TikTok algorithms and trends: social networks, a veritable sounding board for sexist discourse among young people

‘Sexism begins at home, continues at school and explodes online’: the words of Sylvie Pierre-Brossolette, Chair of the French High Council for Equality between Women and Men, have caused a stir in society, revealing the persistent and even growing extent of gender inequality and the omnipresence of this discourse in our daily lives. While sexism may seem archaic, it is in fact social networks that are acting as a sounding board, shaping the mentality of a rising generation.

Published at the end of January, the 2023 report on the state of sexism in France by the Haut Conseil à l’Égalité (HCE) between women and men is unequivocal: sexism is not declining in France. On the contrary, it persists and its most violent manifestations are getting worse.

While 82% of women already feel they have been treated less well because of their sex, and 9 out of 10 have already changed their behaviour to avoid sexism, the injunctions persist within the family circle. As far as men are concerned, masculinist reflexes are still just as prevalent: 70% of men believe that a man should be able to look after his family financially (63% of women think so too) and more than half of the population find it normal or positive for a woman to cook for the whole family every day. Certain injunctions are also popular with women, with 58% of them believing that a woman should put her family before her career. Sexism is still very much with us, but the situation is even more alarming among young people: a quarter of 25-34 year-olds feel that they sometimes have to be violent to be respected, while 34% think it’s normal for women to stop working to look after the children. 28% believe that ‘men are better suited to being bosses’ (a much higher percentage than for men in other age categories, compared with 10% on average). Finally, more than one in five men aged 25-34 consider it normal to be paid more than a female colleague for the same job.

While sexism is still rife at school, in the family and at work, the digital world is no exception. According to the report, some online content plays a full part in the ‘sexist culture’ and is a ‘sounding board’ for gendered representations. According to the HCE, of the 100 most viewed pieces of content on the platforms (YouTube, Instagram and TikTok), 68% of Instagram publications contain gender stereotypes, most often associating women with maternal roles and staged in the private sphere. On YouTube, 88% of the videos analysed included at least one male stereotype, most of which were associated with masculine values and a climate of violence. On TikTok, 42.5% of videos, under the guise of humour, were dominated by degrading and humiliating representations of women. Men are not spared from stereotyping either, with sometimes exaggerated representations of virility.

With an average daily screen time of 4 hours 47 minutes for 14 year olds and 5 hours 23 minutes for 17 year olds (figures from the 2022 digital barometer), the HCE is concerned about the mass distribution of this online content, allowing ‘sexist culture’ to become commonplace and deeply entrenched in society.

‘Let’s make sexism history! Last week, the HCE launched a shock campaign. The organisation shared its campaign clip, showing archive footage from the INA from the 1970s, in which men make speeches trivialising rape or domestic violence, and extracts from TikTok videos repeating the same speeches. Conclusion: it seems that sexist and violent discourse towards women still has a bright future ahead of it.

(Extract from the ‘Let’s make sexism history’ campaign video launched by the High Council for Equality in January 2024)

Tradwife, Stay at home girlfriend : TikTok et le bal des tendances sexistes

Réel berceau des tendances réseaux sociaux, TikTok agit comme un véritable amplificateur des discours sexistes, où ces stéréotypes trouvent une large diffusion. La tendance « Tradwife » (femmes au foyer traditionnelles), promouvant le retour à un idéal conservateur dans le couple et très populaire aux Etats-Unis et au Royaume-Uni, rencontre un succès grandissant dans l’Hexagone – le #femmeaufoyer génère 44,4 millions de vues -, et inquiète les autorités. Robes colorées des années 50, brushing parfait, maison impeccable et petits plats faits-maison, ces influenceuses d’un nouveau genre prônent un idéal ultraconservateur de femmes d’intérieur entièrement dédiées à leur mari. S’il n’est pas ici question d’une critique du statut de femme aux foyers, la dimension ouvertement et positivement conservatrice (appuyée par un discours religieux) de ces contenus, vantant les mérites d’un mode de vie de femme mariée, soumise aux désirs et à la carrière de son mari, sans emploi, se tenant loin de tout autre homme, et entièrement dédiée à son foyer, pose question sur les 50 ans de luttes qui ont mené à l’émancipation des femmes.

