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Research Blog: How does Twitter contribute to misinformation around sexual assault?

By Laura Hooberman

Hibernating from the cold last month, I binge watched the excellent new docu-series Lorena. The series tells the story of Lorena Bobbitt, a domestic violence survivor who, in 1993, in response to being repeatedly sexually assaulted by her husband, entered a dissociative state (i.e., a state of mind in which individuals find themselves disconnected from reality as they know it) and cut off her husband’s penis with a kitchen knife. Lorena was charged with malicious wounding, and the case, perhaps not surprisingly, captured the public’s attention and imagination.

Some of this attention was positive. The case seemed to compel the American public, to a certain degree, to engage in a conversation surrounding the rampancy and consequences of intimate partner violence, a topic which, prior to this moment, had largely been brushed under the rug. But that necessary conversation often strained to be heard in the context of a tabloid frenzy in which Lorena was framed as hysterical (invoking sexist tropes), a fiery Latina (invoking racist tropes) who acted on irrational impulse and thus was undeserving of understanding or sympathy. There’s a moment in the series when her husband’s brother, during an interview on national television, says that if he’d been there when the incident occurred, he would have killed Lorena. The crowd immediately erupts into applause.

This moment was infuriating to watch. Who, I wondered, would have the audacity to publicly make a violent claim against another person, and what sort of historical moment had the country been in that a group of individuals watching felt compelled to applaud such a statement? Granted, in 2019, our sitting president regularly traffics in a similar style of rhetoric and crowd rallying, but the #MeToo movement has at least helped create and proliferate a mainstream discourse in support of survivors of abuse. I wondered whether Lorena’s case might have been handled with greater compassion and nuance had it come to light in our current moment. Perhaps, I thought. But then I remembered Twitter.

I’m not against social media. I’m all for democratized social platforms across which individuals have the means to make meaningful connections, engage in political organizing, and partake in the creation and dissemination of knowledge. However, it seems that as it becomes less socially acceptable to, say, threaten violence against another person on national television (again, for whatever reason, some people do still get away with this!) individuals compelled to engage in destructive rhetoric turn to the Internet, and in particular, platforms like Twitter, as outlets for their aggression and rage. I can’t answer definitively what Lorena’s case might have looked like had it entered into public consciousness in 2019, but I can speak to Twitter’s role in perpetuating rape culture. And that’s because in recent years, researchers have turned their attention to this very issue.

In 2018, three researchers from Mississippi State University published a study examining instances of victim blaming in discussions pertaining to sexual assault cases on Twitter.[1] They looked at tweets posted in the aftermath of two high profile rape capes and examined 603 tweets featuring the words “rape and whore” or “rape and slut.” Their results pointed to three patterns across tweets: 1) endorsement of the virgin-whore binary (i.e., belief that women universally fall into either the former or latter category and that women labeled ‘whores’ are deserving of assault); 2) instances of “news tweeting,” in which tweeters linked news stories of sexual assault, often in order to either express their support of victims or to blame victims; and 3) tweets focused on debunking rape myths, like the idea that some women are ‘asking’ to be assaulted because of the way that they’re dressed.

The authors were surprised to find that not all the tweets featuring their selected keywords (again, these were “rape and whore” or “rape and slut”) were focused on shaming or blaming survivors of assault. I was, too! Hooray, right? Not quite, unfortunately. The authors found that tweets focused on blaming or shaming victims were more likely to be retweeted than tweets that were supportive of survivors. Moreover, users who posted victim shaming content were likely to have more followers than those users who posted content in support of rape survivors. Essentially, their results suggest that on Twitter, blaming survivors of assault is a more popular position than supporting them.

Where does that leave us? For one, it suggests that in the twenty-six years since Lorena Bobbitt’s case went public, we as a society still haven’t managed to center the lived experiences of survivors in narratives of abuse. That’s not to say that there aren’t people out there actively working to transform the conversation around sexual assault. And it’s not to say that we aren’t learning more about the reality of sexual assault. There are voices out there that we can and should listen to. More than that, we need to amplify those voices, until they’re loud enough to drown out the destructive nonsense and misinformation.

 

[1] Stubbs-Richardson, M., Radar, N.E., and Cosby, A.G. (2018). Tweeting rape culture: Examining portrayals of victim blaming in discussions of sexual assault cases on Twitter. Feminism & Psychology, 28(1), 90-108

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