Why Are So Many Women Bullying Other Women on Twitter?


As much as 50% of the sexist harassment women face on Twitter comes from other women, according to findings released on Thursday. 

In an international study of tweets posted over a three-week period, British think tank Demos searched for the use of terms like "slut" and "whore" to find specific instances of gender-based abuse online, and discovered women were just as bad as men when it came to spewing misogynistic comments.

In keeping with earlier findings that the internet is a pretty crappy place to be, well, not a (cisgender) man, the study chronicled approximately 10,000 "explicitly aggressive and misogynistic" tweets directed at 6,500 unique users in less than a month — but that was just in the United Kingdom. Worldwide, Demos found more than 200,000 abusive tweets that targeted 80,000 different people over the same three-week period. While previous research from Demos showed women weren't quite as likely to participate in sexist online attacks as men, this time the think tank concluded women were responsible for misogyny on Twitter half the time. 

Demos researchers say the newest findings underscore why Twitter and other social media companies need to focus on developing solutions to prevent targeted abuse, but the high rate of woman-on-woman harassment also raises two pretty basic questions: What the fuck? And also, why? 


It's important to note that Demos doesn't explain how its algorithms verified who was behind all the sexist comments and how those people identify — if they're even people at all. It's rather easy to make up a fake social media account and pretend to be someone else, but even Twitter has admitted tens of millions of its users are actually bots. Regardless — and unfortunate as the fact might be — the survey's results underscore the reality: Women can also be misogynists. 

That women would so actively perpetuate misogyny and attack other women seems odd, given that we're not in middle school anymore. Additionally, women — young women, in particular — are more likely to experience online harassment in the first place, which implies at least some of the female misogynists of Twitter have faced gendered abuse themselves. 

But the internet isn't exactly a place where people are inclined to be their best selves, and men certainly aren't the only ones who buy into patriarchal beliefs about gender roles. Many women would rather not work for another woman or vote for a female politician, and they feel plenty comfortable shaming others and denying equal rights, even if such views are silencing and self-defeating. 

As Jennifer Chen wrote for Pacific Standard last year, one key reason why women might attack other women online is because "some women (and men) feel threatened by their confidence" to speak their minds — a trait women aren't supposed to have on the internet or anywhere else. Instead, abusive women might align more closely with "self-hating trolls who bash anyone with the gall to admit their own truth," or who critiques the status quo. It's scary when the systems in place are threatened. 

Gendered harassment on the internet could well be an example of what happens when benevolent sexism seeps into society at large, and the pervading viewpoint (gender inequality) is one that diminishes anyone who isn't a man: Men and women alike feel entitled to troll anyone who promotes self-acceptance and respect, especially if that person is a woman. (The same also goes for a person who endorses basic rights and equality for people of all genders, an assertion this writer would gladly back up with screenshots of her own Twitter mentions.)

The fact that so many women could or would attack other women with sexist slurs and threats of sexual violence shouldn't come as a surprise. We're all taught to be a little bit sexist — and we're all afforded the opportunity to be our worst selves online. When misogyny is the norm, it's only natural women would be terrible too.