Perpetuating online sexism offline: Anonymity, interactivity, and the effects of sexist hashtags on social media

Participating in online sexist behavior increases levels of hostile sexism and has offline impacts in the workplace.

FindingsMethodology

Sexism and sexual harassment can be frequent in online environments and social media platforms such as Twitter. Hashtags (used on Twitter to link posts thematically) based on sexist topics often go viral, promoting conversation about and participation in sexist beliefs. For example, hashtags such as #LiesToldByFemales, #IHateFemalesWho, and #ThatsWhatSlutsDo promote troubling behaviors to gain prominence on online platforms.

Researchers have theorized that egregiously sexist behavior is fostered by the “online disinhibition effect.” This effect includes the phenomenon where Internet users, operating under the protection of anonymity, may perform behaviors they ordinarily would not in either face-to-face scenarios or in virtual spaces where they are identifiable. Prior studies have shown links between anonymity and higher levels of online aggression and incivility.

In this paper, researchers investigated the potential effects of anonymity on sexist attitudes and beliefs, as well as the effects of “interactivity,” or the level of engagement with online behaviors (e.g., posting one’s own message versus sharing someone else’s message) among college students. They hypothesized that the influence on sexist beliefs and actions would be even greater when someone generated the message themselves. Participants were randomly assigned to retweet or create tweets incorporating a sexist hashtag from an anonymous or identifiable Twitter account. Afterwards, participants completed a survey to assess levels of hostile sexism and also participated in a job hiring simulation where they evaluated two male and two female job candidates’ resumes, rating them on perceived competency and hireability.

Findings

Participating in sexist behaviors online increased hostile sexism for both men and women and had offline effects.

  • Across all conditions, male and female participants did not significantly differ in their levels of hostile sexism or perceptions of female job candidates’ competency and hireability. Thus, all findings are presented as combined across men and women.
  • Online anonymity increased sexist attitudes but not sexist behaviors compared to being identifiable.
    • Anonymous participants expressed significantly more sexist attitudes than identified participants, after adjusting for baseline sexist attitudes.
    • However, anonymous and identified participants did not significantly differ in their perceptions of female job candidates’ competence or hireability.
  • Generating one’s own sexist content increased sexist attitudes and some but not all sexist behaviors compared to re-sharing existing sexist content.
    • Participants who wrote their own sexist tweets expressed significantly more sexist attitudes than participants who simply retweeted pre-existing sexist tweets.
    • Participants who wrote their own sexist tweets judged female candidates as less competent, but not less hireable, than those participants who simply retweeted pre-existing sexist tweets.

These findings show some support for the “online disinhibition effect,” which includes in part how online anonymity is associated with increased online and offline hostility. These effects appear to be especially true when an individual generates their own sexist content rather than simply sharing the content of others. Additionally, this study shows that anonymous hostile behavior is not limited to online settings but could potentially be translated into workplace environments.

Methodology

172 participants (50% female) were recruited from a large Midwestern university. Participants believed they were participating in a study about how hashtags are generated and circulated among a college network. Participants were randomly assigned to retweet or create tweets incorporating the sexist hashtag #getbackinthekitchen from an anonymous or identifiable Twitter account, generating four experimental conditions (anonymous retweet, anonymous created tweet, identifiable retweet, and identifiable created tweet). Participants completed an 11-item scale to assess levels of hostile sexism both before and after the Twitter component. Additionally, after the Twitter component, participants completed a job hiring simulation where they evaluated two male and two female job candidates’ resumes (out of 16 possible versions), rating them on a 5-point scale on perceived competency and hireability.


MLA: Fox, Jesse, Cruz, Carlos, Lee, Ji Young. “Perpetuating online sexism offline: Anonymity, interactivity, and the effects of sexist hashtags on social media.” Computers in Human Behavior. 52 (2015): 436-442.   
APA: Fox, J., Cruz, C., Lee, J. Y. (2015). Perpetuating online sexism offline: Anonymity, interactivity, and the effects of sexist hashtags on social media. Computers in Human Behavior 52, 436-442. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2015.06.024
Chicago: Fox, Jesse, Cruz, Carlos, Lee, Ji Young. “Perpetuating online sexism offline: Anonymity, interactivity, and the effects of sexist hashtags on social media.” Computers in Human Behavior. 52 (2015): 436-442. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2015.06.024