Participation Inequality: Women and Online Comments

By | March 30, 2017

Online comments sections are our modern day venues for collaboration, for public discourse, for democratic deliberation. The internet was supposed to even the playing field for participation.
 But for many women, wading into the incivility of online comments or social media exchanges is like walking alone down a scary back alley, or into an angry mob with torches and pitchforks. Why put yourself at risk?

The harassment that happens in online comments section is a form of the “heckler’s veto.” It keeps many female speakers from publicly expressing their views. This threatens to chill digital public discourse by discouraging half the citizenry from participating at all.

Women should chime in. How can we do this safely, bravely and regularly?

Here are slides from a thoughtful Women’s History Month discussion I moderated at the Hartford Public Library with columnist/author Susan Campbell and UConn student organizer Haddiyyah Ali about women’s voices in online comments.

Click on the ⚙ icon to view my speaker notes or view them below, as prepared.


As we get started I’d like you to think about the conversations you have on a daily basis.

– What are your exchanges like when you talk to strangers?

– What happens when you talk to anyone about what’s happening in the news, or lately, about politics?

– What sets the tone of those conversations?

– Are there subjects you avoid talking about in mixed company?

– Lastly, I want you to consider: what’s the largest audience you’ve ever spoken to?

First some facts:

Did you know we — the public — have had access to the Internet as a communication channel since April 30, 1995.

More than 3.5 billion people — 47 percent of the world’s population — now routinely use the Internet to exchange information, knowledge and culture through digitally-connected devices.

Conversations are no longer constrained by geographic distance, or analog formats of publishing or broadcasting.

In the internet age, dialogue is virtual and transcendent in a mostly unfettered civic sphere where anyone with a connection can participate.

The power of digital participation, information sharing and communal activity resides in every device connected to the network — at home, at work and on the go.

But although Internet communication has been widely available for more than two decades, the tone of public discourse in most corners of the Internet hasn’t matured.

Unmoderated digital comment spaces continue to take on the character of the middle school antagonists of “The Lord of the Flies” – feral, cruel and juvenile.

A 2014 survey by YouGov found that 30 percent of Americans admitted to engaging in “malicious online activity directed at someone they didn’t know.”

The candor and stinging language most people shy away from in face-to-face communication is standard practice in the liberated digital space.

A January 2017 survey of 12,000 online commenters released by Engaging News Project at The University of Texas at Austin found the most common reason that people comment is to express an emotion or opinion, Commenting online tends to be emotional and reactive, not reflective or reasoned.

Who wants to hang out in a place like that? Women don’t.

– 50.7% of Americans do not read comments on news websites nor have they ever left a comment on a news website.

– News commenters, in particular, are more male, have lower levels of education, and have lower incomes compared to those who just read news comments.

– 34 percent of news commenters and 41 percent of news comment readers named argumentative comments as the reason they avoid commenting or reading comments**

If the public dialogue is mostly an exchange of angry voices, it turns off those without some special stake in the issue.

Ingrained cultural forces that shame and intimidate women offline are also present online.

In 2014, researcher Emma Pierson examined 8 months of online comments on New York Times articles. She found only 28% of commenters of identifiable gender were female, women comment infrequently, though comments by women received more recommendations from other readers.

Female commenters were also more likely to remain anonymous and anonymous commenters receive fewer recommendations.

Results implies that those with the most to offer to other readers (as measured by their recommendations) are those most often silenced.

So views that would be valued go unvoiced, to the detriment of democratic discourse.

Fiona Martin, an Australian academic, in 2015 looked at the popular online news services in the US, UK, Australia and Denmark. She found that at high engagement news sites, women made up at most 35 percent of commenters, and as low as 3 percent of commenters.

Participation inequality is a serious problem in the comments because the overall system is not representative of the audience. Always hearing from same users means the same perspectives always provided, influencing public opinion. Signal-to-noise ratio can easily be skewed in the negative direction.

Women in media are subject to a steady and vicious online hazing.

In 2016, the Guardian released the result of a study it commissioned that examined the 70 million comments left on its site since 2006. Results showed that of the 10 most abused Guardian writers, eight are women and the two men are black.

