One-Half of Online Harassment Victims Attributed Their Experiences to Political Differences

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Political differences are a driving force behind online harassment, as a new study from Pew Research Center found that 41% of U.S. adults have personally experienced some form of online harassment, and one-half of that group attributed that behavior to politics.

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The think tank surveyed 10,093 U.S. adults online from Sept. 8 through 13, 2020, and it found that while the overall prevalence of online harassment is the same as it was in a similar survey it conducted in 2017, abuse of those targeted has intensified since then.

Pew examined six key types of negative behavior and found that 25% of respondents reported experiencing at least one of the more severe forms of online harassment—physical threats, sexual harassment, stalking or sustained harassment—up from 18% in 2017 and 15% in 2014.

Victims today were more likely than in 2017 to report more varied types and more severe forms of online abuse.

Pew found that 20% of respondents, or one-half of those who indicated that they had experienced harassment online, believe it occurred due to their political views, up from 14% in 2017, with other factors cited including gender and racial or ethnic background.

Three-quarters of targets of online abuse, or 31% of respondents overall, said that abuse occurred on social media.

Other key findings included:

  • Younger adults were more likely to experience online harassment, with 64% of respondents under 30 indicating that they had.
  • Men were more likely than women to indicate that they had experienced online harassment, at 42% and 38% of respondents, respectively, but that ratio varied depending on the type of harassment. For example, 35% of men said they were called offensive names, compared with 26% of women, and 16% of men reported being physically threatened, versus 11% of women. But women were more likely to report being sexually harassed online (16%, compared with 5% of men).
  • The share of women being sexually harassed online has doubled since 2017, and younger women are more susceptible, with 33% of women under 35 saying that they were victims, versus 11% of men in that age group.
  • Nearly one-half of women (47%) believe they were harassed online due to their gender, compared with just 18% of men.
  • Black (54%) and Hispanic (47%) respondents were far more likely to cite their race or ethnicity as reasons for experiencing harassment than white respondents (17%).
  • Men and whites were particularly likely to attribute their online harassment experiences to their political views.
  • Pew said online harassment is a subjective term, nothing that 43% of targets considered their most recent experiences to be online harassment, while 36% did not and 21% were unsure.
  • When asked about the most effective ways to combat online harassment, 51% of respondents believe permanent suspensions would be effective, while 48% opted for requiring users of social platforms to disclose their real identities. Other responses included criminal charges (43%), social networks deleting posts (40%) and temporary bans (32%).

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