How not to journalism

Yesterday (15 June 2016), Gareth Rubin wrote a piece for the Telegraph about trolling, in which he briefly quotes me twice. For the purposes of this post, I’m only bothered about the first quote. Mr Rubin wanted to call me at first, and after I initially put that off because I was too busy, he emailed me on 26 May with this, word for word:

Thanks for the reply. I fully understand that you must be tied up right now. Could I just ask a single question, and a few sentences as a reply will be quite enough? No one else seems able to answer it: Why do you think trolling is a primarily male behaviour?

I would be really grateful for just a brief answer.

And here was my reply, the same day, word for word:

Hallo Gareth,

Hmmm, I think I may be as unforthcoming as all your other interviewees. The first thing I’d say is that we need to take a step back. Mainly we don’t know for a fact that trolls are primarily male. There’s lots of anecdotal evidence out there but nothing (as far as I’m aware) that gives us a concrete, empirical insight into the demographics of abusive online users. Remember that profiles are extremely easy to populate with fake information, automated procedures for “detecting” the gender of online accounts can be highly problematic, and when questioned particularly about socially stigmatised behaviours, people can and do lie. One option is to look purely at those convicted for abusive online behaviour to see what kinds of people they are, and this already tells us that trolls can be male or female, old or young, working class, university educated, parents, kids, and anything in between. However, we don’t know how well those people reflect the abusive online population in general. They are, after all, people who didn’t hide their offline identity well enough to prevent themselves from being prosecuted. It’s certainly tempting to just take it as given that trolls are primarily male but without tracking at least a decent sample of trolling accounts back to the people who operate them, we’re just speculating. If someone is ever able to conduct that kind of research (and I’d be very surprised if they manage it) then we could start to paint a better picture of the average troll.


So what made it into the Telegraph, with its headline “Why are most internet trolls men?” three whole weeks later…? This:

According to Dr Claire Hardaker of Lancaster University, we can’t be certain but there is “lots of anecdotal evidence” that most trolls are male – that’s despite a study in May revealing half of all tweets containing the words ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ come from women.


(Incidentally I had plenty to say about that “study in May” too.)