A content analysis of tweets reveals that (1) misogynistic terms are frequent on twitter and they seem to be normalised (2) such terms are as likely to be used by women as men (assuming gender is easily identifiable on twitter).
Most surprising, however, were who we found using these words. Women are almost as likely to use ‘slut’, ‘whore’ and ‘rape’, both casually and offensively, as men. Judging by our automated analysis, accounts with male names used one of the words 116,530 times, and accounts with female names 94,546.
Last week, Demos published a report that attempts to measure the amount and nature of misogyny we face today on Twitter. We were interested in the various contexts and occasions that three words — ‘rape’, ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ — were used by UK-based Twitter accounts. The volume that we found was enormous. Between December 26 2013 and 9 February 2014, from UK Twitter accounts, just over 100,000 contained the word ‘rape’, 48,000 ‘whore’ and 85,000 ‘slut’.
But how were these words actually used? We built algorithms (a description of the technology from the University of Sussex is here) and looked at the data closely ourselves to map out the broad contexts in which each word was deployed. As you would imagine, it was varied. A significant number of the tweets were sober, serious and non-offensive. 40 percent of the tweets containing ‘rape’ were reporting on news stories involving rape, or were involved in explicit activism against the misuse of the term. Likewise, about 10 percent of the uses of ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ were clearly non-offensive, often actually trying to do something about the problem of online misogyny.
Underneath this serious and responsible layer of news reportage and activism, we found a more problematic, and very large, grey zone of use. These tweets used ‘rape’, ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ in a normalised, apparently (in the eyes of the sender) casual way. 29 percent of tweets using rape did so non-literally, as in “Barcelona is going to rape Celtic next week” and 35 percent of uses of ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ were colloquial, conversational or apparently off-handed: “If I was pretty and skinny would be such a whore”. Linguistics research like this is often the art of drawing lines in the sand, and at the most serious end of this wide category were those 18 percent of tweets containing ‘slut’ and whore’ that were more obviously misogynistic, as in: “why take photos lookin like a slut and then moan when people say bad things?”
Most worrying were those tweets — 12 percent that contained ‘rape’, and 20 percent that contained ‘slut’ or ‘whore’ — that seemed to be a direct threat or insult. These were cases where the words were being most clearly drawn on as linguistic weapons with which to hurt and demean, to menace or harass. Out of context it is hard to tell how serious they really were, but they appeared to be beyond the casual, touching on something darker, more threatening and more serious.