Research into online extremist behaviour is centred around Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, 4chan, Telegram, and Gab. Studies focusing on platforms where image sharing is the purpose (rather than text or video sharing) are generally underrepresented in the literature on online extremist content. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube account for 55%, 35% and 8.7% of the studies on racism and hate speech online respectively, while Whisper and Instagram account for only 2.9% and 1%.
The posting behaviours of women in extremist movements are another understudied area in extremism studies, despite women in the radical right having an increasingly large and important online presence within their movements (see Sitler-Elbel; Mattheis; Pilkington; Badalich). This lack of research into women’s participation in online extremist movements is despite the almost equal participation of women on these major platforms. Of the dominant platforms in research, Facebook has 54% female users, Twitter has 43.6%, Reddit has 36.2% and 4chan has an estimated 30%. Instagram and Whisper have 48.2% and 39.9% female users respectively. On some platforms, women dominate. As of January 2022, 76.7% of Pinterest users were female, rendering Pinterest a uniquely female-dominated and oriented social media platform.
This Insight provides an introduction to an ongoing research project that explores an understudied sub-category of women in the radical right: #tradwives. This Insight will discuss two preliminary findings of the content found on Whisper: the nature of these memes, and the difficulties they pose for content moderation. The wider project will be expanded to understudied women-dominated platforms in the future.
Note: the authors support full autonomy for women in every sphere; this Insight is about an ideology that explicitly does not.
Whisper promotes itself as “the largest online platform where people share real thoughts and feelings … without identities or profiles.” Launching in 2012, Whisper enjoyed widespread popularity, and by 2016 Whisper was touting 30 million monthly users. This figure has dropped considerably, but data from SEMRush still shows 522k visitors in the month of January 2023, 477k of those being unique. In 2017, 75% of users were between the ages of 18 and 34 and the majority were female. While Whisper is now a majority male-dominated platform, with 59% and 41% male and female users respectively, the userbase remains young.
Whisper has three broad community rules: “Don’t be Mean, Don’t be Gross, and Don’t Use Whisper to Break the Law.” The “Don’t be Mean” rule covers hate speech, and “Don’t Break the Law”covers threats of violence. Beyond these rules, there is no clear counter-extremism policy. Whisper is not currently a member of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), despite being a popular app where people share secrets anonymously.
A 2018 study by Kirk et al. looking at different types of hate speech on Whisper, found that users are more likely to post hateful content when they remain anonymous and that online hateful content follows the same distribution patterns as offline hate crime. Whisper’s anonymity facilitates users to share both positive and negative emotions, from wants and desires to hate speech. A perhaps unsurprising result of Whisper’s anonymity is that many “Whispers” posted to the site contain concerning confessions. Whisper operates a non-profit that signposts users to resources for help with a range of mental health issues, but provides no links to countering violent extremism initiatives. The non-profit functions as an intermediary between users and external support agencies via a website that does not appear to be regularly updated, and has been offline occasionally during the research for this project. This suggests that meaningful, proactive deradicalisation interventions may be beyond the scope of the platform.
There is not a universally-agreed definition of the term ‘tradwife.’ However, many women in #trad culture (traditional way of life) refer to themselves as a #tradwife. #Trad culture pushes a narrative of a supposed ‘better time’ whereby a woman’s purpose is to raise and educate children and maintain their home for their male breadwinner in a faux-nostalgia to 1950s Western lifestyle. It is important to note that not all who participate in #trad culture and not all who identify as ‘tradwives’ participate in radical right or white supremacist movements. Furthermore, this analysis is not referring to women who choose to be stay-at-home-mums or choose to not work outside the home.
The study at hand is focused on online #tradwife communities that form part of a broader radical right ideology of antifeminism and male supremacism that deliberately and specifically advocates for the subjugation of women to their husbands. In addition to being fully submissive to their husband, women are expected to present a feminine aesthetic, and take on stereotypically feminine traits (see Badalich, Mattheis). Religion and motherhood are key themes in #tradwife content, and many blame feminism, the sexual revolution, and multiculturalism for the decline in white birth rates (see Mattheis 2018; 2021).
We downloaded the first 100 images with the hashtag “tradwife” on Whisper every day for a week in October 2022 and again in January 2023. This produced a dataset of 133 unique Whisper memes. Of these 133, 4 (3%) expressed a clear anti-tradwife sentiment, 12 were coded as neutral (9%), 99 were coded as pro-tradwife (74%), and the remainder were unclear or ambiguous (18, 14%).
Pro tradwife memes generally pictured conventionally attractive white people in picturesque settings with superimposed text of statements like “I’m just trying to live my best life without feminism getting in the way” and “Yeah law school is good and all but my dream has always been to be a tradwife.” Of the 99 that were pro-tradwife, 25 expressed a non-traditional tradwife ideology (19%). Through either kink (5, 20%), violence (3, 12%), being a person of colour (2, 8%), expressing explicitly and only sexual desires (1, 4%), identifying as a “femcel” (a woman who is involuntarily celibate, the female version of “incel”) (1, 4%), identifying as a goth (1, 4%), or being LGBT+ (13, 52%). The numbers here add to greater than 25 because one meme expressed being both LGBT and a person of colour. All the images that expressed a desire for violence in their tradwife lifestyle referenced Patrick Bateman of American Psycho, a sadist and murderer of women.
