Midterms 2022: Female politicians receive equal attention on Reddit — but less respect

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Male and female politicians may receive equal attention in online forums like Reddit, but a new study finds women in politics are more likely to be on the receiving end of undermining language and unprofessional remarks.

The new report by researchers from the University of Copenhagen analyzed 10 million Reddit comments and found that, contrary to previous research, the public talks about male and female politicians in equal amounts. Although overt sexism and misogynistic comments were common in some far-right subreddits, most sexist language was subtle or even seemingly complimentary, according to the review. Commenters frequently referred to female politicians by their first names, while using the official titles alongside the names of male politicians.

“Unlike men, female politicians are often named by their first names and are described in relation to their body, clothing, or family; these findings suggest how societal expectations for women affect their public perception as political players,” the study authors write in a media release.

Much of the study hones in on the idea that “implicit gender biases against women in authority” continue to undermine female politicians. The largely anonymous internet culture in networks like Reddit allow such sentiments to fester. The study authors note that a lot of previous studies focused solely on comments made directly to politicians, whereas this analysis looks at conversations about lawmakers.

Online forums often see users displaying ‘benevolent sexism’

While the study findings reveal an equal amount of interest in both male and female politicians, the language used to discuss women is often undermining or implicitly sexist. For example, female policymakers “are described in relation to their body, clothing or family” by online commenters, according to the team. Commenters sprinkle in subtler forms of bias into conversations about female politicians including so-called “benevolent sexism,” where people use seemingly positive stereotypes to cast all women in authority under the same umbrella.

However, these people did not extend the same treatment to male politicians, the authors note, and this gender disparity was most overt on numerous far-right wing subreddits.

The researchers say that their analysis addresses “not only misogynistic language, but also other manifestations of bias, like benevolent sexism in the form of seemingly positive sentiment and dominance attributed to female politicians.”

The study findings appear to track alongside many recent studies which reveal implicit and less egregious forms of sexism, racism, or bias. These instances of undermining language are often something that people are unaware they are doing.

For example, researchers at Penn State found Americans often unknowingly show racial bias in emails they receive from Black senders. Implicit bias has even managed to work its way into technologically advanced AI systems. Another study reveals that robots expressed racist and sexist biases while solving problems using human-programmed artificial intelligence.

The findings appear in the journal PLoS ONE.

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