Representing Online Hostility against Women

Ethics and Wellbeing



How to Cite

Thompson, J. D. (2023). Representing Online Hostility against Women: Ethics and Wellbeing. M/C Journal, 26(4).
Vol. 26 No. 4 (2023): wellbeing
Published 2023-08-22

On 6 March 2023, the Australian journalist Lisa Millar appeared on the television programme ABC News Breakfast (of which she is a host) wearing a skirt with a thigh-exposing slit. Photographs of this appearance were circulated on Twitter alongside misogynist commentary about the choice of attire. Millar addressed this commentary on air, admonishing not only those who posted it but also the media outlets where it was republished.

This article uses the Millar case as a prism through which to pursue the question: “what are the ethical considerations for journalists when representing online hostility against women?” The article suggests that journalistic representations are significant not only because they help construct public understandings of the issues being reported, but because of the repetition that necessarily constitutes representation. The very term “representation” connotes the “re-presentation” of something past; in the case study, journalists – through graphically depicting the hostility Millar has endured – ­have effectively (and probably unintentionally) exacerbated that hostility. The article concludes with a list of ethical considerations and explores how journalists may negotiate these when reporting on misogynist online abuse.

Online Hostility against Women: Research Gap

Online hostility is “a cultural condition which has emerged as a practice of communication; and an attitude or mode of disposition towards others that reflects and is produced by the instantaneity of online communication” (Thompson and Cover 1771). The term encompasses a range of practices that are designed primarily or exclusively to offend, degrade, or subjugate. These practices include trolling (posting content to generate heightened responses), doxing (posting personal details – e.g., home addresses – online without permission), and cyberbullying. 

The study to which this article belongs seeks to contribute to ongoing research into online hostility directed against women. Researchers have demonstrated that this hostility reflects and exacerbates broader gender inequality (Jane, “Back”), and that it has a parlous impact on wellbeing, especially for those who are abused online and those who witness or are otherwise made aware of this abuse. Online hostility can cause psychological damage (Vakhitova et al.) and make victims reluctant to participate in online fora; Millar herself left Twitter in 2021 after being abused on that platform (Quinn). Online hostility against women can be amplified by prejudices including racism, as witnessed in online attacks against African-American actress Leslie Jones (Lawson) and Sudanese-Australian Muslim commentator Yassmin Abdel-Magied (Fyfe).

A growing corpus of scholarship has investigated hostility against female journalists. Fiona Martin notes that “journalists are disproportionately subject to online violence due to the public nature of their work, their focus on covering and analysing aspects of societal conflict and their normative watchdog role” (75). Martin further acknowledges that women journalists “are subject to more frequent, image-oriented and sexualised violence, with deeper structural and social roots and more significant impacts than for men in their profession” (75). Millar’s 2023 Twitter attackers made hostile comments about her physical appearance; victims can be maligned on account of other factors, too, including their ethnicity, sexual identity, or religion. Online hostility against female journalists has also taken the form of rape and death threats (Jane, “Back”), and social media posts attacking them for working in traditionally “masculine” journalistic domains such as sports reporting (Antunovic).

Currently, little research exists on journalistic representations of online hostility against women. This is striking given the pivotal roles that journalistic reportage still plays in constructing public understandings of social issues. An exception is a 2017 study which found that “media frames of trolling reinforce the normalisation of online violence against women as an extension of or proxy for gendered violence” (Lumsden and Morgan 936). This study’s findings echo studies of the ways in which “offline” violence against women (including rape and murder) has been represented in media texts (e.g., Morgan).

Representation: Politics and Repetition

This article is premised firstly on the argument that representation is an inherently ideological endeavour. Stuart Hall suggests this when he argues that representation “connects meaning and language to culture”; it gives form/s to the way we view and experience the world, legitimising and challenging dominant power systems (Hall 1). This kind of argument has informed feminist scholarship on how mediatised representations of violence against women reinforce gendered power imbalances and stereotypes; the 2017 study cited above is one example.