Of the 133 images in our dataset, 78 (59%) of them expressed an explicit desire to experience some part of the tradwife lifestyle. However, not every image that expressed the desire to be or have a tradwife shared the same radical right ideology. Of these 78 images, 54 (69%) expressed a clear pro-tradwife ideology in the radical right sense of the term, but interestingly we found 20 that expressed a non-traditional interpretation of tradwives, mostly through being LGBT.
The most common expressions users posted in their Whispers were sentiments such as “I need a tradwife” and “Where is my tradwife?” (men desiring women) and “I wanna be a tradwife” and “I want to be his tradwife” (women desiring men). LGBT expressions of desire either came from gay or bisexual men desiring a male tradwife, from trans women expressing the desire to be a tradwife, men expressing the desire for a trans tradwife, or women wanting a tradwife. The numbers of this gendered distribution of desire are shown in Table 1.
Table 1 Gendered direction of desire expressed in Whisper images
Gendered direction of desire
|Women desiring men||46|
|Men desiring women||19|
|Trans women desiring men||6|
|Men desiring men||3|
|Men desiring trans women||2|
|Women desiring women||1|
This is a small dataset which shows tradwife ideology to not be dominating this platform. However, we still believe this study is worthwhile and worthy of expansion to other understudied platforms in the future. While not prolific, this content is still available on Whisper, a website that has no clear counter-extremism policy. It could be that, as tradwife ideology is still a relatively niche area of the radical right, the moderation teams at Whisper are unaware of the nature and meaning of this content. It is yet to become clear the level of harm that can arise from such content.
Content Moderation of #tradwife content
Radical right content throws up several challenges regarding content moderation that are less prominent than other types of content such as that produced by ISIS, especially non-violent content. Here, we identify two core strategies by the radical right to circumnavigate content moderation: the use of non-violence, and the use of women as promoters.
A report published by the EU Internet Referral Unit revealed that non-violent content can be just as persuasive as violent content, but is often more resilient to removal because it lacks a graphic or gore element that clearly violates a site’s terms and conditions. As non-violent content is often allowed to remain online, it can be mistakenly considered to be true. Non-violent radical right content poses a significant challenge as it often uses subtle coded forms of racism, anti-feminism, and male supremacism, all whilst using sophisticated rhetorical strategies including metaphors, irony and sarcasm.
Women as Promoters
The other prominent strategy is the online presence of women because women have the ability to soften the image of extremist ideologies. This is not new and has been seen across terrorist and extremist groups previously (for example, regarding women in the so-called Islamic State). According to Campion’s framework, women can act as ‘promoters’. Promoters can “repackage and propagate radical right theories and beliefs on social platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and Twitter”. This can lead to the creation of online content that seems apolitical. Previous research has found that women in the radical right post content covering themes like beauty and dating (see Badalich, Sitler-Elbel). Such content is able to play on the above strategy of subtly drawing in users and exposing them to conservative views that slowly escalate to extremist ideologies over time.
There are many ongoing challenges for platforms when it comes to the subtle or ‘borderline’ content posted by women in the radical right. It lacks a violent nature and is deeply embedded in unexpected topics, such as beauty tips. It can also evade the expected aesthetic of propaganda by adopting what others have termed a ‘pastel’ aesthetic’ , which is also present in our dataset. Adding to this complexity is the type of content found in the Whisper #tradwife dataset which contained anti-feminist and male supremacist rhetoric but also came from users who are not typically associated with #trad culture and #tradwives, which we plan to delve into deeper upon completion of our analysis.
In order to be able to advise on content moderation policies, more work is required to gain a deeper understanding of understudied and women-dominated platforms . The language used in memes is esoteric; only those already imbued in the culture will be able to understand what exactly is meant by the phrases. This goes for both the radical right tradwife content and the LGBT+ tradwife content. The caption from one meme “I want a based femboy tradwife authright gf” is meaningless to those who do not already know what “based”, “femboy” or “authright” mean.. This content requires a deep understanding of LGBT and right-wing meme culture before an intervention attempt can be adequately devised, both from scholars and from content moderation teams.
While Whisper in particular has always been proactive regarding content moderation, much of this content does not neatly fit into any of their three community guidelines (“Don’t be Mean, Don’t be Gross, and Don’t Use Whisper to Break the Law”). There is also a challenge in capturing content in a systematic format such as the hash-sharing database of GIFCT as a means of alerting tech companies to hateful content. It would be helpful to have greater transparency regarding whether anti-feminist and male supremacist content is included in such hash-sharing databases, or whether more work is required in this area.
Ninian Frenguelli is a PhD candidate at Swansea University studying gender in the online extreme right. His PhD maps extremist websites and the different attitudes towards gender and gendered issues that are expressed by extreme right groups.
Dr Amy-Louise Watkin is a lecturer in Criminal Justice at the University of the West of Scotland. Amy-Louise is also a member of the VOX-Pol leadership team, and her research interests include visual propaganda, content moderation, and social media regulation.