SALT LAKE CITY — More than half of American adults, 53 percent, say they experienced hate speech and harassment online in 2018, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Anti-Defamation League, a nonprofit that fights anti-Semitism and other forms of hate.
The results seem to indicate an increasingly hateful internet landscape when compared to a Pew Research Center study that showed around 41 percent of Americans had experienced online harassment in 2017. Before that, Pew last conducted a survey on the subject in 2014. At that time, 35 percent of adults had experienced harassment.
But it's unclear whether people are becoming more sensitive to online harassment and getting better at identifying it, or if the internet trolls are just getting meaner. Adam Neufeld, vice president of innovation and strategy for the Anti-Defamation League, hasn't seen evidence either way.
"What we do know is that more people are experiencing online hate now. Whether that means more toxic people are sharing their toxic views online, or people are generally becoming more toxic is hard to say," said Neufeld.
To bring some serenity to the harsh digital world, Facebook and Instagram are using machine learning to detect harassment, Twitter has new tools to protect users from unwanted attacks, such as a “mute” button, and YouTube is cracking down on videos that promote misinformation and extremism.
But the Anti-Defamation League data suggests these tech companies haven't solved the problem yet. And the stakes are high.
“It’s deeply disturbing to see how prevalent online hate is, and how it affects so many Americans,” Anti-Defamation League chief executive Jonathan A. Greenblatt told TechCrunch. “Cyberhate ... can have grave effects on the quality of everyday lives — both online and offline."
Last year, when Taylor Dumpson became the first female African-American student body president at American University in Washington, D.C., she was subjected to racist backlash online, CNN reported. The harassment left her "fearing for her safety," according to a lawsuit settled in December.
Anonymity is a bit of a boogieman. – Libby Hemphill, associate professor of information at the University of Michigan
The Anti-Defamation League survey measured various forms of harassment including name-calling, purposeful embarrassment, physical threats, sexual harassment and stalking. It did not capture harassment between minors, often referred to as cyberbullying.
Libby Hemphill, associate professor of information at the University of Michigan, told NewScientist that online harassment can be difficult to define and not all forms are equal, but experts agree anonymity plays a crucial role.
The large majority of internet users say being able to post anonymously online enables people to be more cruel than they would be otherwise, according to data from the 2017 Pew Survey.
“Anonymity is a bit of a boogieman,” Hemphill told NewScientist.
Online hate and real-world violence
Not only can online harassment cause psychological harm, but recent events have shown that hate speech online can translate into physical violence, according to an online summary of the survey results. Examples include the man accused of killing 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue last year, who regularly posted anti-Semitic comments online, and the man who allegedly mailed explosive devices to critics of President Donald Trump after a pattern of tweeting aggressive comments at public figures.
A majority of survey respondents said online hate and harassment are linked to an increase in hate crimes, which rose 17 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to FBI data.
The most common reason people were targeted online was gender, with women reporting more harassment than men. The next most common reason was race or ethnicity, followed by sexual orientation, religion, occupation and finally disability.
"LGBTQ+ individuals, Muslims, Hispanics and African-Americans face especially high rates of identity-based discrimination," the survey summary reads.
Thirty-seven percent of individuals who took the survey reported severe attacks, including sexual harassment, physical threats and stalking. And 15 percent of those who were the targets of harassment took steps to reduce risk to their physical safety, such as moving locations, changing their commute, taking a self-defense class, avoiding being alone or avoiding certain locations.
The survey was based on a nationally representative survey of Americans conducted during December 2018, and administered by YouGov, a public opinion and data analytics firm.
How to deal with online harassment
While well-meaning people may encourage harassment victims to simply avoid using certain media platforms, Kathryn Stamoulis, educational psychologist and adjunct professor at Hunter College, told Vice that logging off is only a temporary solution.
"You shouldn’t have to disengage from getting information, promoting yourself, sharing your thoughts, socializing, and all the other benefits of the internet because you have the unfortunate luck of being targeted," Stamoulis told Vice. "If the harassment starts to impair your daily functioning (feeling distress, difficulty eating or sleeping), reach out to a mental-health professional for support."
We can’t depend on social media companies or the police to take care of us. – Emily May, co-founder and executive director of Heartmob
"Do not give your harasser or bully the satisfaction. All too often, responding or engaging starts a downward spiral that often makes matters worse and muddies the waters for the victim when they do finally seek assistance from the legal system," she said.
An overwhelming majority of survey participants said they want lawmakers and technology companies to take more aggressive steps to keep internet users safe, regardless of whether those individuals had personally experienced harassment. But Emily May, co-founder and executive director of Heartmob_,_ a platform that provides real-time support to individuals experiencing online harassment, told Vice that the solution to online harassment is a vigilant public.
"The responsibility to stop harassment lies with each one of us, and bystanders have a key role to play when we witness harassment that is often overlooked. We can't depend on social media companies or the police to take care of us," said May. "We have to depend on one another and work together to change the culture that makes online harassment acceptable."