Behind the numbers

Stories of online abuse abound in the media. Often the focus is on the abuse of women and it is widely assumed that they bear the brunt of it.

Little has been done to test this theory – although some work by Demos conducted last year found that male public figures attract more abuse on Twitter than female ones.

There is one data set which allows for a slightly more rigorous look.

The Crime Survey for England and Wales of 2012-13 contains a question asking whether or not the respondent has experienced abuse or threatening behaviour online in the last 12 months. These data cannot tell us anything about the volume of abuse nor its nature – we only know if someone has been abused or not. I ran a very quick analysis on the data set to test which of the sexes gets the most abuse online.

What it reveals is that the experience of receiving abusive or threatening behaviour is limited to just a small proportion of internet users – only 1.9 per cent. Furthermore, it is actually men who receive more abuse than women – 2.1% of men reported having being subjected to abuse or threatening behaviour compared to 1.5% of women.

However, things are further complicated when we control for length of time spent on the internet.

Men spend slightly more time on the internet, and the more time you spend online the more likely you are to have an unpleasant experience. So although men receive more abuse and threats, once the time spent online is factored in, then it is women who are more likely to be abused or threatened.

The implication of this is that the internet is a more hostile place for women than men. Why this is – that recurring question – cannot be inferred from these data.

While the proportions revealed by these data are small, it is worth remembering that they will translate into a large number of abusive incidents in absolute terms. And of course, as we’ve seen repeatedly, some people receive enormous amounts of vitriol and threats. Yet we must not lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of internet users – both male and female – are using it without incident.