Tuesday 12 April 2016

A Sociology of Sexist Trolling

Women with a public platform get more shit than their male counterparts. And now what's long been known through anecdote and, in some cases, unpleasant direct experience has some numbers behind it. In a study of the 70m comments made on its site since 2006, The Graun has found that of the ten most abused writers, eight are women and the remaining two men are black. This is despite women and BME writers being underrepresented overall. Meanwhile, no prizes for guessing that the ten least trolled scribblers were all men.

How to explain this? The first reflex is to blame it all on a few sad sacks. Undoubtedly there is something lacking and maladjusted about someone who specifically targets women for having the temerity to share an opinion on a popular comment platform. However, that is also a deeply unsatisfying explanation. According to friend-of-the-blog Emile Durkheim, when a phenomenon crops up regularly in certain settings then there is an underlying cause or set of causes that are fundamentally, irreducibly social. Basement dwellers if it's one or two people, but something else if this is getting repeated across comment sites more or less everywhere, and traversing different nations and different languages. If there are a lot of individuals abusing women online, then that is a social fact, as Durkers would put it, and therefore a social problem.

The question is where to start coming to grips with this. In her Cybersexism, Laurie Penny suggests that one of the drivers is the opening of computer mediated public space that had previously been coded as male. That isn't to say women haven't always been using the internet, but the nerd culture that staked out the digital frontier was predominantly masculine, even if it was positioned as the domain of the so-called beta males who found the real world a touch too tough. Similarly the gamer cultures growing up online after 2000 were overtly, outrageously masculine (and definitely, definitely super straight as well). Therefore for a layer of men who identify with these cultures and are invested in them, the increasing public presence of women as something other than porn fodder threatens to, well, spoil their manly-manly safe spaces. Flick through YouTube and see the hysterical male in action because women and some men (who happen to not fall into the straight/white defaults of these cultures) have dared to critique sexism, racism, and other things in video games. It's as if the digital parasol allowing them to "safely" perform masculinity while sheltered from the too-powerful rays of hegemonic maleness proper is being taken away by, eeew, women and being told they cannot use it any more.

This has been well-documented, not least by Laurie herself and forms the basis of the backlash to the so-called GamerGate controversy, which has seen women in the video game industry repeatedly harassed, doxed, and threatened. Historically, sexual harassment and violence has policed demarcated social spaces between the genders, and this is all the old crap updated with proxy servers and iCloud hacking. This, however, doesn't stand alone. There are deeper structures at work feeding into the anxieties of these cultures. A few years ago, this blog noted how
we also have a more level playing field when it comes to jobs. This isn't to say there are no gender divisions at work - it would be stupid to pretend men and women aren't treated differently. But increasingly, especially at entry level, workplaces are increasingly mixed and young men and young women have to compete for the same jobs. And yet hegemonic masculinity - that complex of ideologies, values and expectations inculcated by socialisation and reinforced through family, friendship and media networks - hasn't caught up. A real man has a well paid job, has disposable income enough to buy all the mod cons and fashions, might *have* (in the property sense) a woman, or, at the very least, has women hanging off his arm, and, of course, has the time and inclination to play or watch sports, and/or indulge in masculine-coded pursuits like video gaming, drinking, gadgetry, or fishing. Women are too well aware of the mismatch between how society expects them to dress, look and behave, and their individual lives. But now that mismatch is being felt more by men too.
In 2016 this is pretty much the new normal. Girls generally outperform boys at school, do better in post-16 education, and more young women will be enrolling at university this September than young men. There are still disparities here. Despite the gender gap in education, women will tend to gravitate toward subjects that are "soft" and lead to what you might call gender normative career outcomes. The overall dearth of graduate jobs also means young men are increasingly competing for these roles too. At the other end, seeing as the government has, newspeak-style, abolished youth unemployment by banning benefits for the under 18s and encouraging apprenticeships in unskilled work, here too there is strong competition as gendered demarcations of work are blurring (unevenly, it has to be said) across different sectors. Yet masculine norms inculcated through the family, reinforced in the everyday, and transmitted by all kinds of broadcast media have yet to catch up with the lived reality of many millions of men. Social consciousness has the tendency to lag behind social experience, so it will come in time but whether that manifests and fuels this new misogyny of which The Graun findings are part or undoes it remains to be seen.