The Guardian’s analysis found that since 2010 articles written by women consistently attracted a higher proportion of blocked comments than articles written by men.

Certain story subjects attracted more abusive or disruptive comments than others, the study found. Articles about feminism attracted very high levels of blocked comments, as did rape.

Ethnic and religious minorities, and LGBT people also appeared to experience a disproportionate amount of abuse in the comments.

SOURCE of graphic:

Why don’t women participate? Why do women self censor online?

They think their voice doesn’t matter. No access to large audience, no access to policy makers or influencers (Internet/social media can increase potential opportunities for attention).

– Fear of threatening/harassment

– Archival impact of participation on reputation

– Incivility

– Privacy concerns

– Peer pressure – Less willing to share opinions online if they thought their social network might disagree, entering a “spiral of silence.”

– Monitoring of public online activity by employer, fear of job loss

Nearly three quarters of internet users — 73 percent — have witnessed online harassment, according to this 2014 Pew study.

The most common digital space to read and post comments is on social media. But those sites are also the most common place people experience harassment online.

Back in 2006, researchers at University of Maryland created a bunch of fake online accounts and distributed them into chat rooms. What did they find? Accounts with feminine usernames attracted an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine names received 3.7.

One example that happened at UConn: In 2013, UConn changed its athletic team logo. Carolyn Luby, a UConn undergrad published an open letter to the university president in The Feminist Wire, arguing that the school’s new mascot and branding should be reconsidered because it resembled a popular rape meme. She was civil, deliberate and thorough in her reasoning. In response, this outspoken female college student was harassed, belittled by Rush Limbaugh and Barstool Sports, and violently threatened with rape online AND offline.

The harassment and intimidation that happens in online comment forums is a form of the “heckler’s veto.” It keeps speakers from publicly expressing their views and threatens to chill digital public discourse.

Technology has altered the dimensions of incivility.

It has freed people from constraints and boundaries like time and place.

As a network of relationships, the Internet enables and accelerates conversations among human beings in ways that were simply not possible in any previous era of mass media. Individuals who never would have been able to hold a conversation are able to find each other and interact. The Internet enables conversations between strangers.

Online comments in public arenas / news sites, social media are both interpersonal and mass communication. You can feel like you are speaking to a small group, but your words have ability to be broadcast to wide audience at the same time.

Barriers to participation are much lower. Don’t have to type out thoughts, print it and put a stamp on it.

Don’t have to drive to town hall to get up in front of crowd.

Don’t have to feel all eyes upon you in class when you speak up.

We can be anonymous. We can be faceless, nameless.

While an individual’s opinions may be scattered and temporary in the offline world, sentiments become permanent, searchable and taggable once posted online. Online speech can be copied and shared instantly to huge numbers of people.

When people comment and discuss news online, two communication processes become integrated: Interpersonal communication and mass communication. A commenter may feel like they are talking to a small group of people, but are actually publishing in a mass media venue. TheInternet gives people a venue for endless, asynchronous debate. Digital technology can record and catalog every byte of data.

Online comments are asynchronous communication. People don’t interact with each other in real time. Not having to cope with someone’s immediate reaction disinhibits people, like an emotional hit and run. Conversations can lack of ‘sequential coherence.’ They are fragmented and interactionally disjointed.

Text-only communication devoid of other social cues comes across as angry. It is also rife with ambiguity. Text-based online comments systems lack both social presence and media richness, unlike face­-to-­face or voice-based communications. Conversation is diluted so it doesn’t feel as personal or humanistic.

People act differently behind the wall of technology. Psychologists have a name for the many ways people behave with less restraint in cyberspace: “online disinhibition effect.”

Several factors lead to “online disinhibition,” according to John Suler, the psychologist at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J who coined the term in 2004. There is the anonymity of a Web pseudonym; invisibility to others; the time lag between sending an email message and getting feedback; the exaggerated sense of self from being alone; and the lack of any online authority figure.

In online environments, invisibility gives people the courage to go places and do things that they otherwise wouldn’t (in good ways and bad).

