Women on reality TV shows get far more abuse online than men – study

Analysis of posts on several social media platforms also reveals recurrence of gendered tropes

Female reality TV contestants are far more likely to be targeted for abuse by online trolls than men, research reveals.

Women of colour are particularly vulnerable to extreme and violent threats online, according to a report from the Demos thinktank, which looked at contestants on reality shows Love Island and Married at First Sight.

The researchers, who analysed more than 90,000 posts and comments across several social media platforms, found that 26% of tweets mentioning a female Love Island contestant were abusive, compared with 14% of those naming a male participant.

The report, which was produced for a BBC Panorama episode on online abuse, stated: “It has become an unfortunate pattern that with the advent of a new reality show season, that inevitably follows an onslaught of harassment and abuse levelled against those on the show, from contestants to presenters to bystanders.

“This is not just online discussions getting heated: this abuse has escalated to participants in these shows, disproportionately women, especially women of colour.”

The researchers noted a particular recurrence of gendered tropes in the social media posts, including those which characterised women as devious, mentally unstable, emotionally volatile, evil, annoying or attention-seeking. Women were also much more likely to be “the subject of extreme misogynistic sexualisation and objectification” than men, they said.

The authors added that the tropes spoke to the idea that women “do not deserve what they think they deserve”, for example, to express themselves, take up space, have a relationship, or look a certain way.

Tropes used against men often included attacking them for showing what was perceived to be emasculating behaviour, which was characterised as weak, pathetic or soft.

The authors warned that women are increasingly feeling as if they have to quit social media for safety reasons, with those who call out abuse often “victim-blamed”, and called on platforms to improve content moderation and removal.

They acknowledged there was a grey area between justified criticism and abuse, and suggested that platforms aim to tackle the root cause of the problem by adapting their algorithms to discourage an atmosphere of polarisation and controversy, which quickly descends into abuse.

In the Panorama episode, a reporter set up a fake troll account across five social media platforms to see whether they promoted misogynistic hate to users. Within two weeks, Facebook and Instagram were actively promoting anti-women content, although there was little on TikTok and Twitter.

Curbing online abuse is a key objective of the UK government’s forthcoming online safety bill, which could impose a duty of care on social media companies to protect users from harmful content .

“Platforms are not neutral carriers of content. Rather than focusing narrowly on systems to remove or report abuse – often after the harm has already been done – the online safety bill should be holding platforms accountable for how their design and the wider systems they use affect the risks and prevalence of abusive behaviour on their services,” said Ellen Judson, one of the report’s authors.

Cindy Southworth, the head of women’s safety at Facebook, which also owns Instagram, said: “Women should feel safe everywhere, no matter what space they’re in. We don’t allow gender-based hate, misogynistic attacks or any threat of sexual violence on Facebook or Instagram, and just last week we announced stronger protections for female public figures, journalists and activists.

“We’ve also built tools to help prevent women from having to deal with abuse in the first place, like the ability to turn off messages from anyone you don’t know, and filter abusive messages so you never have to see them. There will always be people who try to abuse others, but we’ll continue working with women’s safety groups to understand the different ways hate against women can show up, while improving our technology to find and remove abuse more quickly.”