Kathryn Lindsay
January 15, 2015 1:17 pm

Have you ever heard the phrase “don’t read the comments”? It’s pretty much my mantra when it comes to writing for and reading on the Internet. Lots of times, the comments section can be a place for support and discussion, but more often than not, in the midst of respectful dialogue, you’ll come across a troll.

Urban Dictionary defines a “troll” as someone “who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument.” These people want to make you angry, and that’s why it’s best to ignore them. But why do we have to deal with them in the first place? And why do so many of them take aim at women? A study in the Psychology of Women Quarterly might offer a few clues.

Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, Aneta K. Molenda and Charlotte R. Cramer studied the comments on The New York Times, Discover magazine and IFL Science, who all wrote about the same story: science professors tend to favor male students over female students. By looking at the photos and names of those who commented on the articles, the researchers found that 57% of identifiable commenters were female (unidentifiable commenters were left out of the study). Then, they broke down the type of comment left by each person.

The results seem pretty typical: 7% of comments were sexist, with 5% of those comments being misogynistic, such as, “In every competitive situation, with a few exceptions, the women I worked with were NOT competent, by comparison with the men.”

Most of the misogynistic comments were left by men. In fact, only one offensive, misogynistic comment was written by a female. This is in contrast to most comments by women, which were more likely to agree with the study, or comment on it objectively.

So what does this mean? The results support a number of theories that are developing around this topic, the most prominent being that women are more capable of recognizing sexism than non-stigmatized groups.

When you think about it, it makes sense. Women are more likely to recognize sexism because they have to experience every day. When you see it happen to you, you’ll immediately recognize it happening to someone else and are usually more empathetic, and that’s what the latest research may be suggesting.

Let’s hope this means that the more people learn about issues like sexism, the more considerate they’ll be in the comments, and the more progress we’ll make in the discussion. Or perhaps, we just need to hold more people accountable online as we do in real life. Obviously, another huge reason for so many sexist comments is that we’re more dissociated from the content we’re sharing than we are during face-to-face conversations.

Writer Olga Khazan, who took a long, hard look at the study in The Atlantic, notes that “what commenters say online isn’t necessarily what they would say in a meeting at the office.” She adds, “Because of the online disinhibition effect, people feel more free to let loose their brain bile when they don’t have to do it in person.”

That doesn’t mean such “brain bile” isn’t hurtful, or deep-rooted in oppressive beliefs. Khazan says those comments “might be something [an Internet commenter] actually thinks—and when it comes to the hidden biases women face, that’s all that matters.”

(Image via Salon via iStock)

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