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Most Americans see online threats as harassment

They’re less sure whether platforms should get involved.

#MeToo Rally Held Outside Of Trump Tower In Manhattan Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

A majority of Americans know online harassment when they see it, according to a newly released Pew Research Survey — but they’re much more divided on whether social media platforms should do anything about the behavior.

Pew presented 4,151 respondents with three scenarios asking whether they perceived certain messages and actions against the three made-up social media users to be harassment. The survey, notably, was conducted in March 2017, before the #MeToo movement gained momentum this fall.

The first hypothetical involves a man whose private message about politics is shared publicly on a social media account, leading to others sending him threatening messages and eventually sharing his private information. Eighty-nine percent of respondents considered that online harassment.

The second scenario involved a woman who receives some hurtful messages for posting about a political issue on her own social media account. Eventually a blogger shares her original post, which leads to sexually explicit messages, criticism of her looks, and threats. Eighty-nine percent also said this constituted online harassment.

The final scenario follows a similar outline, but the user instead receives racially charged messages and threats. Here’s that one, in full:

“John posts on his social media account, defending one side of a controversial political issue. A few people reply to him, with some supporting and some opposing him. As more people see his post, John receives unkind messages. Eventually his post is shared by a popular blogger with thousands of followers, and John receives vulgar messages that make racial insults and use a common racial slur. He also notices people posting pictures of him that have been edited to include racially insensitive images. Eventually, he receives threatening messages.”

Another overwhelming majority — 85 percent — said this scenario overall involves harassment. Slightly fewer — 82 percent — said John receiving messages with racial slurs met the threshold for harassment. But Pew also asked, when it came to those messages and threats, whether the social media platforms should intervene:

So while 82 percent believe racist messages constitute harassment, just 57 percent said the platform should respond. That number jumps substantially when it comes to actual threats. Sixty-seven percent of respondents said the social-media platform should intervene then.

The survey doesn’t give details on what type of social-media response they’re referring to — blocking a harasser, for example, or kicking him or her off the site. But the divide is striking.

The same split appeared in the scenario in which a woman, Julia, is bombarded with sexually explicit messages. A majority, 85 percent, said receiving inappropriate messages is a form of harassment, but just 66 percent said the platform should intervene. And as Pew notes, more respondents believed social media sites should get involved in Julia’s case involving sexually-charged comments (66 percent) than when John receives racial slurs (57 percent).

Social-media giants, particularly Twitter, have faced vehement criticism for failing to stop harassment, and to prevent racists and other users posting offensive content from operating unchecked in the past year.

In October, CEO Jack Dorsey said the platform would be more transparent about how it handled online abuse, following the suspension of actress Rose McGown’s account (which Twitter said was over her posting of a phone number). Critics saw the suspension as a perfect example of Twitter’s frustratingly inconsistent enforcement policies against harassment and other hate speech.

The outcry resulted in a boycott, and Twitter promised to step up its enforcement against harassers and those who violate its policies. That hasn’t quite remedied Twitter’s problems, as recent controversies over verifying white supremacists and Donald Trump’s own retweets of a British anti-Muslim hate group.

Twitter is not alone in dealing with, and facing criticism, over harassment. The survey demonstrates what a thorny issue it can be: Respondents don’t always agree on what constitutes harassment — and definitely don’t agree on how or when social media companies should respond to it.