Secondly, the article argues that the power of representation lies in the logic of repetition. This is suggested by the word itself; the object of representation is re-presented, staged again via the deployment of language and visuals – sometimes on multiple occasions. In a to-camera address recorded during ABC Breakfast News on 8 March 2023 (not coincidentally, International Women’s Day), Millar remarked: “that [her online abuse] then ended up online on some news sites where the photos and the abuse were republished made me angry”.

The journalistic reportage cited by Millar re-presents that hostility – which was already highly public by virtue of the target’s media profile and by its enactment on Twitter – in public fora (including media outlets that publish journalism). In doing so, this reportage risks granting legitimacy to that hostility; the latter becomes worthy of repeating, even as it may be framed as problematic. In this respect, there are echoes of reportage on right-wing extremists, which – while sometimes well-intentioned – has given those actors “a level of visibility and legitimacy that even they could scarcely believe” (Phillips 32). (It should be acknowledged that online hostility is not perpetrated only by those aligned with a specific political disposition.)

Further, journalistic representations of online hostility against women involve the re-presentation of hostility that has – in some cases – been re-presented multiple times on social media platforms. Research has demonstrated that hostile comments and the resharing of abusive content “by very large or uncountable numbers of individuals” can amplify the hostility’s force (Thompson and Cover 1772). This appears to have been the case with Millar; shots of the skirt were shared even by those claiming to defend her, as were vituperative comments about the clothing, and these were shared yet again in certain media coverage (on the 8 March broadcast, Millar’s co-host Michael Rowland identifies and Daily Mail as publishers of this coverage). That coverage could then be shared and re-shared on social media.

Ethical Considerations for Journalists

This section begins the task – one that is beyond the scope of a single article – of outlining the ethical considerations journalists should make in producing representations of online hostility against women. The section is informed by ongoing scholarship on media ethics, and especially two of its key aims: mitigating harm and maximising equitable participation in online spaces, including social media platforms (Johnson). The section draws on insights from extant scholarship on media representations of violence against women. The following considerations may be adapted to studies of ethical reportage on racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia.

The first consideration involves abandoning gendered stereotypes. Stuart Hall argues that “stereotypes get hold of the few, ‘simple, vivid, memorable, easily grasped and widely recognized’ characteristics about a person, reduce everything about the person to those traits, exaggerate and simplify them” (247; emphasis in original). The simplicity of stereotypes and their familiarity among audiences could make them a convenient go-to for journalists. Feminist media scholars have critiqued the stereotyping of female victims as either “undeserving” innocents or “deserving” (sexually active, revealingly dressed) vamps (Benedict; Morgan). Journalist Ginger Gorman has critiqued the stereotyping of online hostility proponents as bizarre, unhinged, Other; these include the “loner in his mum’s basement” (24). In fact, Gorman argues, these individuals exist within the same society as “we” all do, one where gender inequality still holds currency; they are not rare bad actors (Gorman 264).

The second consideration involves interviewing or otherwise obtaining quotes from victims. This should involve the cultivation of trauma literacy and, relatedly, an awareness of how certain lines of questioning can distress victims and journalists (Seely). In the case study under review, Millar decided to speak publicly about her online abuse and, in doing so, received support from her colleagues and television network employer (Meade). She had the platform and the (apparent) willingness to respond to her abusers. Her distress is nevertheless palpable in the 8 March broadcast.

The third consideration concerns the explicitness of the detail provided about online hostility. This is especially contentious. Media scholar Emma A. Jane argues that

a less explicit and more polite way of discussing [online hostility against women] may have the unintended consequence of both hiding from view its distinct characteristics and social, political and ethical upshots, and even blinding us to its existence and proliferation – of implying that it circulates only infrequently and/or only in the far flung fringes of the cybersphere. However, research … provides ample evidence to support the contention that gendered vitriol is proliferating in the cybersphere; so much so that issuing graphic rape and death threats has become a standard discursive move online. (“Back” 558)

Jane is clarifying why she has chosen to report – sometimes verbatim – online misogyny. Her words have relevance for journalism. No ethical representation of online hostility against women should downplay its seriousness or frame it as being either an aberrant phenomenon or simply lively (but not necessarily injurious) banter. Jane has elsewhere chronicled the “economic vandalism” (her term) wrought by hostility directed against women workers, including journalists (Jane, “Gendered”).

