Online harassment isn’t necessarily reported on in a standardized or straightforward way. Online abuse and its causes or impacts take on many forms. To get a full picture of what’s happening, we need to look at everything from ultra-specific reports about online harassment to related stories on disinformation. Here are a few reports and resources we followed in the last twelve months—and the news stories we’re finding relevant as we think about solutions and opportunities to tackle online harassment this year.
Safety, Trust, and America’s News Media
In 2018, Reporters Without Borders added the United States to its annual list of most dangerous countries for journalists. This is the U.S.’ first appearance on the list since RSF started publishing it in 1995. The result comes in part because of a cold blood shooting at the Capital Gazette in June 2018. Five people were killed. The shooter had been harassing the paper for six years through Twitter.
Public trust in the news media has eroded in the last decade. A Knight Foundation/Gallup study released in 2018 concluded that “Americans believe the news media play a critical role in U.S. democracy but think they are doing a poor job of fulfilling that role.” The Trump Administration has not only reinforced this skepticism, but has fully endorsed it in every form, from Tweets to press pass revocation.
At ONA18, dana boyd summed up this critical reckoning as: “We're struggling in a moment where both tech companies and news organizations are trying to figure out their role in the distribution and promotion of different kinds of speech.” In turn, this challenge extends the endless national discourse about the First Amendment. That was also in the news this year, when a federal judge in Montana ruled neo-Nazis have no First Amendment right to harassment.
Online Harassment Captures the Public’s Attention
After Pew published its 2017 online harassment study, it was more apparent than ever that online harassment is widely experienced and recognized by the American public. But the hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh this year demonstrated how quickly and easily one can become a target, especially when thrown into the public spotlight. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford experienced severe forms of online harassment, including hacking, impersonation, and even death threats, almost immediately after her name became public.
And, unfortunately, there were plenty of other stories to demonstrate to the American public that online harassment can affect anyone, whether you’re Ariana Grande’s ex-boyfriend, a fiction writer, a lawmaker, or a business development manager. Some of these cases end tragically. What may be perceived initially as “just” harassment can have devastating consequences.
A Constant Flux in Tackling Online Harassment
As online harassment becomes more widely recognized as a serious threat to a spectrum of private citizens, professionals, and even institutions, new tools and resources crop up to address it. At the same time, other resources have had to reconsider how to approach such a large and complex problem, leaving people without reliable access to support, tools, and advice when faced with online harassment.
The flux demonstrates how overwhelming the scope and complexity of online harassment can be. While academic research, nonprofits, and advocacy organizations chip away at the problem to varying degrees, some are turning to technology for help.
Google’s Jigsaw project wants to “enable empathy at scale” by using machine learning to make moderation more efficient and effective. But a New York Times article published in 2017 announcing its implementation of the tech is still being met with a chilly reception to this day. Despite increasing the number of New York Times articles open for comments, some readers still feel silenced. Even as the “public square” expands, can technology solutions really deliver more inclusive, safer experiences online?
New York Times commenter, September 28, 2018
According to Yasmin Green, the director for research and development at Jigsaw, we should be “building solutions that are as human as the problems they aim to solve.” How can we provide more human solutions to online harassment at scale?
But Not Enough Overall Progress
Even as research expands, progress is slow. A set of concrete solutions or tactics to reduce the amount of online harassment remains absent.
Specifically, online harassment continues to be more acute for women (and, of course, affects underrepresented groups even more disproportionately).
For example, in media, female journalists suffer more severe forms of online harassment because of the topics they cover or for simply being a female reporter. While the impacts are emotionally devastating, online harassment can also convince reporters to self censor, reconsider the topics they cover, and affect their professional lives. A chilling report published by the International Women’s Media Foundation and Trollbusters in 2018 showed that the problem is growing. Women journalists suffered more intense online attacks and harassment in the last five years.
Image from IWMF & Trollbusters: Attacks and Harassment The Impact on Female Journalists and Their Reporting, 2018
This isn’t an isolated finding. A separate study by Amnesty International also reports online violence against women on social media networks, particularly Twitter, is intense. The report notes that the “company’s failure to meet its responsibilities regarding violence and abuse means that many women are no longer able to express themselves freely on the platform without fear of violence or abuse.” However, it remains an important platform for marginalized groups to claim space and speak up.
As Teen Vogue writer Laura Duca told Mashable in 2018, “Social media is an integral part of the public square, and we need to fight for including women's voices in the conversation.”
The sentiment is supported by other writers, activists, and private individuals in the Amnesty Report. “I think Twitter has become the new public square. I’ve found Twitter to be a really good platform for people who normally don’t have as much of a say in the political process,” U.S. journalist Imani Grady told Amnesty.
Despite the positivity, it's difficult to ignore the challenges that women using Twitter face. Jacklyn Friedman, an American writer and activist rightly notes in the Amnesty Report video, “If people said to me the things to they say to me on Twitter in a public square, that would be harassment, right?”
Described with such clarity, it's fascinating that what constitutes online harassment remains difficult to verbalize and that rules against such behavior remain difficult to enforce. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter have tried to reverse or update policies that allowed misinformation and disinformation to spread on their platforms, as well as those that enabled persistent online abuse. Not much has changed, though. Whether fallout from public scandals and letdowns motivates each company to seek more effective solutions remains to be seen.
The challenges persist in part because large gaps exist in cooperation between experts, platforms, and other stakeholders. As cybersecurity firm research director Renée DiResta penned in a New York Times op-ed, “Ultimately, the biggest lesson from the Senate committee’s request for our investigation of Russian interference is the troubling absence of adequate structures for collaboration among multiple stakeholders, private and public alike, to establish solutions and appropriate oversight.”
A collective effort across industries and sectors is needed to fully address online harassment and its ripple effects.
New Business Models Could Help
Zeynep Tufekzi wrote in Wired that the “few companies that control our digital public sphere—Facebook, Google, and Twitter—are all driven by the same fundamental business model, and it has only grown more pernicious over time.” Tufekzi proposes one solution to the damaging cycle is to simply pay for the services the platforms offer. Platforms are resistant to subscription models.
In a similar vein that describes that the problems posed by platforms—like online abuse, misinformation, and disinformation—activist investor Robert McNamee recently penned in Time, “[Facebook] respond[s] to nearly every problem with the same approach that created the problem in the first place: more AI, more code, more short-term fixes. They do not do this because they are bad people. They do this because success has warped their perception of reality. They cannot imagine that the recent problems could be in any way linked to their designs or business decisions.”
Back on the Amnesty Report video, Friedman emphasizes, “If Silicon Valley can invent a self-driving car, they can figure out how to address the abuse on their platforms. They just have to care about it enough.”
Editor's Note: At time of posting, the Anti-Defamation League published the results of a survey they conducted that shows one in three Americans have experienced severe online harassment, including sexual harassment, stalking, physical threats, and sustained harassment. This further demonstrates the urgency with which online harassment needs to be addressed.
Additional Resources for You: Browse our resources for online harassment, including Action Plans to help you respond to online harassment or an Account Safety Cheat Sheet to help you proactively secure your digital presence.