Why Women Troll Women Online

Whether it's sexism or a 'bias blind spot,' women are part of the problem

Women are actively taking part in harassing women on the Internet as much as men. Credit: Illustration by Ryan Casey

Women are disproportionately the victims of online harassment and the culprits are overwhelmingly men. So it is easy to overlook an unfortunate counterintuitive reality: Women are actively taking part in harassing women on the Internet as much as men, if not more, shaming them on everything from their bodies and sexuality to their lifestyle choices and religion. Plus, there's some quantitative data to back this up since, earlier this year, British think tank Demos looked at 10,000 tweets over a three-week period from 6,500 unique users to find that half of misogynistic tweets came from women.

Bree Coffey, a 22-year-old freelance makeup artist who is active in the pageantry circuit, is no stranger to being trolled. Having been bullied in high school for being in special education classes for ADD and dyslexia, she thought her days of dealing with unsolicited hate were over. She learned otherwise when she got involved in pageants and her social media presence started to grow – Coffey's following went from roughly 2,000 to over 10,000 Instagram followers and counting.

On that account, where she shares pictures of her family, pageants, volunteer work and makeup artistry, strangers have started leaving hateful comments. They say she only cares about herself, she doesn't truly feel for the kids she volunteers with and that she is "the world's biggest bitch." And when she deletes the comments or blocks them, they come back with more aggression calling her "ugly on the inside and outside."

While she can only speculate that the hate comes from people passing judgment on her pageant life, it doesn't make dealing with it any easier. "The first time it happened online, I instantly started crying," says Coffey, who admits online harassment mentally gets to your head. "It's scary because people can hide behind the Internet wall."

Coffey, who has a large female following, says women attacking women is troubling, problematic and leaves the victim in a vulnerable place. "It puts a hole in your stomach – makes you feel nauseous and sick," says Coffey. "It's not fun."

In the big picture, the reason women harass other women on the Internet can be attributed to understated sexism. "Males and females, in many ways, are comparable in their sexism," says Marianne LaFrance, a social psychologist and professor of psychology at Yale University. "The usual assumption is sexism is something that males engage in, primarily, and women engage in very little. But that's not true."

Adding to the problem is a phenomenon where women fail to recognize their own subtle sexism. This type of unconscious cognitive bias is called a "bias blind spot" – a term coined by social psychologist Emily Pronin in 2002. "We can easily recognize when other people are racist, sexist or homophobic, and so forth, but we have a harder time recognizing that bias in ourselves," says Elizabeth Haines, a professor of psychology at William Paterson University who studies unconscious bias and sexism.

Having a bias blind spot is only further boosted by misconceptions surrounding gender-based prejudice. Some women, for example, only associate sexism with its more severe symptoms. "Are women sometimes unconscious of their negative feelings towards women? I think that's absolutely true," says LaFrance. "They might resist being called sexist because they think of sexism in its egregious or explicit forms."

But there is more at play than sexism – and the driving force of such behavior is complex. According to Haines, there are two key elements working in tandem. One is social comparison: People are wired to see themselves in a favorable light and they do this by comparing themselves to "similar others," like individuals in the same career line, age group or gender. Women who do not compare favorably next to other women may be inclined to spread negativity as a way to feel better about themselves. "It evokes jealousy or envy," says Haines. "The way that they deal with it is to try to bring them down a little bit."

A second aspect is the existing social hierarchy: When women defy gender roles, a "misery loves company" attitude kicks in for some, where they may resort to delivering backlash in an attempt to keep other women in the same place in the hierarchy. "Any woman that defies gender stereotypes is a threat and other women will keep her down by criticizing her," says Haines.

So what can women do? Haines suggests being more introspective and checking your own bias by asking yourself why a certain behavior bothers you and if the same behavior from a man would affect you similarly. For those tempted to leave comments, Amy Cuddy, social psychologist and a professor at Harvard University, advises implementing a variation of the Golden Rule: think of how you would feel and treat others how you wish to be treated. Women (and individuals of any gender, really) can also get insight by taking Harvard University's Implicit Attitudes Test, which measures beliefs that individuals may not realize they have. "Taking the test is sometimes enough to inspire women to see how much they hold gender stereotypes and sexist views," says LaFrance.