According to a new study published by Demos, a think tank based in the United Kingdom, about half of the online harassment that people experience on Twitter actually comes from women.
Over the course of three weeks, Demos's researchers kept track of 80,000 Twitter users and analyzed the types of tweets other users outside of the sample sent to them. In that time, the study's participants received 200,000 misogynistic Tweets that included the words "slut" and "whore."
Demos's decision to use "whore" and "slut" as its primary indicators of misogyny stems from its 2014 research, but one has to wonder whether those two words really capture the full breadth and width of the kind of misogyny that takes place on Twitter.
In addition to simply searching for instances where tweets included misogynistic words, Demos also claims to have taken the extra step of using natural language filters allowing its researchers to differentiate between people using the terms to refer to themselves, those commenting on misogyny in conversation about events like slut walks.
It's difficult to say just what percentage of the Twitter users that received the misogynistic Tweets were female themselves. Twitter, which does not ask users to identify their gender when they sign up for an account, is notoriously unreliable when it comes to providing analytics about how its userbase breaks down according to gender. But, as any woman who has spent any measure of time on Twitter will tell you: sexist trolls are a very, very real problem.
“This study provides a birds-eye snapshot of what is ultimately a very personal and often traumatic experience for women," researcher Alex Krasodomski-Jones told The Telegraph. "This is less about policing the internet than it is a stark reminder that we are frequently not as good citizens online as we are offline."
One imagines that the goal of this study was to complicate the idea that men are responsible for the bulk of the sexist harassment lobbed at women on Twitter, but again, there's no way to determine the gender of the people who sent the tweets analyzed here.
When I spoke with @femme_esq, a Chicago-based Twitter user who took issue with the study, she explained that for all Demos's claims of wanting to challenge Twitter's misogyny problem, the study itself was rife with a number of fundamental biases against women that were rooted in misogynistic thinking.
"When you're talking about misogynist harassment, it's very important to center the targets of that harassment, mostly women, and hold men accountable for their own behavior," @femme_esq explained. "The idea that misogyny is "worse" when coming from women fails to hold harassers accountable, and fails to center targets of misogynist harassment."
The most important issue that @femme_esq brought up with the study focused on the notion that online misogyny could be discretely quantified and measured with two slurs. Misogyny, she said, is often more complicated, aggressive, and darker.
"Describing misogyny as people tweeting 'slut' and 'whore' at you is akin to saying that misogyny is really just calling people nasty names," she said. "On the contrary, men specifically have harassed several dozen women I know personally by threatening them with death and rape, and by making their hidden identities public to enable more harassment by more bad actors, also almost always men."
While slurs and pejoratives are undoubtedly a problem, it's difficult to say whether a study that doesn't account for the most vicious kinds of attacks that women regularly experience online is really all that reflective of reality. In order to really understand where misogyny is coming from, you have to cast a much wider, more sophisticated net.
"Even though both types of harassment are problematic, only one is explicitly aimed at creating enough fear in women that they stay offline, or stop talking, for fear of their safety,"@femme_esq posited, adding: "I'd be interested to see who the perpetrators of that type of harassment are."