The more abusive tweets targeting women an area has, the more domestic violence arrests it will see the following year, a study has concluded after other factors are allowed for. The timing of the relationship suggests the tweets might be contributing to a culture of violence against women, rather than being symptomatic of local attitudes.
Social media can be a brutal place for anyone who draws the anger of a significant segment of the population. There's plenty of evidence women bear the brunt of this, with a lot of the abuse having a specifically misogynist nature, affecting the way women act to use these platforms. What is less clear is whether there is an association between online attacks and physical violence. Professor Tom Denson of the University of New South Wales told IFLScience this is an area where; “Science is moving slowly.”
Denson and co-authors collected 1.8 billion tweets from 2013-14 and had algorithms search for specifically gendered words of abuse such as “bitch” and “skank”, or condescending phrases like “women belong in the kitchen”. Although some of the 16,791 identified were probably ironic human readers assessed, the sample concluded 93 percent were unambiguously misogynistic. The locations were then compared in Psychological Science with arrests for domestic violence over the same years across 47 US states.
Denson and co-authors controlled for factors known to be associated with domestic violence, including alcohol use, income inequality, and age. The tweet-violence connection remained easily statistically significant. This alone could easily be a product of both emanating from places with sexist cultures. However, the authors found concentrations of tweets predicted arrests the following year, not the other way around.
“This study suggests caution about posting misogynistic hate speech as even if the person who posts is not violent, such posts seem to create an atmosphere where violence toward women may be more likely,” Denson said in a statement.
“There are lots of theories and research to suggest the tweets could cause violence,” Denson told IFLScience. “When there is a certain critical mass it creates a norm of how men treat women.” The paper points to various studies showing how being exposed to comments from peers implying endorsement of violence against women can increase the propensity to commit violence.
Denson told IFLScience he is not aware of any studies of whether those who make the tweets are themselves violent.
Even if the tweets do not turn out to contribute to the problem, Denson thinks they could prove useful as an early warning sign, indicating where anti-violence campaigns and funding for shelters may be most needed.
Psychological research has a replication crisis, but if Denson's work stands the test of time it would also raise questions about the extent to which social media companies can tolerate abuse in the belief there are no consequences. “It would not be a bad thing to suspend accounts,” Denson added.
The study did not include other sorts of gendered violence, such as cases of sexual assault against strangers, owing to issues with the reporting and coding of the data.