By Catarina Dutilh Novaes
Yesterday the Guardian published the results of a research conducted on the over 70 million comments that have been placed at Guardian articles over the years. The question was: is there a pattern in who gets most abusive comments? Given the Guardian’s policy to block comments (blocked by moderators) when they are not aligned with the spirit of constructive debate, this constitutes an extremely dataset to explore online behavior (it is reassuring by the way that only 2% of the 70m comments were blocked!). It has been long felt that women, and in particular women speaking from a feminist perspective, receive much online abuse in reaction to what they write. (Comment sections are one such venue, but think also of Twitter and other social media platforms.) But crunching the numbers is the right way to go if one wants to move from the level of ‘impressions’ to more concrete corroboration. The results will probably not come across as surprising:
Although the majority of our regular opinion writers are white men, we found that those who experienced the highest levels of abuse and dismissive trolling were not. The 10 regular writers who got the most abuse were eight women (four white and four non-white) and two black men. Two of the women and one of the men were gay. And of the eight women in the “top 10”, one was Muslim and one Jewish.
And the 10 regular writers who got the least abuse? All men.
To a lesser extent, we’ve observed something similar with respect to blogging in the philosophy community. When NewAPPS started in 2010, blogs were where the action was; but over the years the quality of debates in comments got lower and lower, in particular in places where anonymous comments were allowed. The fact that there was even an APA panel recently on online harassment says enough about the magnitude of the problem. (Naturally, Daily Nous continues to foster debates on issues in the profession, some more acrimonious than others, but for the most part the conversations seem to make good progress over there -- under moderation.) Now, there is much less truly philosophical debate going on in blogs, and for the most part such conversations seem to have migrated to Facebook (where anonymous commenting is not impossible, but much more difficult). That’s a shame, if you ask me: the utterly democratic nature of debates taking place in blogs, where anyone equipped with an internet connection can join the conversation, is somewhat lost, as Facebook conversations tend to be less inclusive (often reduced to the poster’s friends etc.), thus reproducing in-crowd, cliquey structures.
At the same time, we’ve seen the proliferation of the so-called meta-blogs where certain people lash out on anyone they have a beef with – anonymously, obviously. Most people seem to think that those participating in the meta-blog debates are angry young men, frustrated by the vicissitudes of the terrible job market, and looking for people to blame for their own misery. But we don’t know for sure who these people are.
When reading the Guardian results, my immediate reaction was to imagine the abusive commenters as being the stereotypical ‘angry white men’, online warriors fighting against feminism and what is sometimes described as ‘reversed racism’ against whites. But as well put by Jasper van den Herik on my Facebook post on this article: “I wonder: is there any research into the demographics of these commenters?” Indeed, ideally we should here too move away from ‘impressions’ and stereotyping guesswork to a clearer picture of who these people are, on the basis of data. The abusive comments are a sign of generalized social discomfort, and we would do well to look at it from a systemic, general perspective.
If the ‘angry white men’ hunch is correct, then it seems that recent work on masculinities by e.g. Michael Kimmel, Tom Digby, among many others, may give us some insight into what motivates people to display such despicable behavior online. Perhaps they don’t even realize that the angry outpour is doing actual damage to people’s lives, in what are presumably efforts to reaffirm their threatened masculinities. (I love the story of the gaming journalist who went on to contact the mothers of her male harassers!)
Either way, the Guardian results show once again that online abuse of women and minorities is a real thing; it is all too easy for those who are neither senders nor receivers of the abuse to fail to take notice. Moreover, it would be a mistake to conclude that this phenomenon is specific to online interactions; while impersonality and the veil of anonymity may make people more daring in their aggressive behavior, it is simply a reflection of very real, meat-space phenomena that many people experience every day.