2020 felt like a particularly contentious year. That is especially true online, particularly on social networks, where vitriol felt like it reached an all-time high. According to new research published by Pew Research Center, online harassment has grown more severe in recent years.
According to Pew, 41 percent of the more than 10,000 Americans surveyed reported having experienced online harassment in some form. That figure is actually identical to the findings of a similar survey conducted by Pew four years ago in 2017. But what is particularly troubling about the most recent version of the polling is the level of severity and persistence of the attacks. One in four Americans has now experienced some form of severe online harassment, including physical threats, sexual harassment, and stalking. Equally troubling is the fact that sustained harassment and multiple types of harassment have jumped significantly in the last few years.
A significant portion of the increase in sustained and severe forms of online harassment have been experienced by women. Pew found that 16 percent of women surveyed reported that they were sexually harassed online. That is double the amount reported in 2017, when eight percent reported experiencing such threats. Women were more than three times as likely as men to have reported experiencing sexual harassment online. The sexual attacks are particularly bad for younger women, as 33 percent of women under the age of 35 said they have been targeted in such a manner. Just 11 percent of young men reported having the same experience.
The level of vitriol is even worse for the LGBTQ+ community. Roughly seven in 10 LGBTQ+ identifying adults reported experiencing online harassment and more than half said they were on the receiving end of severe forms of online abuse.
Forms of severe harassment have been on the rise in an alarming way. Pew found that one in 10 Americans have been stalked online, up from seven percent in 2017. Physical threats have also jumped, with 14 percent of people being on the receiving end of these calls to violence in 2020, compared to 10 percent in 2017 and seven percent in 2014.
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Even lesser forms of harassment have become more common. Pew found that one in four Americans have been targeted with “purposeful embarrassment” online, and 31 percent have been victims of offensive name-calling.
As for the reasons for these increased instances of harassment, victims increasingly point to their political beliefs as the reason they have been targeted. Half of all those surveyed by Pew said that their political views were at least part of the reason they were harassed, up from 35 percent in 2017. One in three Americans experiencing online harassment said it was because of their gender identity, while 29 percent said it was because of their race or ethnicity. Nearly 20 percent reported being attacked because of their religion, and 16 percent said the abuse was directed at them because of their sexual orientation.
These experiences have made many Americans more aware of the type of harmful rhetoric that appears online. As a result, most Americans believe online harassment is a problem, with 55 percent of those surveyed calling it a major problem and 37 percent identifying it as a minor problem, compared to just seven percent who do not view it as an issue at all.
Most Americans believe that social media, where much of the harassment takes place, are not doing enough to address this issue. Just 18 percent of people surveyed believe social media companies do a good or excellent job addressing harassment, while 32 percent said those companies are doing a poor job dealing with the abusive content.