Antisocial media under the spotlight at Westminster

Ella Rhodes reports on a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Psychology.

Labour MP Jess Phillips recently revealed that in the space of one evening she received 600 rape threats on social media – as well as a barrage of threats of violence every day. The appalling abuse MPs and members of the public are exposed to online was highlighted at the British Psychological Society’s fourth All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Psychology meeting.

Scottish National Party MP for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow Dr Lisa Cameron and Chair of the APPG, who has experienced trolling first hand, opened the event attended by House of Lords peers, MPs and many others. The BPS acts as secretariat for the APPG and asked Professor Catriona Morrison and Dr Shazia Akhtar (University of Bradford) to explore MPs’ experiences of being trolled.

They surveyed 181 MPs both male and female – 100 per cent of whom said they had experienced trolling either daily or weekly. Morrison said the abuse ranged from death and rape threats to threats of vandalism and lower-level jibes. Akhtar pointed out the surprising finding that male MPs reported more abuse than women, though she added men mainly face defamatory comments that may cause reputational damage while females are exposed to more threats of sexual, racial and violent abuse.

Morrison and Akhtar also found a split in the response to and effects of this abuse – male MPs were more likely to respond to online trolls and were not affected much, psychologically or emotionally, by the abuse. Female MPs in the other hand will usually ignore abuse and trolls themselves and tend to be more psychologically and emotionally affected by it.

Also from the University of Bradford, Professor Abigail Locke recently edited a special edition of the journal Feminism and Psychology that explored feminism and social media. She pointed to a paper in that issue reporting research on so-called revenge porn websites where (usually) spurned ex-lovers post sexually explicit photos of their former partners. This research showed 92 per cent of the victims on these sites are women, one site did not even accept photos of men. Those photos that were tagged with extra information, for example pointing out that a woman had cheated on their partner, received more clicks and comments than those that weren’t.   

Another paper looked into how high-profile rape cases are discussed on Twitter. The researchers found that those tweets that in some way blamed the victim of the abuse received the most retweets from fellow users, and the accounts that posted these victim-blaming messages also tended to have more followers than those that supported victims.

Locke said while movements such as #MeToo and Everyday Sexism show us the positives of the online world for young women, cyberspace can lead to a magnification of gender inequality.

Dr Nelli Ferenczi (Regent’s University London) spoke about her findings published in Computers and Human Behaviour, which explored the personality variables that predict prosocial or antisocial Facebook use. In particular she focused on narcissism, which has been previously linked to a need for negative social power, and relational self-construal, which describes to degree to which someone defines themselves by their close relationships.

In her survey of 573 USA-based participants men reported greater levels of narcissism and women greater levels of relational self-construal. The former was related to antisocial motives for using Facebook, while the latter was related to more prosocial motives.

Ferenczi also surveyed UK-based participants on the degree to which they would endorse misogynistic online beliefs and behaviours. She found that, overall, men endorsed misogyny more than women, and that narcissism was related to greater endorsement of those beliefs. During the study Ferenczi also measured participants’ level of social dominance belief – the idea that society is made up of a hierarchy of people – revealed by agreement with statements such as ‘sometimes groups need to be kept in their place’; this was also found to be related to greater endorsement of misogynistic online behaviour. 

- Find out more about the APPG for Psychology’s work.

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