Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson bore the brunt of abuse on the Twitter, according to analysis by academics at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University.
The team used software developed at the university’s Ideas (Innovation, Design and Sustainability) institute to monitor social media trends during the live debate on STV.
They found the largely positive online response to the broadcast was marred by a small minority of Twitter “trolls” targeting the women panellists.
Professor Sarah Pedersen, who helped analyse the findings, said: “There is a wealth of research suggesting that female politicians’ bodies, looks and clothes are more likely to be discussed rather than their policies, and that disagreement with them frequently leads to aggressively sexualised threats, which is exactly what we saw played out last night.
“Both are accused of looking like men and both were threatened with violent sexual assault.”
Ms Pedersen said the findings of the study chimed with other social media attacks on women in the public eye, including MP Stella Creasy and campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, who were subjected to menacing tweets after supporting a campaign to get author Jane Austen’s image on banknotes.
It also contrasted with the language used on the social media site during the first two referendum debates between First Minister Alex Salmond and Better Together leader Alistair Darling, she said.
Ms Pedersen added: “While there were still criticisms of their clothes, physical characteristics or voices, there was little evidence of the violent and sexual imagery used when talking about the women in last night’s debate.”