This Is Your Brain Online: How Twitter changed the word ‘rape’

In the first of a regular column on the effect of social media on society, Carl Miller looks at the increased prevalence of the word 'rape' online – and what it means for behaviour in the real world.

"I will find you :-)"

This tweet, amongst others, landed John Nimmo in court this month, pleading guilty to menacing the feminist and activist Caroline Criado-Perez. He was only part of a wider groundswell of abuse she received, for campaigning to get Jane Austen on the £10 note.

Trolling and harassment on social media in general is on the rise. The Metropolitan Police received around 2,000 complaints last year about online harassment, and predict the problem will get worse. Criado-Perez is only one of a group high-profile women, including the Labour MP Stella Creasy, classicist Mary Beard, columnists Hadley Freeman and Grace Dent and Time Magazine's Catherine Mayer to receive abuse. This is worryingly lapsing into something of a predictable social rhythm – if a woman is willing to lift her head above the parapet and into public life, someone is willing to take a verbal pot-shot at her. 

And what many of these women have pointed to is that the abuse is not directed at what they have said or done, but at their gender. Sprinkled in amongst the general abuse and bomb threats has been a recurring motif: misogynistic and sexualised language, often referring to that oldest and most vile way of expressing power and dominance – rape.

The reality of sexualised trolling on social media is far higher, I’d wager, than any official count. Like rape itself, online harassment is something that is chronically under-reported. Criado-Perez herself said the abuse she suffered was  "a small drop on the ocean". With this in mind, myself and others from Demos' Centre for the Analysis of Social Media used some technology we've been building to dip our toes into this ocean to get a better idea of how big it really is.

In one day, we found 30,000 tweets using the word rape, or 0.006% of the 500 million tweets that Twitter spews out every 24 hours. Looking underneath this number is difficult. We used a dip-sampling technique to pluck a smaller, but hopefully representative, dataset from these 30,000. It's not a perfect technique – the meaning of language depends on the context in which it was used, and context is the one thing you don't have when you're trying to analyse a very large body of tweets. Indeed, one in five tweets appeared either irrelevant or seemed, out of context anyway, completely nonsensical. It can however give an indication of what kind of Tweets are out there, and all caveats duly registered, we think:

• The most common use of 'rape', around 40% of the time, seemed to be in serious, sober discussions – talking about news stories (especially the Delhi rapes), how victims are treated, and how to combat it.

• The second most common (just under 30% of the time), and most surprising use, was the casual use of 'rape', as either metaphor or as part of seems to be an attempted joke: "Thats the famous rape face 😉 LMAO JK" and "gotta rape that psych test Wednesday!", "Rape meeee, rape me my friend".

• The most worrying category were those 12% of Tweets where rape was contained within a threat or insult, or as part of a very sexist or misogynist comment: "I'm gonna rape ur [sexual detail]". Again, out of context it's hard to tell how serious they really are, but they appeared to be beyond the casual; touching on something something darker and more menacing.  

So, every day on Twitter, I'd expect to see thousands of uses of the word rape in ways that range from the generally extremely unpleasant to the scary and menacing.

But this research suggests something else that is very important. Direct and menacing trolling occurs against a background of online communication that uses rape in a variety of ways, each a radical departure from any of the Oxford English Dictionary's 12 major definitions. Coming out of earlier gamer and forum cultures, to 'rape' is (as perverse as it sounds) to 'win', to dominate an opponent, especially in a game or an argument.

I think that what is being done to the word 'rape' points to a broader influence that the internet is having on the language that we use. The online world of user-generated content is a remorseless race for attention. As more and more writers and outlets join this Darwinian race for 'survival-as-visibility', the fittest messages, the ones most likely to reproduce, are the most eye-catching. The top predator in this race, the meme, is the classic example. This is a species of communication that exists for no other purpose than to capture your attention, and survives for no other reason than it is able to do so.

On /b/, 4chan’s most popular (and offensive) image board, your thread has maybe two minutes of survival to start garnering replies. If it doesn't, it falls off the end of the board. In order to get attention, people resort to the strategies of TV advertising on steroids: sex and gore – and the sexier and gorier the better. Someone will post a fairly mundane request for help with their homework next to a (unrelated) picture of someone with their head blown off. 

This is changing how we talk to one another. To have the attention of anyone at all, people are increasingly forced to push their communications – whether text or images – out of any shadow of subtlety. It needs to be the brightest star in a sky of very bright stars and busy astronomers with short attention spans. For Oxford neurologist Susan Greenfield, this is a world of 'yuck and wow'. She fears that it could be literally re-wiring our brains. Her warning was itself of course duly turned into a sort of meme, 'yakawow'. You can buy the t-shirt

The use of rape on Twitter has to at least partly slot into this wider process where taboos – including rape – are being ruthlessly desensitised online. This is creating a more permissive cultural backdrop against which rape threats are made. The threat itself however remains undiminished in either its gravity or the harm it can do to the recipient. The worst-case scenario is that, desensitised to the word, we become desensitised to the act.

It's not clear how to break this process. I think a concept of 'digital citizenship', of treating each other decently and respectfully on online spaces, is something that is important and that we, as a society, currently badly lack. I'll return to this in the weeks ahead.

As one controversy dies down, another ignites, this time in India. Rupesh Paul, the Indian poet and film director – most latterly of Kamasutra 3D, announced he was suing a former actress for what she's said on Twitter, including her use of 'rape'. Paul admonished her: "Rape is an agony, a torture… don't joke about rape". That's a message I think needs more attention.

Carl Miller is the founding research director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM) at Demos. It is the first think tank institute dedicated to researching digital society. Read an explanation of CASM in Demos Quarterly.

He is the co-author of a series of pamphlets and essays contributing to the birth of social media science and 'SOCMINT', social media intelligence. This includes #intelligence, the first framework for the ethical and effective collection of social media intelligence for public security, @metpoliceuk and Policing in an Information Age – that look at the implications of social media for policing and security.  His upcoming paper, Vox Digitas: listening to digital voices, lays out a new method to understand attitudes from Twitter.