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When Twitter turns nasty: Female politicians trolled during indyref debate


Twitter trolls targeted women on both sides of the Scottish independence referendum debate broadcast on STV this week, a study by academics at Robert Gordon University (RGU) has found.

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson bore the brunt of the abuse in a series of misogynistic and sexist tweets sent by viewers throughout the panel debate, which mainly focused on the politicians’ looks and sexuality.

Kezia Dugdale and Elaine C. Smith seemed to escape the worst of the comments on the social networking site, but were still the target of a number of derisive tweets, the RGU team found.

The comments came from a small minority of Twitter users in a debate which largely prompted a positive online response about its general tenor and the way it was conducted, as well as tweets praising both the number of women and openly gay politicians taking part.

The study uses software developed by Professor Ayse Göker and a team of researchers at the university’s Innovation, Design and Sustainability (IDEAS) research institute which monitors trends on social media to discover breaking news topics and related multimedia resources, while also ensuring that users are able to gauge the reliability of the source.

Professor Sarah Pedersen, of RGU’s research institute for Management, Governance and Society (IMaGeS) helped analyse the findings alongside colleagues Dr Simon Burnett and Dr Graeme Baxter.

She said: “There is a wealth of research suggesting that female politicians’ bodies, looks and clothes are more likely to be discussed rather than their policies and that disagreement with them frequently leads to aggressively sexualised threats, which is exactly what we saw played out last night.

“Overall, Ruth Davidson was subject to the most abuse, which was mostly associated with her sexuality. There were also a number of tweets insinuating that Ruth Davidson and Nicola Sturgeon were in a lesbian relationship, although the majority of abuse directed at Nicola Sturgeon related to her looks. Both are accused of looking like men and both were threatened with violent sexual assault.

“These findings chime with the wider debate in the media about attacks on social media on women in the public eye, for example the attacks made last year on MP Stella Creasy, campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and academic Professor Mary Beard.

“There was much less sexualised abuse directed at Kezia Dugdale and Elaine C Smith, although there was some and, again, a threat of direct violence.”

Professor Pedersen added: “This is in contrast to the language used to criticise the male politicians during the first two debates on Twitter. While there were still criticisms of their clothes, physical characteristics or voices, there was little evidence of the violent and sexual imagery used when talking about the women in last night’s debate.”

Find out more about the software developed by the team at IDEAS

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Jenny RushCommunications Officer | Design and Technology