To be hidden safely behind a digital wall than having to deal with the immediate reaction can make us bolder, crueler, more foolish. Many people become not quite sociopathic, but “socio-pathetic” – meaning cowardly, thoughtless and disrespectful – a term coined by relationship expert Kristina Grish in her 2010 book “The Joy of Text: Mating, Dating and Relating.”

Technology isn’t the problem — though many blame it. What the internet does is enable people to be MORE of what they already ARE.

Digital discussion spaces are supposed to even the playing field for participation. But for many women, wading into the incivility of online comments is like walking alone down a scary back alley, or into an angry mob with torches and pitchforks. Why put yourself at risk?

Online culture encourages mob mentality. There is a force of cyber-libertarianism – those who advocate for absolute freedom online – a complete free-for-all. Anything that is repressive on the system is nefariously promoting an agenda. Civility = agenda.

This anarchist, libertarian influence celebrates an online culture of disruption. Loud cries of infringing on “free speech” when comment sections are shut down or moderated by ”intolerant, snobbish cultural elites.”

Online communities develop sophisticated norms that guide participants. Good can beget more good. Anger often begets more anger.

Harassment can be quite creative.

Trolls are bad actors whose aim is to cause disruption and get attention for it. Nefarious forces acting against those with whom they disagree.

Doxxing: where personal information about targeted individual distributed online to publicly shame them, mob which then uses the information to bully, harrass and intimidate. Personal information can be your home address, your workplace, your family members and friends, your social security number.

In the Gamergate dispute in 2014, where women journalists called out video game industry for sexism, response was to dox the critics with rape and death threats. The criticism moved to places where the women involved were made to fear for their personal safety.

Swatting is where using that personal information, someone calls in a false report to your home, and a swat team gets sent there.

The underlying problem of online threats and intimidation is not new. Women, and particularly women of color, have raised alarms about the frightening abuse they’ve received from extremist harassers online.

Is anonymity the problem?

Anonymity both protects and enables.


Anonymity can give us courage, or it can give us an excuse to give into our own worst tendencies.

In situations of perceived anonymity, users are less conscious that their comments might be visible to particular sectors of the public, nor do they expect other users to read the posting. Opinions in anonymous comment areas should be the most socially unbiased/unbound.

In situations where users are conscious that their posting will be visible to an unspecified population of readers and attributed to them, they might show more group compliant behavior in their posting – for example, by carefully pondering the pros and cons of an issue – to avoid negative feedback.

However, norms are shifting. Many online commenters don’t even care if they are anonymous anymore. Researchers have found real-name comments on Facebook are actually nastier than unsigned commentary (

It is through discourse that individuals gather new information and learn from others and are more likely to be exposed to wide range of arguments, beyond their own echo chambers.

When people vocalize on matters of public concern, they have an opportunity to LISTEN to opposing views, evaluate and reconsider their positions.

An underpinning of democratic responsibility as a citizen is participation.

“Online opinion expressions are a virtual representation of public discourse, one where individual citizens (and not pollsters) decide when and how to voice their political convictions.”

Learn. Practice. Teach others about “digital citizenship.”

Digital citizenship has been defined as “the norms of appropriate, responsible behavior with regard to technology use.” Digital citizenship seeks to protect users capability to partake freely in the internet’s diverse political, social, economic and cultural opportunities, which informs and facilitates their civic engagement. Citizenship requires a person’s ability to participate in society in a meaningful manner. (Gordon & Lenhardt, Rethinking Work and Citizenship, 2008)

I’m an advocate for mindful participation online. To be a thought leader, you have to put your thoughts out there.

Readers/users share responsibility to improve quality and content of discourse.

Once citizens are actively engaged, in a context where they feel their voice matters, they may feel compelled to continue engagement, further participation.

Think about the sites that control where you engage in digital conversations.

Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Reddit. The New York Times. Hartford Courant. F

Who is the audience? What is the platform’s policy for incivility and moderation? Are these intermediaries creating a worthwhile environment for conversation, or are they breeding arenas for hate and harassment?

