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Survey: Online Harassment In 2017

What is online life like for many United States residents? A recent survey by the Pew Research Center provides a good view. 41 percent of adults surveyed have personally experienced online harassment. Even more, 66 percent, witnessed online harassment directed at others.

Types of behaviors. Online Harassment 2017 survey. Pew Research. Click to view larger version The types of online harassment behaviors vary from the less severe (e.g., offensive name calling, efforts to embarrass someone) to the more severe (e.g., physical threats, harassment over a sustained period, sexual harassment, stalking.) 18 percent of survey participants -- nearly one out of every fiver persons -- reported that they had experienced severe behaviors.

Americans reported that social networking sites are the most common locations for online harassment experiences. Of the 41 percent of survey participants who personally experienced online harassment, most of those (82 percent) cited a single site and 58 percent cited "social media."

The reasons vary. 14 percent of survey respondents reported they had been harassed online specifically because of their politics; 9 percent reported that they were targeted due to their physical appearance; e percent said they were targeted due to their race or ethnicity; and 8 percent said they were targeted due to their gender. 5 percent said they were targeted due their religion, and 3 percent said they were targeted due to their sexual orientation.

Some groups experience online harassment more than others. Pew found that younger adults, under age 30, are more likely to experience severe forms of online harassment. Similarly, younger adults are also more likely to witness online harassment targeting others. Pew also found:

"... one-in-four blacks say they have been targeted with harassment online because of their race or ethnicity, as have one-in-ten Hispanics. The share among whites is lower (3%). Similarly, women are about twice as likely as men to say they have been targeted as a result of their gender (11% vs. 5%). Men, however, are around twice as likely as women to say they have experienced harassment online as a result of their political views (19% vs. 10%). Similar shares of Democrats and Republicans say they have been harassed online..."

The impacts upon victims vary, too:

"... ranging from mental or emotional stress to reputational damage or even fear for one’s personal safety. At the same time, harassment does not have to be experienced directly to leave an impact. Around one-quarter of Americans (27%) say they have decided not to post something online after witnessing the harassment of others, while more than one-in-ten (13%) say they have stopped using an online service after witnessing other users engage in harassing behaviors..."

Different attitudes by gender. Online Harassment 2017 survey. Pew Research. Click to view larger version And, attitudes vary by gender. See the table on the right. More women than men consider online harassment a "major problem," and men prioritize free speech over online safety while women prioritize safety first. And, 83 percent of young women (e.g., ages 18 - 29) viewed online harassment as a major problem. Perhaps most importantly, persons who have "faced severe forms of online harassment differ in experiences, reactions, and attitudes."

Pew Research also found that persons who experience severe forms of online harassment, "are more likely to be targeted for personal characteristics and to face offline consequences." So, what happens online doesn't necessarily stay online.

The perpetrators vary, too. Of the 41 percent of survey participants who personally experienced online harassment, 34 percent said the perpetrator was a stranger, and 31 percent said they didn't know the perpetrator's real identity. Also, 26 percent said the perpetrator was an acquaintance, followed by friend (18 percent), family member, (11 percent), former romantic partner (7 percent), and coworker (5 percent).

Pew Research found that the number of Americans who experienced online harassment has increased slightly from 35 percent during a 2014 survey. Pew Research Center surveyed 4,248 U.S. adults during January 9 - 23, 2017. 

Next Steps
62 percent of survey participants view online harassment as a major problem. 5 percent do not consider it a problem at all. People who have experienced severe forms of online harassment said that they have already taken action. Those actions include a mix: a) set up or adjust privacy settings for their profiles in online services, b) reported offensive content to the online service, c) responded directly to the harasser, d) offered support to others targeted, e) changed information in their online profiles, and f) stopped using specific online services.

Views vary about which entities bear responsibility for solutions. 79 percent of survey respondents said that online services have a duty to intervene when harassment occurs on their service. 35 percent believe that better policies and tools from online services are the best way to address online harassment.

Meanwhile, 60 said that bystanders who witness online harassment "should play a major role in addressing this issue," and 15 percent view peer pressure as an effective solution. 49 said law enforcement should play a major role in addressing online harassment, while 31 said stronger laws are needed. Perhaps most troubling:

"... a sizable proportion of Americans (43%) say that law enforcement currently does not take online harassment incidents seriously enough."

Among persons who have experienced severe forms of online harassment, 55 percent said that law enforcement does not take the incidents seriously enough. Compare that statistic with this: nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of young men (ages 18 - 29) feel that offensive online content is taken too seriously.

And Americans are highly divided about how to balance safety concerns versus free:

"When asked how they would prioritize these competing interests, 45% of Americans say it is more important to let people speak their minds freely online; a slightly larger share (53%) feels that it is more important for people to feel welcome and safe online.

Americans are also relatively divided on just how seriously offensive content online should be treated. Some 43% of Americans say that offensive speech online is too often excused as not being a big deal, but a larger share (56%) feel that many people take offensive content online too seriously."

With such divergent views, one wonders if the problem of online harassment can be easily solved. What are your opinions about online harassment?

Comments

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Chanson de Roland

The law, whether criminal or civil, provides a very limited range of relief for what someone says about or to another person. The criminal law does not permit threats of violence, extortion, and other instances of speech were the speech itself is or threatens a criminal act. The civil law provides relief for personal and commercial defamation, what are known as dignity torts (e.g., invasion of privacy, false light), and there is protection of intellectual property. The law will also proscribe conduct that threatens public safety and peace.

But all of those laws are very specific protections of some legally protected interests in safety, property, privacy, or reputation. They are specific and limited so as not to abridge freedom of speech, that is, the right to express one’s self, unless there is some violation of those laws, permits even speech that someone might find offensive or that someone’s bigotry might want to suppress, which is to say that harassment and offense, beyond the foregoing legal protections, is often just a matter of personal prejudice. So it is unlikely that legislatures will go further than instant laws in prohibiting or restraining speech, and if they did, such laws might not survive judicial scrutiny as an impermissible restriction on the First Amendment right of free speech.

So most of the remedy and relief for verbal misconduct are social rather than legal. But certain features of social media, as opposed to in-person society, can make social sanctions ineffective. The anonymity of social media does much to make social sanctions ineffective, as do the extraordinary legal protections that the law affords to social media sites that relieve them of responsibility for what people write or do on their websites. Also, on social media, unlike in-person society, people don’t share an emotional connection and face the emotional reaction of others to their speech.

So with social sanctions of diminished effect and with law restrained inside the bounds of free speech and with social media websites having little legal responsibility for what people say and do on their websites, the last remedy is the owners of social media websites policing their websites against misconduct. But then the question becomes just what is misconduct as opposed to the censor’s bigotry or prejudice. These aren’t easy questions, and attempting to cure the evil of misconduct on social media can easily give rise to other evils of bigoted censorship or bigotry against unpopular views.

My solution is less social media and more in-person society or at least phone calls or emails.

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