It is commonly assumed that women in the public eye face more abuse and those dishing out the abuse are men. As always, the evidence is mixed. That is why this story caught my eye (click here for a full account).
In a series of emails, Sundas Alam (female) threatened Bradford West’s Labour MP Naz Shah with a ‘bullet through her head.’ This can only have been a terrifying experience in the light of the murders of David Amess in 20221 and Jo Cox in 2016. It is impossible not to sympathise with any MP who receives online abuse from any source. As well as it being morally repulsive there is a danger we could be left the MPs we deserve – those who are sufficiently thick-skinned or even psychopathic, not to even care about online abuse.
Something that was omitted from the BBC story was that Sundas Alam tried to frame her former male line manager by cloning his email address. He had formerly dismissed her from the West Yorkshire Community Rehabilitation Company for sending him inappropriate messages. He was arrested by the police and held in custody for 20 hours before police worked out who had really sent the emails to Naz Shah.
Clearly, there were two victims in this story, one who was in fear of her life and another who was wrongly held in custody. Indeed, it is not clear who Sundas Alam was targeting? Was it the male manager she blamed for her dismissal? Or was it Naz Shah? I suspect that it was the former and Sundas knew that she would be placing her male target in the eye of a storm.
Is it males or females sending misogynistic abuse on Twitter?
A study published by Demos in 2016 attempted to answer this question. The use of the word ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ was tracked on UK twitter over a three-week period. 6,500 unique users were targeted by 10,000 unique users. Curiously 50% of propagators were found to be women.
In not all cases were these words used in an aggressive manner. Of the 213,000 Tweets that used these terms in an aggressive fashion, 48% came from female posters and 42% from male posters. The researchers did a more detailed manual search on 250 randomly chosen cases from this group and a similar pattern emerged. Of the 85% of cases where the gender could be determined 55.7% of posters were female and 44.3 male.
Notwithstanding this data, the Guardian chose a picture of a group of middle-aged men to illustrate the story, the very group who were least likely to send misogynist Tweets- pictures do the heavy lifting.
Another study published by Catherine Marcum and colleagues in 2012 looked at cyberbullying among 1,139 undergraduates and found a similar picture. Though female students experienced more cyberbullying they were also more likely to be the perpetrators. This fits with the different patterns of male and female aggression. Female bullying involves emotional and psychological abuse rather than physical threats. For that reason, social media is the perfect vehicle for female forms of covert aggression.
The same paper highlighted the case of Megan Meier a young teenager who befriended a ‘boy’ called Josh via MySpace. The messages from Josh became hostile and demeaning and ‘he’ even told her that the world would be a better place without her. Megan subsequently committed suicide. At this point, it was discovered that Josh was a middle-aged woman -Lori Drew. Although Lori was initially convicted of using a computer to inflict emotional distress that conviction was subsequently overturned.
Mary Harrington has noted in an article in Unherd (here) that many young women are angry and unhappy and rates of self-harm among girls under 17 have risen by 68%. The standard Guardian off-the-shelf explanation for this sort of thing, is that it is caused by the stress of living in a patriarchal society. Mary Harrington suggests that social media has handed us the tools for covert interpersonal aggression. This type of aggression, in contrast to physical violence, is a more feminine trait and Instagram, for example, is the perfect tool for for that type of aggression.
Which public figures receive the most abuse?
From the constant media representations of Jess Phillips, you might think female politicians are mainly targeted. If so, think again. Another study by DEMOS published in 2014 found that both male and female politicians receive too much abuse however male politicians receive more. 2.54% of tweets received by prominent male figures contained abuse compared to 0.95% received by female public figures. Looking at celebrities rather than politicians 1 in 20 tweets directed at male celebrities contained abuse compared to 1 in 70 Tweets directed at female celebrities. It was notable that it was the more right-leaning celebrities who received the abuse. For example, Piers Morgan, Ricky Gervais and Katy Hopkins. There was one area however where women were receiving more abuse than their male counterparts and that was female journalists. I certainly do not condone abusive behaviour towards any female journalist but part of the story is that they are the ones peddling radical feminist dogma and sometimes they define any form of disagreement as misogynist abuse.
It was predictable that in a week where a picture more complicated than the standard male malfeasance/female victimhood narrative emerged, Jess Phillips was going to grab herself some publicity. She read out an abusive email she had received and once again she was allowed to present, unchallenged, the standard female victims/male perpetrator narrative. That’s life.