There is one glaring problem with this explanation. This is the lot of young people, of young men. Yet chances are our Graun trolls are a touch older than those scrapping over entry level jobs. Attacking women who write about politics is not likely to be the preserve of your average 23 year old GamerGater. So what's going on here then, why would men over a certain age choose to single out Graun writers (or, for that matter, women commentators in general) when they're not subject to the same pressures as younger men are? Here, the case is slightly different. The dissolution of the kinds of masculinities inculcated as natural (and permitted) for the post-war generation is just as real, but is felt differently. If you would allow me a further indulgence from another old post:
... before primary industry and manufacturing went into a tailspin, you knew exactly where you stood. The rich man was in his castle. The poor man at his (factory) gate. Tearing this world away was tantamount to emasculation for a generation of men, and now feeds into a wider alienation from British culture. The vast majority of jobs available to the sons of these men lack obvious markers of masculinity. Office work, retail, call centres, caring - the economic dominance of service industries are simultaneously read as symptoms of the feminisation of working life and national decline. And with this has come the butchering of the armed forces, 'elf and safety' culture, political correctness, women doing "men's jobs" and, horror of horrors, gay marriage.
These are unforeseen consequences of breaking up the solidarities that underpinned the post-war consensus and propped up the parties that oversaw it. All of this is premised on atomisation. There was and always will be such a thing as society, but Thatcher tried her damnedest to boil it down to individuals and their families. Her successful attacks on the labour movement and the much-reduced ability of the working class to reproduce itself semi-independently of the state has thrown matters into a flux that are still to settle. With a weakening of solidarities and the throwing of many families (and individuals) onto their own resources, combined with the disappearance of many masculine-coded jobs there is a coterie of middle-to-old aged men who are deeply resentful that what was theirs by right has gone, and its replacement is a society and set of official values they're disengaged and feel alienated from. Naturally, like most forms of reaction it kicks against what is regarded as the most visible symptoms of a social problem. Immigrants of all kinds, BME communities, minority sexualities, and, of course, women. For a subset of this strata a sense of power, control, superiority and, yes, manliness is recuperated every time they traduce an articulate woman beneath an article. And doing it again and again, one can build up camaraderie with others who do the same, recapturing a simulacra of male solidarity and potency raging against the feminised machine.

Processes like these are underway in all of the advanced countries. The specifics may change, but at root is the collapse of social democratic compromises, the erosion of working class culture (and with it a certain kind of male authority and gendered performance), and consequent restructuring that has conditioned and reconfigured gender relations. None of this excuses men, young or not-so-young from the responsibility of their creepy, unacceptable behaviour. They still make the conscious choice to anonymously abuse, after all. But it puts those decisions in a context, and hopefully this post has demonstrated some of the ways in which class conditions masculinity and the ranty, entitled outbursts attending its dissolution.


Phil said...

I have, weirdly enough, been bullied on Twitter by feminists, after I wrote something fatuous in a grumpy moment. Mockery, jokes at my expense, imaginary threats of violence... they were having a fine old time, and getting plenty of RTs. I felt harassed, I felt ashamed and more than anything I felt trapped - perhaps if I explain it this way... no, then they'd just say that... I don't want to make a big deal of it - it was only a few people and only cost me a few hours out of one evening; Laurie Penny probably has to deal with worse every time she logs on. But it was bullying, in its small way. They're nice people, too, who I agree with most of the time (otherwise I wouldn't have replied to one of them in the first place). God knows what they think when they see my name coming up now, given that it's not generally attached to statements of headbanging sexist ignorance. (Which isn't how I'd characterise the tweet that caused the problem, either, but I can see how you might. Grumpy, in haste, 140 characters. Don't drive angry!)

So: the analysis in your post is all good, but I think there are broader (and non-gender-specific!) effects of the medium itself - something about the way it lets you talk to anyone, including people whose beliefs are the diametric opposite of yours. And, in particular, the way it lets you talk at anyone, and get validation not from the person you're supposedly addressing but from other people who think like you.

BCFG said...

"In a study of the 70m comments made on its site since 2006, The Graun has found that of the ten most abused writers, eight are women and the remaining two men are black."

Someone has trawled through 70m comments? Doing the math this would take 100 staff of people roughly more than a year to gather and interpret the data?

Overall this article is bullshit from beginning to end.

Phil said...

Someone's unfamiliar with the concept of keywords.

Chris said...

I dare say some working class guys do see a rich Guardianista feminist being paid more money than they'll ever see to write attacks on men and maybe respond in a sharp-tongued fashion. Is that justified? I'd have to say yes.

Phil said...

But that is totally not what we're talking about, is it?

BCFG said...

"Someone's unfamiliar with the concept of keywords."

This is how I thought they would have done it, which pretty much dismisses the whole exercise and it's findings doesn't it? Who knows what context the keyword was used in? How can it be determined if the keyword is abusive? They could at least give us the list of keywords - what was left in and what was left put and who decided what the keywords are?

Couple of examples:

"Women belong in the kitchen, not writing in newspaper columns" - this is undoubtedly sexist trolling but where is the keyword?

"You do not know what you are fucking talking about" - This is not abuse if it happens to be true and is probably not abuse in any case. Fuck is a perfectly reasonable verb/adjective and the decency police have no right to eliminate this most iconic of words from the English language.

Chris picked up on another context - the nature of the article in question. What if the Guardian are deliberately encouraging articles by women to be written in a way that courts abuse, in order that the Guardian can then raise the issue of sexist trolling? A clever way for special interests to push those interests.

The truth is that a responsible and reasonable study in abuse cannot look for keywords, let alone a scientific one. Simple as that.

I actually got my math wrong first time round, it would probably take 10 years for 100 people to analyse 70m comments. Until the Guardian commits those resources to the project we should laugh in their faces.

The liberal decents are always quoting enlightenment and scientific values, for example when they attack backward religions in order to justify mass slaughter or something. And then these defenders of science come up with anti scientific bullshit like this. Back in your face decents!

Any article using this anti scientific source brings disrepute upon itself.

Chris said...

Yes, it is. I don't think I've ever seen anything described as "trolling" that wasn't 100% justified.

It is the people's weapon against the elite, whether the Tory section of the elite or their Guardianista allies.

Anonymous said...

Offguardian has a few things to say about this


Anonymous said...

Curious intersectional aside: four of the eight women were women of colour, which meant that six of the ten were PoC.