms.  Men are more likely to be “called names” or be targeted by people who set out to embarrass them.  Men are also more likely to say that they get “physical threats.” Young men in particular were much more likely to report that their harassment took place in online gaming.

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Women, on the other hand, report higher rates of more extreme abuses and related impacts. “Young women,” researchers concluded, “experience particularly severe forms of online harassment.”  They report experiencing much higher rates of sexual harassment, stalking and sustained abuse.

There is clearly a difference between being “called a name” and being stalked or sexually harassed, sometimes for weeks, months or years. The violence we know exists offline, where women between the ages of 18-24 are more likely to be harassed, stalked, raped and killed by intimate partners, has clearly manifested itself online. Women surveyed by Pew were more likely than men to report that their experiences with harassment online has been “extremely or very upsetting,” almost 40 percent of harassed women compared with 17 percent of harassed men. Of those who had been stalked or experienced sustained harassment – mainly women – more than a third felt that their reputations had suffered harm.

Notably, given the past several weeks of #gamergate controversy, the Pew Study found that most people think websites and social media welcome men and women equally – with the exception of one sector: gaming. Forty-four percent of people surveyed thought that gaming is a more “welcoming” online space for men, which surprises no one except those arguing that #gamergate a movement that began with a vengeful ex-boyfriend’s blog post, is first and foremost about journalistic ethics. The three women in the midst of this episode, none of whom are journalists, have had to leave their homes in the wake of rape and death threats.

The words “harassment” and “bullying” to describe a wide spectrum of online abuses is too broad to be useful. "Just as offline, the word 'harassment' covers a spectrum of negative behaviors – online as well as offline,” explains Anne Collier, Co-Director of ConnectSafely.org.  “It can't begin to describe the level of aggression some Internet users experience."  When one hears “online harassment,” he may, reasonably, think a woman’s fear is exaggerated become "harassment" connotes name-calling or embarrassment. These epistemological differences have undoubtedly influenced the way that online systems are built and how companies assess user safety.

Consider Twitter, regularly in the news for incidents involving harassment of women. #Gamergate, Zelda Williams and Imani Gandy provide just three recent examples. While the company tries to be responsive when someone is clearly and publicly in distress, it has yet to define the full scope of the problem or find scalable solutions.  Twitter has roughly the same gender composition of most large Internet companies, 70 percent male and 30 percent female. "Tech" jobs at Twitter, however, are 90 percent male and 10 percent  female.

Recently, I had to report several abusive tweets, each one individually and provide links.  There is no place to say that a Tweet is urgently threatening, or part of a larger, sustained campaign of harassment. As a target of harassment reporting abuse, I had to acknowledge that Twitter might share my report with the abusive Tweeters. For a person being harassed in a situation involving intimate partner abuse, or a violently expressive anonymous harasser, chances are that Twitter’s share her report with the aggressor, whose abuse may have included sharing home or work information, is an undesirable option. Twitter does include a message during the reporting process that explains to users that if they feel they are in danger they should contact their local authorities, however, this overall reporting framework, while sufficient for “name calling” and possibly embarrassment, fails in several ways to address the type and intensity of harassment that many women experience.  As the organizer of a coalition of organizations working on tech, gender and safety issues, I know that Twitter is aware of these problems and trying to address them, but, in the meantime, the reporting structure continues to be a problem.

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Social media companies are constantly struggling to cope with the expense and public embarrassment of a daily crush of abuse reports. But, for the most part, they continue to retrofit systems to accommodate types and levels of harassment that designers should find ways to take into consideration from the beginning.  There is nothing particularly unique about these systemic social media problems. It’s the Internet’s equivalent of safety belt failures that resulted in women unnecessarily suffering more injuries and dying in car crashes because engineers failed to create crash test dummies with female body dimensions.


Soraya Chemaly

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