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Study: Americans think we overreact to online harassment — but also that it’s a “major problem”

A new Pew study reveals men and women experience online harassment differently and have trouble defining it.

Typing Can Be Hazardous Photo by Michael Smith/Newsmakers
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

According to a new Pew Research survey, 41 percent of American adults have personally experienced online harassment, while 66 percent claim to have seen it happening to someone else — and more and more, people expect social media companies and other internet businesses, as well as law enforcement, to step in and take action to prevent or stop online harassment from happening.

These findings — released Tuesday — are the result of a broad study of online harassment that asked 4,248 respondents to answer multiple choice as well as open-answer questions about their experiences with online harassment. The survey was very similar to a previous survey that Pew conducted in 2014, and showed no significant increases in rates of online harassment.

The results of the survey reflect a number of commonly accepted observations about the nature of online harassment — for example, that it can cause stress and that more severe harassment disproportionately affects younger internet users, women, and people of color.

But perhaps most interesting is the contradictory nature of several of the survey’s key findings.

Seventy-nine percent of respondents expressed the belief that internet companies should be doing more to combat online harassment, while 85 percent of respondents felt law enforcement should also play some sort of role.

Yet, while the survey found that a majority of respondents were in favor of better and more strictly enforced anti-harassment policies, as well as legislation, it also revealed how confusing and nebulous the subject of online harassment can be. Not only was there a clear gender divide among respondents in terms of how they defined harassment, how seriously it should be taken, and how to respond to it, but 56 percent of respondents said that most people take online harassment too seriously — including some who said they’d experienced online harassment themselves.

Overall, the survey paints a stark picture of just how complex the issue of online harassment is, and how difficult it can be for individuals — let alone social media companies — to deal with.

Many people have experienced or witnessed online harassment — but few seem to agree on what online harassment actually is

Pew found that 62 percent of its survey respondents believe that online harassment is a “major problem.” But it also found that respondents disagree on what constitutes online harassment, and how victims of harassment should respond to it.

The survey asked respondents to sort the online harassment they’ve experienced into “less severe” and “more severe” categories, covering behaviors such as “offensive name-calling” and “purposeful embarrassment” as well as physical threats and stalking. But these classifications were complicated by how respondents characterized their experiences.

Pew Research Center

Pew concluded that respondents who had experienced only milder forms of harassment were more likely to say they’d been harassed, with 32 percent of these respondents actually classifying their most recent experience with “offensive name-calling” or “purposeful embarrassment” as harassment. But 28 percent of respondents who had experienced more severe forms of harassment “did not think of their own experiences as constituting ‘online harassment.’”

It’s worth noting that more men (30 percent) reported experiencing the mildest form of harassment (name-calling) compared to 23 percent of women, and that twice as many women reported experiencing sexual harassment (categorized as a more severe form of harassment) than men — 8 percent compared to 4 percent. Given these factors, it seems rational to speculate that women may be less likely than men to register and report certain experiences as harassment.

Pew’s survey also revealed some confusion among respondents regarding the terms that are generally used to define various kinds of online harassment. Respondents overwhelmingly knew what “hacking” (95 percent) and “trolling” (86 percent) were, but were less certain about “doxing” (73 percent) and “swatting” (55 percent). The latter two terms describe two severe forms of internet-based harassment that also have an offline/“real life” component.

This might not seem like a significant detail, but it’s a telling one in a survey where 56 percent of respondents said that most people take online harassment too seriously. If certain aspects of online harassment are not commonly understood, it can be difficult to convince people how serious they can be.

Race and gender continue to influence how people experience and react to online harassment, while politics is the biggest cause of harassment

The single largest cause of online harassment, according to survey respondents, was politics. Pew concluded that neither Republicans nor Democrats were more likely to receive harassment over the other. Fourteen percent of the survey’s 4,248 respondents said they’d specifically been harassed over their politics, followed by 9 percent over their physical appearance.

Eight percent of respondents said they’d been specifically harassed over their race or ethnicity. Of those respondents in particular, 25 percent were black, 10 percent were Hispanic, and 3 percent were white.

A gender divide was also apparent. More men than women reported receiving physical threats, as well as milder forms of harassment like name-calling. And Pew concluded that men were overall more likely to report experiencing all forms of harassment.

But while 44 percent of male respondents said they’d experienced harassment, compared to 37 percent of female respondents, Pew found that women were far more likely to have experienced sexualized harassment: 21 percent of female respondents ages 18 to 29 reported being sexually harassed online, compared to just 9 percent of male respondents in the same age group. And 53 percent of women ages 18 to 29 reported being sent explicit images they had not asked for, compared to 37 percent of men. Finally, 35 percent of women who had experienced online harassment of any type described their experiences as “extremely” or “very” upsetting, compared to only 16 percent of men.

Women were also more likely than men to express concern regarding online harassment, with 70 percent of women identifying it as a “major problem,” compared to 54 percent of men. Women also more strongly favored laws, policies, and tools against online harassment, and were more concerned with creating safe spaces online, while men were more concerned with preserving free speech.

Many believe that social media companies and other online services should bear the most responsibility for dealing with online harassment

An overwhelming majority of the survey’s respondents — 79 percent — told Pew researchers that online services, including social media companies like Facebook and Twitter, have a responsibility to address harassment that occurs on their platforms and websites.

Meanwhile, nearly half of respondents — 49 percent — felt that law enforcement should “have a major role in addressing harassment.”

The report’s author, Maeve Duggan, told Vox that legislators and law enforcement should interpret Pew’s research as confirmation that they need to do more to combat online harassment.

“While a notable proportion of Americans thinks law enforcement does not take incidents of online harassment seriously enough, they still look to law enforcement for solutions,” Duggan said. “Almost half of US adults think law enforcement should play a major role in addressing online harassment, and many think the framework in which law enforcement operates should be updated — almost a third think stronger laws governing online harassment is the most effective solution.”

But while the Pew survey indicates that people want to see systemic change around the issue of online harassment, it also reveals disagreement over whose job it should be to keep us safe online. Confusion and uncertainty about what actually constitutes online harassment, as well the wide range of harassment experienced by individuals of different genders, races, and ethnic backgrounds, combine to form a messy prospect for any social media company or law enforcement agency looking to address the issue.