Thursday, August 18, 2016

Comment Sections Are Cesspools Of Rape Culture, Research Finds

One-fourth of all online comments at the end of news articles about sexual assault and rape include victim-blaming statements, new research out of the University of Southern California shows.

The study examined 52 articles and found that only one did not contain comments offering support for the accused perpetrator, the study said. Victim-blaming statements appeared in 1,097 of the 4,239 comments ― or just over 25 percent of them. 

“I was surprised that so many people were so mean about these victims,” Kristen Zaleski, associate professor at USC's School of Social Work, told The Huffington Post. “Even knowing what I know about rape culture, I didn't expect so much hate and judgment and discriminatory attitudes and othering ― there was a lot of othering.” 

Branded as a “first-of-its-kind study,” the researchers examined comments posted to rape-related articles published in the The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times between December 2014 and March 2015. In total, they looked at 52 newspaper articles covering everything from Bill Cosby's accusers coming forward to the fallout from Rolling Stone's flawed article on campus rape

If the accused perpetrator was a celebrity or public figure, the individual was more likely to receive support ― or commenters were more likely to attack the alleged victims. 

About 16 percent of all comments included statements of support for survivors, while 6 percent offered support to the accused assailants and 23 percent included “trolling” statements about law and society, the study concluded. 

Victims received more support and sympathy when the alleged perpetrator was not an American citizen or the assault occurred abroad. But in those cases, the victim-blaming comments were replaced by racist remarks.

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The researchers found that one of the most common victim-blaming responses was when commenters gave instructions to rape survivors ― for example, telling them that they should have gone to the police immediately.

That's not an uncommon reaction: This week, comedian Kurt Metzger went on an extended social media tirade about rape allegations against a fellow comedian, Aaron Glaser. Many of Metzger's comments criticized victims of sexual assault for not immediately reporting their attacks to cops.

Comments like this send an implicit message to rape victims that “If this is true, report it,” Zaleski said. “It's very directive and almost dismissive.”

In articles about celebrities accused of rape, readers would suggest there was a conspiracy afoot. In an article about Bill Cosby, for example, a commenter said that “anyone who doesn't recognize the political agenda behind these attacks on Cosby hasn't been paying attention.”

Other commenters suggested that the survivor's story was too unbelievable to be real or that too much time had passed for it to be real. They also accused victims of playing the “rape card,” or suggested they made up the charges after getting too intoxicated.

“There needs to be a law to protect men and teenage boys from charges made against them for rape or sexual misconduct by women and girls who are stupid enough to get drunk and allow this to happen then turn around and blame the male,” one commenter cited in the study said. 

The researchers also discovered a lot of disbelief that men could be assaulted. For example, one comment read: “Ask any guy, it is impossible for any man, especially a teenager, to be 'raped' by an NFL cheerleader!”

Some of the comments that blamed the victim also fell under the “trolling” category. These were more likely to bring up ― and then dismiss ― the idea of “rape culture,” denying that sexism, bigotry and inequality create a toxic environment that encourages rape. Conversations about “rape culture” in comment sections often turned into debates about statistics. 

“The people who had opinions about who's to blame, who were basically blaming the survivors or victims, they would use the words 'rape culture,'” Zaleski said. “They would be somewhat up on the topic and [say] it was bullshit, and one of the ways they would do that is talk about false reporting.”

Often, someone would defend the survivors in the comment sections by posting links to articles about how rare false accusations are, Zaleski explained. The victim-blaming commenters would question the source of the stats, and then there would be a data conversation, she said. 

The study, “Exploring rape culture in social media forums,” will be published in the October 2016 issue of Computers in Human Behavior.


Tyler Kingkade is a national reporter who covers sexual violence and is based in New York. You can reach him at, or find him on Twitter: @tylerkingkade.

Need help? Visit RAINN's National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.

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