Photo by Alexander Jawfox on Unsplash.

Arvin Jagayat and Dr. Becky Choma of the Social and Political Psychology Lab recently published “Cyber-aggression towards women: Measurement and psychological predictors in gaming communities” in Computers and Human Behavior.

A recent study found that 1 in 2 young women have experienced some form of online abuse and women are more likely than men to be victims of cyberbullying. Social media and the greater interconnectedness that characterizes society today have presented more opportunities and ways for people to be harmed online.

In our paper, we set out to explore whether particular sociopolitical beliefs or feelings than women gamers are threatening in some way might be connected to greater support for aggression towards women online. While we found that the support for cyber-aggression towards women was overall quite low amongst gamers, we chose the online video gaming community to test this connection because of the historical reputation of gaming as a male-dominated hobby and their familiarity with cyber-aggression towards women from the targeted harassment campaigns of Gamergate in 2014 onwards.

We began by developing a way to measure how much or how little people endorse or oppose different aggressive behaviours that women are subject to online. We consider all these behaviours to be “cyber-aggression towards women.” While cyberbullying usually refers to aggressive behaviours that are repeated, cyber-aggression is more general, including single incidents that nevertheless cause a lot of harm. Examples include when a private photo or video of a woman is shared online without her consent, when a woman is tricked into a compromising situation online, or telling a woman to go kill herself online.

When we posted our survey in online gaming communities, something unexpected happened. 20 responses quickly turned into 200, and 200 responses quickly turned into 2,000. In just over 24 hours, over 14,000 people participated in our study – our study went viral, most notably through a YouTuber who streamed themselves doing the survey to thousands of viewers. While it was exciting that we now had so many responses to help answer our questions, this created many additional questions for us. Were all the people who participated in the study even gamers? How many of these people took the study seriously? Could this YouTuber have influenced our results?

After carefully analyzing and re-analyzing our data to rule out different explanations for our results, one thing remained consistent: the variable we found to be most strongly related to how likely people are to support aggressive behaviours towards women online is if they showed greater social dominance orientation. Social dominance orientation is a belief that captures how much a person prefers some social groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity) to be higher status and more dominant in society over others. People can have lower or higher social dominance orientation. Generally, those with higher social dominance orientation hold prejudicial attitudes towards a variety of groups, including more hostile forms of sexism. 

This suggests that one reason why some gamers might support cyber-aggression towards women is a belief that women are lower on the social “food chain” relative to men. Furthermore, our results suggest that this relationship is likely driven by a belief that women gamers are threatening to them in some way. In the future, we hope to identify ways to mitigate the perception among this minority of gamers that women gamers are threatening. Such changes in viewing women gamers as a threat could ultimately reduce support for cyber-aggressions towards women.

This is the first in what is hopefully a series of research which aims to comprehensively understand what, psychologically, is driving aggressive, gendered behaviour online. Cyber-aggression towards women could be completely different in online communities other than gamers, be experienced differently by victims who identify as gender minorities (i.e., genders other than man and woman), or take different forms in the future when there are new technologies that people can weaponize to harm others online.