Thursday, June 5, 2014

Online Harassment Rises

Online harassment is on the rise, affecting 25 percent of all Americans, and especially women under the age of 35, according to a new national poll discussed today by a panel of women at the annual Personal Democracy Forum convening in New York. Across social media platforms, the harassment occurs most frequently on Facebook, and according to Allyson Kapin, who co-organized the poll, victims of online harassment aren't doing enough to fight back.

During a PDF panel this afternoon called Sex, Lies, and the Internet, Kapin said respondents indicated the harassment may be especially occurring against women, with 57 percent of women surveyed saying they've been a victim of online harassment versus 43 percent men. The harassment also spans the issues spectrum, Kapin said, occurring as hate speech and threats of physical violence against women, men, LGBT individuals, people of color, people of different faiths and political persuasions. According to the poll, many American adults who have been bullied, harassed or threatened online knew the person harassing them. Segmented for race, the largest percentage of adult victims are Asians (35 percent) and hispanics (32 percent), with blacks at 28 percent and whites at 23 percent.

"People working in the advocacy space are also being harassed, for example, and often just for expressing strong opinions," Kapin told PDFers, "or for talking about climate change and its consequences, or other issues. It can get scary, from demeaning speech to threats of rape or murder."

One panelist, journalist Amanda Hess, (left), talked about some of the harassment she has experienced in the past year, which included a ghost Twitter account that was set up last summer while she was vacationing in Palm Springs, just to harass her. Hess, who writes about gender issues for Slate, said the harassment began predictably enough. "At first, it was messaging that was, 'you suck at your job, you're an ugly fat pig and a stupid woman,'" she said, but then it escalated from name-calling to threats of physical violence. "It became 'I know where you live, I live in your state and I will rape you and cut off your head.' I saw it as a form of social violence that was meant to scare me from writing about what I write."

Kapin said she thinks the lack of face-to-face communication online makes it easier for some people to lash out and threaten others. "It's easier for some people to hide behind their screens," said Kapin, the founding partner of Rad Campaign and founder of Women Who Tech.

Hess said she reported her harassment to ISPs, law enforcement authorities and site administrators, and even to the FBI, but most people who are victims of online harassment—50 percent—simply ignore it, Kapin said. Only 20 percent of those polled said they respond to harassers online, 25 percent reported their harassment to site operators, and 12 percent told law enforcement authorities.

Still, for those who did report the harassment, there is some relief. According to the survey, 61 percent said their social network shut down the account of the offender, 44 percent said law enforcement at least tried to track down the offender, and 35 percent said the Internet service provider shut down the offender's email account.

"But this isn't enough," said Emily May, the founder of HollaBack!, a site created to protest street harassment. May, also a victim of online harassment, told PDFers: "I think it's not enough to report harassers and get accounts shut down. A rape threat is not a form of free speech. We don't need Band-Aids, we need a social movement where we, as a society, say this is not acceptable."

For more on the survey, click here.

PDF continues through Friday. Watch this space for updates.

-- Marcia Stepanek

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