August 04, 2017

Roughly four-in-ten Americans have personally experienced online harassment, and 62% consider it a major problem. Many want technology firms to do more, but they are divided on how to balance free speech and safety issues online

To borrow an expression from the technology industry, harassment is now a “feature” of life online for many Americans. In its milder forms, it creates a layer of negativity that people must sift through as they navigate their daily routines online. At its most severe, it can compromise users’ privacy, force them to choose when and where to participate online, or even pose a threat to their physical safety.

A new, nationally representative Pew Research Center survey of 4,248 U.S. adults finds that 41% of Americans have been personally subjected to harassing behavior online, and an even larger share (66%) has witnessed these behaviors directed at others. In some cases, these experiences are limited to behaviors that can be ignored or shrugged off as a nuisance of online life, such as offensive name-calling or efforts to embarrass someone. But nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) have been subjected to particularly severe forms of harassment online, such as physical threats, harassment over a sustained period, sexual harassment or stalking.

Social media platforms are an especially fertile ground for online harassment, but these behaviors occur in a wide range of online venues. Frequently these behaviors target a personal or physical characteristic: 14% of Americans say they have been harassed online specifically because of their politics, while roughly one-in-ten have been targeted due to their physical appearance (9%), race or ethnicity (8%) or gender (8%). And although most people believe harassment is often facilitated by the anonymity that the internet provides, these experiences can involve acquaintances, friends or even family members.

For those who experience online harassment directly, these encounters can have profound real-world consequences, 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. At the same time, some bystanders to online harassment take an active role in response: Three-in-ten Americans (30%) say they have intervened in some way after witnessing abusive behavior directed toward others online.

Yet even as harassment permeates many users’ online interactions, the public offers conflicting views on how best to address this issue. A majority of Americans (62%) view online harassment as a major problem, and nearly eight-in-ten Americans (79%) say online services have a duty to step in when harassment occurs on their platforms. On the other hand, they are highly divided on how to balance concerns over safety with the desire to encourage free and open speech – as well as whether offensive content online is taken too seriously or dismissed too easily.

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