Nonetheless, Millar’s 8 March statement demonstrates that repeating online hostility in detail can (further) distress victims. This can also expand the reach of the hostility, and frame it as somehow worth repeating (even if only for the purpose of critique). The two media outlets accused by Michael Rowland of doing this both proclaim to abhor the abuse and do so via the florid language that is redolent of tabloid media. describes the abuse as “sickening” (Borg); Daily Mail labels the abusers “vile online trolls” whose commentary was “disgustingly personal” (Milienos). The abhorrence is diminished by the republication in both pieces of abuse directed against Millar. One of these articles even quotes the tweets of a high-profile Australian Twitter user who – in admonishing Millar’s attackers – posted screenshots of abusive commentary.

The fourth consideration involves acknowledging the systemic nature of online hostility against women. This does not comprise isolated acts of aggression against individuals. For instance, where there is space permitting, journalists could cite statistics regarding this hostility and its prevalence. In her 8 March address, Millar stated:

 [I am] angry on behalf of myself, and also on behalf of other women, young women who see those stories and see someone like me being violently abused day after day … I worry it might make [young women] think that no progress has been made and that it’s not worth it to be a woman in the public arena.

Millar emphasises that online hostility does not impact only on its targets; it can potentially have a prohibitive impact on the public participation of all women, especially – though not only – when the target has a media profile. “Public participation” can entail working as a journalist or even using social media.

The fifth, and perhaps most challenging, consideration entails how exactly more ethical journalistic representations of online hostility might be encouraged or welcomed in the contemporary mediascape. This consideration is as much for policymakers and journalism researchers as journalists themselves. The current Australian Federal Minister for Women, Katy Gallagher, described the republishing of hostile commentary about Millar as “providing clickbait to generate readers” (cited in May). This may seem simplistic – sensationalism and gendered stereotypes are not recent phenomena –, but it is a reminder that their commercial viability persists. There has been public outrage against gendered online hostility; statements by Rowland and myriad Twitter users (some of them journalists) exemplify this. Such outrage can have beneficial outcomes; for instance, research has demonstrated that online “call outs” against misogyny and sexism can publicly emphasise the harms it causes and, therefore, its unacceptability (Mendes et al.). These call outs ­– which include hashtag movements such as #MeToo and screenshots of threatening direct messages – can help attach negative meanings to sexist practices. Nonetheless, outrage in itself cannot prevent or necessarily even restrict hostility.

For ethical journalistic representations of online hostility against women to flourish in any tangible sense, widespread institutional changes are required. The ethical considerations listed above could be taught within university journalism curricula, in the same way that trauma literacy has been (Seely; Thompson); in fairness, such teachings might well be underway. Those considerations could also inform guidelines for journalistic reportage of online hostility. There are already several (actual or proposed) guidelines for reporting on violence against women (e.g., Our Watch), as well as “digital safety strategies for women journalists” (Martin 74).

Finally, ethical journalistic representations of online hostility against women must be accompanied by proper regulation of this hostility. Such regulations have been the topic of impassioned debate amongst media outlets and politicians in jurisdictions that include Australia (Beckett). Ethical representations – whatever these might look like (and they will necessarily be as diverse as journalism itself) – would have limited benefit in environments where the hostile actors are permitted to remain on the platforms where they abused others.

This article has argued for the importance of ethical journalistic representations of online hostility against women. This hostility threatens the wellbeing of its victims and those who witness or are otherwise aware of the abuse; that threat is amplified when the hostile behaviour itself is re-presented, either by journalists or everyday social media users, in graphic detail. Those points have been teased out via the case study of Australian television journalist Lisa Millar. Millar’s Twitter abuse, and the subsequent reportage of that abuse, highlights a need for representations that educate audiences on the harms of online hostility without exacerbating those harms.


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Author Biography

Jay Daniel Thompson, School of Media and Communication, RMIT University

Dr. Jay Daniel Thompson is a Lecturer, Professional Communication in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University. His research explores ways of cultivating ethical online communication in an era of digital disinformation and hostility. His work has been published in journals such as Convergence, Feminist Media Studies, Media International Australia, Journalism, and M/C Journal.