Video of ‘Tradwife’ influencer @esteecwilliams on TikTok

Its little sister, the ‘Stay at home girlfriend’ trend (also known by the hashtag #SAHG), which illustrates the daily life of the homebody girlfriend who has no job and is emotionally and financially dependent, is also a resounding success on the Chinese platform. If these phenomena are a cause for concern, it’s because they are most often accompanied by sexist, anti-feminist messages and mark, in the mindset, a reassignment of women to the strictly domestic sphere. As well as defending traditional values, the ‘Tradwifes’ and ‘Stay at home girlfriends’ set themselves up as opponents of modern feminism, which advocates physical and financial independence.

Video from an influencer #stayathomegirlfriend ‘When you were a model on Onlyfans, but now you’re posting content about baking sourdough, living for God and speaking out against modern feminism’

Other sexist trends on the TikTok social network include ‘dark feminine energy’, a concept that aims to encourage women to ‘bring out the femme fatale’ in themselves and take power, while offering misogynistic advice such as: hide your emotions to avoid being ‘hysterical’, take care of your physical appearance and clothing, don’t be too accessible, etc. But women are far from being the only ones spreading sexist discourse.

But women are far from being the only ones involved in the spread of sexist discourse. Another trend, presented in the form of a ‘game’ by influencer Ugo Original, involves asking passers-by about their ‘body count’ (the number of sexual partners someone has had in their life). These videos are often met with sexist or even masculinist comments. This discourse is frequently taken up by masculinist and identitarian influencers, who use the ‘body count’ as an argument to illustrate the excesses of modern society, and the ‘Tradwife’ trend as a battle horse to defend a patriotic and identitarian ideology, like Thaïs d’Escufon, former spokesperson for the Génération Identitaire movement.

But these speeches are not without consequences. Recently, footballer Adel Sidi Yakoub was expelled from his club, ES Pays d’Uzès, after posting a video in which he listed the obligations his wife would have to follow, echoing a trend on the TikTok social network ‘My wife/my husband will not have the right…’. With an undeniable impact on hundreds of thousands of young men or teenagers, whose values are also – and perhaps above all – built on the content created by their idols.

Responsibility of algorithms: hide this sexism that I can’t see

Why is this rhetoric proliferating on social networks? Quite simply because of the buzz created by these videos. Online, the more content is viewed, the more reactions it generates and the more prominence it will be given by the platforms. What’s more, the algorithms will highlight to users content that has a marked similarity to previously viewed content. A user who watches a video containing sexist comments will be offered more and more similar videos, reinforcing an algorithmic bubble that helps to normalise and amplify these comments. For the user, this algorithmic bubble reinforces the feeling that these opinions represent the general thinking.

While sexist discourse may give the impression of belonging to a bygone era, it is indeed social networks that serve as a sounding board for it today, thanks to the various trends and the proliferation of extreme discourse generating ‘buzz’ in the digital space.

Tackling the roots of sexism to reverse the trend

For the HCE, the observation is clear: sexism must be attacked at its roots, combating it where it originates. If seemingly neutral computer code amplifies discriminatory discourse, it is also because its operating logic is the result of human choices likely to introduce errors and biases. The digital sector is still largely dominated by men and is therefore characterised by a strong sexist culture. The discourse represented in the digital space reflects the ills found in our society.

The Haut Conseil à l’Égalité also points to the responsibility of platforms and recommends regulating the digital space to force them to self-assess the degree of stereotyping and sexism in their most viewed content, under the supervision of Arcom (the Autorité de régulation de la communication audiovisuelle et numérique). When approached by the organisation, representatives of Meta and Google said they were in favour of introducing this self-assessment.

To remedy these shortcomings, the HCE makes three main recommendations: to educate through an equality education programme, to regulate the presence and image of women in the digital sector, and to punish by making the offence of sexism a genuine legal tool for condemning sexism.

Finally, this report is in line with recent findings on the rise of online violence (harassment, incitement to hatred, death threats, apology for terrorism) and represents a considerable challenge for platforms to regulate algorithms and offer users a safe space for expression and exchange.