Twitter is at once “a great place to surface interesting stories” and “a toxic cesspool of cancerous opinions.” And you don’t have to go very far to find the worst of it. Misogyny, in particular, has been a serious and continual issue on the site/app, and everyone from politicians to the Twitter bosses themselves have wrung their hands over it. A new study from the think tank Demos claims this sexism comes from an unlikely source: 50 percent of the misogyny they identified on Twitter was from women. Except, of course, that the headline gets it completely wrong.
The study in question was run in 2014. Right off the bat, there’s a problem: It only pulls tweets that use specific words — namely “rape,” “whore”, and “slut.” To be fair to Demos, it can be hard to quantify the intent of words and emotional state, and they had to draw the line somewhere. Still, that only tracks misogynistic words. Misogynistic behavior, like doxing or tweet spam or sexual harassment, just wasn’t a factor here.
Secondly, there were less misogynistic words used than you might think:
Between Jan. 9 and Feb. 4 2014, there were around 131,000 cases of ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ used in English from UK-based Twitter accounts. We estimate that approximately 18 percent of them appear misogynistic.
Eighteen percent isn’t great, but it’s substantially better than what most of us were likely guessing. Furthermore, the study breaks out the usage of terms: For example, with tweets that featured the word “rape,” 40 percent were news reporting, 27 percent were “other” (think song lyrics, etc.), and 29 percent were “casual misogyny” — stuff like people joking about their “rape faces,” which is gross, but again, not precisely what people think when they think of misogyny on the internet. That said, there is one person who tweeted about rape 392 times, so maybe keep an eye on that guy.
The numbers broke out along the same lines for “slut” and “whore.” Thirty five percent of “misogynist” tweets were things like teenagers calling one another whores for not texting on time. Tiresome, but hardly the concentrated bile that’s drawn headlines. Furthermore, 78 people of people who tweeted these words only did it once.
So what about the gender claim? Demos doesn’t include a detailed breakout, which would have been incredibly useful (though determining gender is quite tricky on the Internet and maybe not our business). The closest we get a hard number is this:
Women are as almost as likely as men to use the terms ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ on Twitter. Not only are women using these words, they are directing them at each other, both casually and offensively; women are increasingly more inclined to engage in discourses using the same language that has been, and continues to be, used as derogatory against them.
This will, of course, be endless grist for the internet mill. You’ll likely hear this study cited in conversations about reappropriation and arguments that “misogyny isn’t just men, though.” The reality is that women saying these words to other women does carry a different connotation than men saying them to women. First of all, there’s a history of women being marginalized by men — which obviously changes the meanings of the words in question. Second, there’s the ever-present threat of sexual violence that lingers when men use terms like these, particularly when a woman is estimated to be attacked every 107 seconds in America. More than anything else, it’s this threat that hums beneath so much of the bad behavior on Twitter. Failing to account for it is where the study’s splashy headline misses its mark.