By Susan C. Ingram
Perhaps the most striking and disturbing statistic the Anti-Defamation League gleaned from its recent national survey of about 1,000 internet users is that close to 40 percent of Americans have experienced “severe online harassment.”
Severe harassment includes sexual harassment, stalking, physical threats and sustained harassment.
The survey conducted Dec. 17-27 showed a spike from a similar survey conducted by the Pew Research Center only a year prior.
While that study found 41 percent of respondents had experienced any kind of harassment, compared to 53 percent in the 2018 ADL survey, only 18 percent characterized the online harassment as severe, while the 2018 ADL survey found 37 percent had experienced severe online harassment.
The “scale and complexity of online hate has reached unprecedented levels,” the ADL report said, citing coordinated online harassment of high-profile targets including Jewish journalists and black public figures.
While 11 percent of respondents said they were targeted because of religion, more Muslims at 35 percent than Jews at 16 percent said they were harassed because of their religion.
Most commonly reported was online harassment based on sexual orientation, with 63 percent of LGBTQ people having experienced harassment.
In addition to Muslims and Jews, the survey found 30 percent of Hispanics, 27 percent of African Americans, 24 percent of women and 20 percent of Asians experienced online harassment. At the bottom of the scale were men at 14 percent, Christians at 11 percent and whites at 9 percent.
In her 2014 book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, Danielle Keats Citron, law professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and affiliate scholar with the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, wrote about the impacts of cyber harassment and cyber stalking.
“Although definitions of these terms vary, cyber harassment is often understood to involve the intentional infliction of substantial emotional distress accomplished by online speech that is persistent enough to amount to a ‘course of conduct’ rather than an isolated incident,” Citron wrote. “Cyber stalking usually has a more narrow meaning: an online ‘course of conduct’ that either causes a person to fear for his or her safety or would cause a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety.”
Citron cited Elizabeth Cargill, a psychologist who works with cyber stalking victims, about how online harassment feels: “like the perpetrator is everywhere: Facebook, email, message boards and outside the office.”
“As a result, emotional harm and distress routinely accompany the financial costs. Post-traumatic stress disorder, anorexia nervosa and depression are common,” Citron wrote. “Cyber harassment victims struggle especially with anxiety, and some suffer panic attacks. Researchers have found that cyber harassment victims’ anxiety grows more severe over time.”
Citron noted that the incidents of people experiencing cyber stalking rises, perhaps not surprisingly, in correlation with the amount of time people are online, especially young people who spend a lot of time online.
The ADL survey found that 65 percent of 18-29 year olds had experienced online hate or harassment, with 49 percent reporting severe harassment.
The numbers dropped, but were significant for older age groups, with 60 percent of people aged 30-49 experiencing harassment and 42 percent reporting severe harassment. Of those above 50, 39 percent reported harassment with 25 percent reporting severe harassment.
By far, of the leading online or social media platforms on which people said some of their online harassment occurred, Facebook was the leader, with 56 percent of respondents reporting harassment on Facebook. Lesser percentages of harassment were reported on Twitter (19 percent), with YouTube and Instagram at 17 percent and 16 percent, respectively. At the bottom of the list were Snapchat (10 percent), Twitch (8 percent) and Discord (7 percent).
Meanwhile, some numbers were reversed for frequent, daily users of these platforms, with daily users of Twitch, Reddit and Facebook at 47 percent, 38 percent and 37 percent of respondents, respectively, reporting harassment.
That impact of harassment is reflected in the actions people took following online harassment, with 38 percent of respondents stopping or changing their online activity. Eighteen percent contacted the platform where they were harassed, while 15 percent “took steps to reduce risk to physical safety,” and 6 percent contacted police.
With 59 percent of respondents believing online hate and harassment makes hate crime more common, increases the use of derogatory language (50 percent), makes young Americans lose faith in their country (39 percent) and makes people feel less safe (22 percent), the question arises as to solutions.
The ADL survey found that most people, regardless of party affiliation, support more action in response to cyberhate, including strengthening laws against perpetrators and online platforms and giving police more training.
“Americans also want to see private technology companies take action to counter or mitigate online hate and harassment. They want platforms to make it easier for users to filter and report hateful and harassing content. In addition, Americans want companies to label comments and posts that appear to come from automated ‘bots’ rather than people,” the report said. “Finally, a large percentage of respondents were in favor of platforms removing problematic users as well as having outside experts independently assess the amount of hate on a platform.”
The report found support is strong for these types of action to be taken to mitigate online harassment, “across the political ideological spectrum. Although liberals especially support platform recommendations, with a majority of conservatives also supporting all recommendations.”
Susan C. Ingram is a reporter with the Baltimore Jewish Times, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.