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Online harassment on the rise – but no one can agree what it is

By Aylin Woodward

With great power comes great responsibility. Social media and online platforms let us have conversations across continents, but that discourse comes at a cost. In the US, 41 per cent of people have experienced online harassment, according to a survey published today by the Pew Research Center. This is a six per cent uptick since 2014, when Pew last conducted a similar survey.

The rise may not seem enormous, but given how long we’ve been searching for solutions, some people are surprised the numbers are still going up. “Despite the attention from companies, policymakers, researchers and the public, harassment levels have stayed pretty consistent,” says survey author Maeve Duggan at the Pew Research Center in Washington DC. What’s more surprising is that people still can’t agree on a definition.

That may be related to the finding that different groups experience online harassment in different ways. For example, men experience it slightly more often than women and are twice as likely to be targeted for their political views, but women are more likely to report abuse that targets them for their gender alone. One in five young women reported being sexually harassed. Black people reported far more incidents of being harassed online simply for being black, rather than in response to any particular view or comment.

This difference in experiences may explain why people are divided on solutions: 45 per cent of people in the US say it’s more important to let people speak freely online, while 53 per cent say it’s more important to feel safe. However, 56 per cent also feel that offensive content is taken too seriously, including 73 per cent of young men.

In the survey, Duggan tried to provide a consistent framework by breaking down harassment into six distinct behaviours that increase in severity. Offensive name-calling and purposeful embarrassment are considered “less severe”, while physical threats, harassment over a sustained period, sexual harassment and stalking fall into the more serious end of the spectrum. Almost one in five Americans report having experienced these four more severe behaviours. “Not all forms of harassment are equal,” says Libby Hemphill at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

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