Study: Online hate comments by women are apparently more offensive

A new study asserts that liberals and conservatives alike equally disdain hateful comments online, but only when they’re written by women.

A new study looks at social-media followers’ tendencies to flag posted comments as objectionable based on the gender of their writers. It found that hateful posts by women were far more likely to be flagged to moderators than hateful posts by men if the comments were directed at women and people within sexual minorities. Based on online surveys conducted through political interest pages and a German news magazine page on Facebook, both liberal- and conservative-leaning respondents were found to be more likely to flag a hate post written by a woman.



(Credit: Antonio Guillem)

Why someone chooses to flag a hateful post

A reflection of morality?

The authors of the study assert that the choice to flag or not depends on one’s moral position—it's the compass by which a comment is judged to be within civil bounds or not: “We can interpret the act of flagging a potential hate speech comment as a moral behavior and the intention to flag a comment as a first and necessary step in this process.” The first task the study tackled, therefore, was identifying its 457 respondents’—51% of them were female—moral leanings.

Individualizing vs. binding foundations, or liberal vs. conservative

According to moral foundation theory (MFT), says the study, there are six basic moral concerns/foundations upon which people construct their own personal moral code. These two are referred to as “individualizing” moral foundations"

  1. harm/care — protecting the well-being of others or taking care to do them no harm
  2. fairness/reciprocity — treating others justly

These three are called “binding” moral foundations:

  1. in-group/loyalty — standing with and by one’s social group
  2. authority/respect — submitting to recognized authority and/or tradition
  3. purity/sanctity — maintaining unwavering consistency with one’s beliefs

The relative importance of each of these concerns, again according to the study, explains the difference between liberal and conservative worldviews.

  • Liberals are concerned with the individualizing concerns only, viewing them as the only ones that matter.
  • Conservatives are concerned with both individualizing and binding foundations, thus demoting individualizing concerns by assigning them only the same importance as binding foundations.

At the extreme end of conservatism is “right-wing authoritarianism” (RWA) that disapproves altogether of individualizing moral concerns, caring only about the binding foundations.

To flag or not to flag

The authors of the study included both hate-speech comments and responding counter-comments vetted for equal degrees of uncivility and hostility. For each comment or counter-comment, subjects were asked to choose whether or not flagging/reporting was warranted. Each respondent was presented with eight comment/counter-comment pairs.

The respondents always had four choices:

  1. The could flag the first post.
  2. They could flag the second post.
  3. The could flag both posts.
  4. They could flag neither post.

The first eight pairs—designed to assess the subject’s moral leanings—were directed at refugees or a politician supporting them. There was no gender identification for any of these.

Each subject was also asked to respond to two pairs of comments—or two pairs of counter-comments—each of which was gender-identified with a male or female profile icon and affixed with a generic male or female name.

(Big Think)

Women commenters are in double-jeopardy

Who cares more?

The study found more women scored more highly for individualizing concerns than men, and more personally identified with a liberal identity. As far as the binding foundations go, women and men were about equal. There were more men qualifying for RWA than women.

The surprising finding

That liberals would be more likely to flag hate speech regardless of gender is not surprising, what with their concern for care and fairness. What is surprising is that while conservatives tended to flag men commenters less often, they were not so charitable to women, leading to the study’s headline conclusion about women’s comments being more likely to be considered offensive. Men got a pass. Women didn’t. But why?

The study deduces that the reason for conservatives’ willingness to flag women’s comments is that the posts were viewed as violating their binding concerns: being loyal to one’s group, having respect for authority (other women), and being absolutely pure as if attacking another female represents some kind of conceptual inconsistency.


(Credit: Ikhlasul Amal)

The study concludes that women online, then, are in a definite double-bind. It would be nice if no one participated in hate speech online, but for women, it’s even less likely to end well. It’s another double standard to be suffered, albeit for an unusual reason.

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