Social media platforms are low cost, low barrier, high control option for discussions — but social media users are often exposed to unmoderated, unexpected hostility, abuse and provocation. This creates cognitive barrier to participation – especially for women, who are subject to more online bullying, abuse, hateful language and threats than men.

Social media is difficult for news publishers to oversee as comments can only be post-moderated. Social media is inclusivity and accessibility, without governability. “Social media provide material accessibility and interaction, but are not ‘safe’ or even necessarily desirable spaces for the discussion of contentious news issues.” “They are a complement to, rather than a substitute for, professionally mediated commenting.” -Fiona Martin, ISOJ study, 2015.

If you are fearless, awesome. But what if you are fearful?

Vitriol comes from all sides. Liberals can be just as nasty as conservatives. However women (especially minority women) get the worst of it.

Wading into enemy territory is risky.

In a democratic society that protects freedom of speech, the best cure for speech you don’t like is counter speech, but that counter speech needs to get as much or more attention than the disagreeable speech.


Who is your audience?

Who do you want to hear your message? Policymakers? Influencers? The crowd?

Will they hear/listen to what you have to say in the online venue you have chosen?

Practice debating, discussing issues of public concern in safe spaces online with your own people. More you practice, the more confident you’ll become to go public. Check out the Brigade App:, which bills itself as a smart, civil online place to debate.

Moderation is crucial to civil discourse. Seek out moderated civil online spaces to chime in.

– New York Times moderates comments.

-Join closed Facebook groups with moderation. The Boston Globe started a private Facebook group on December 2, 2016 for subscribers to discuss the news with each other and Globe staffers. The group is on the record but moderated, foul language or personal attacks won’t be allowed.

-The Washington Post created a closed Slack group specifically forwomen to discuss the wage gap.

Spaceship Media, a startup built around a reporting model it calls “dialogue journalism,” filled a closed Facebook group with 50 women, half of them Trump voters from Alabama and the other half from San Francisco, to do nothing more than talk.

Online misogyny is a threat to free speech.

CAN YOU BE AN ACTIVE BYSTANDER? Sometimes active bystander-ship requires moral courage, “acting on one’s values and beliefs in spite of potential and even likely negative consequences. influence those in power to prevent harm.”

If you get attacked online, make use of blocking and muting on social media. Report trolls early and often. There are sites like TROLLBUSTERS that help women fight back.

Flier from Hartford Public Library event on March 29, 2017. "We Belong Here, Too: Women's Voices in Online Comments"

Hartford Public Library event flyer: “We Belong Here, Too: Women’s Voices in Online Comments”


Studies/articles referenced, and other resources:

“[G]endered harassment — and the sheer volume of it — has severe implications for women’s status on the Internet. Threats of rape, death, and stalking can overpower our emotional bandwidth, take up our time, and cost us money through legal fees, online protection services, and missed wages.” – Amanda Hess,

– Online Harassment, Digital Abuse and Cyberstalking in America. November 2016. Data & Society Research Institute.

– Fiona Martin, “Getting my two cents worth in: Access, interaction, participation and social inclusion in online news commenting.” ISOJ Journal. Volume 6, Issue 1 Spring 2016.

– Emma Pierson, “Outnumbered but Well-Spoken: Female Commenters in the New York Times.” 2015. In Proceedings of the 18th ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing (CSCW ’15). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 1201-1213.

– Erin E. Buckels, Paul D. Trapnell, Delroy L. Paulhus. “Trolls just want to have fun.” Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 67, September 2014, Pages 97-102.

Pew Research Center, Online Harassment study, 2014

The Dark Side of Guardian Comments

Refinery 29: Reclaim Your Domain

Online Misogyny is a Threat to Free Speech, Columbia Journalism Review

How to Deter Doxxing, Nieman Reports.

Women’s Media Center Speech Project

Why is UConn’s Mascot a Popular Rape Meme?


“When people get forced off the web, their voices disappear from the internet’s public squares. The ideas and memes that dominate skew even further toward a white male perspective. The web becomes less interesting, less representative, less valuable. We all lose.” –Andrew McMillen, “A young Wikipedia editor withstood a decade of online abuse. Now she’s fighting back — on Wikipedia itself.”

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