“B*tch” is a complicated word. While it’s a term that’s often reclaimed as empowering, friendly, or celebratory, “b*tch” is, at its modern roots, a slur against women that’s still commonly weaponized. In 2016, “b*tch” was everywhere – particularly in relationship to Hillary Clinton, the nation’s first female presidential candidate. The word inspired think pieces and offensive political products and chants so rude that they horrified people.
Hate speech – including words like “b*tch” – has become a problem so big on Twitter that the company was forced to address the issue after facing boycotts by users who said the platform was enabling harassment. The situation begs many questions, among them: how often is “b*tch” used in such a defamatory way? Who is using the word? And where are people tossing the word around? That’s what Dr. Monica Stephens wants to know.
Stephens is an assistant professor at University at Buffalo’s Department of Geography. She works to understand the relationship between online speech patterns and how they manifest offline, in real-world communities. After her 2013 project Hate Map explored geotagged homophobic, racist, and ableist slurs on Twitter, Stephens turned her attention to “b*tch.” The project has proven to be a difficult one despite support from the Department of Geography, College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kentucky, as well as Scott Hale and Mark Graham from the Oxford Internet Institute and the Alan Turing Institute.
“There were definitely, definitely enough Tweets that use the word ‘b*tch’ . . . The problem was I couldn’t afford to pay somebody to read all of them.”
In some ways, the “B*tch Map” is a reaction to critiques of Stephen’s 2013 work. “When I first did the Hate Map, lots of people contacted me,” Stephens tells POPSUGAR. From marginalized communities like Jewish groups to the nonmarginalized like white men, people were displeased they weren’t represented on the map. (Stephens says there simply weren’t enough logged slurs on Twitter against Jewish people to form any significant conclusions.) “Women were commenting, saying how misogynist I was,” Stephens says.
Ironically, another major problem was also that the use of the word “b*tch” is so very pervasive compared to uses of other hateful words. Stephens logged use of the word “queer” approximately 26,000 times, including by LGBTQ+ people or in posts about LGBTQ+ pride. She also logged use of the n-word approximately 33,000 times, including some used as a term of endearment within the black community. When it comes to the word “b*tch,” though, Stephens says there are millions of occurrences annually. “There were definitely, definitely enough Tweets that use the word ‘b*tch’ . . . The problem was I couldn’t afford to pay somebody to read all of them.”
This is Stephens’s current charge: trying to figure out who is using a term like “b*tch” negatively, parsing slang – “What’s up, b*tch?” – and colloquialisms – “stitch-‘n-b*tch” – from the hateful. “The number of geotagged Tweets for the word ‘b*tch’ is overwhelming,” Stephens says. “I’m not clear on how often it’s used in a positive light or negative light.”
Stephens hopes to analyze these Tweets via “sentiment analysis” – algorithms that can discern negative uses of language from positive to a certain degree.
Stephens has come to some early conclusions. First, most usages of “b*tch” came from urban areas, a fact that can be attributed to more people Tweeting in cities in general. Second, users who geotag Tweets do not break down equally by gender.
“When it comes to social media, men geotag at a much higher rate,” she says. “Women are very willing to socially tag. They’re willing to tag that they’re with so-and-so in this image – but they weren’t as willing to tag where they were.” Stephens says she spoke with both men and women on why they geotag, and, while both men and women are concerned about privacy, women didn’t geotag for fear of being targeted while men went ahead and tagged anyway.
Stephens links this to women being more aware that what they say online can be used against them. The result of this tagging by men and not women has led to a very patriarchal internet, one where Siri can find you escort services and Viagra, but not abortion providers. “Believe it or not, women aren’t the ones constructing information, and women aren’t reviewing the information that men are constructing online,” Stephens says. “That filters into what features appear on maps.”
From here, the issue hits a gross intersection: using the word “b*tch” online connects with language associated with the alt-right, a hate group known for its virulent racism and distinctly antiwoman ideology. Stephens says the alt-right merges “feeling excluded and marginalized from a sexual position in society” with political positionality. Stephens saw this clearly in the violence in Charlottesville, VA, where the alt-right was the culprit as those who identified as part of the group flying in from various parts of the country to terrorize a community. The relationship to their use of “b*tch” highlights how misogynist language used online can become a rallying point where using this specific word can lead someone to extremist thinkers and groups.
“What I’m looking at is more the way that using these internet communication technologies has changed the scope of hate,” Stephens says. “My question is: are the networks people form online supplementing for a lack of population in the material community? Just like support groups for a rare health condition, they don’t have enough people who have that particular health problem in their local community, so people turn online for support and develop connections with like individuals. Hate groups are taking the same shape as these networks, and it is something that policymakers need to be aware of.”
Stephens’s projects is very much in its nascent stages but, in mapping the word and exploring her previous Hate Map, it’s easy to see how this new effort could expose how geographically pervasive this toxic speech really is. In these mappings, Stephens is seeking to highlight how hate speech is everywhere and that “certain demographic factors” enable “reproducing hate” offline. As we’ve seen in 2016 and 2017, the internet allows hateful individuals to come together. Stephens’s maps add a geographic face to the problem.
“You always see people on the news saying, ‘That’s not what our community is like. We’re a small town: we have family values,’ or whatever,” she says. “But there’s an awareness as you tweet, as you look at the geography and the distribution of hate speech that it is coming out of small towns, it’s coming out of what we assume to be the liberal hotbeds of Austin, TX, and Berkeley, CA . . . . It’s coming out of everywhere.”