Roughly four-in-10 Americans (41%) have personally experienced some form of online harassment, with half of this group citing politics as a reason they think they were targeted,
This is according to a recent Pew Research Center survey which adds that while the overall prevalence of online harassment is the same as it was in 2017, the abuse of those targeted has intensified since then.
The new report, based on a survey of 10 093 US adults using the Center’s American Trends Panel, examines six key types of negative behaviours that people may face online. It finds that 25% of Americans report experiencing at least one of the more severe forms of online harassment asked about, which include physical threats, stalking, sexual harassment and sustained harassment – up from 18% in 2017 and 15% in 2014. Additionally, when thinking of their most recent experience of online abuse, online harassment targets are more likely today than in 2017 to report that their most recent experience involved more varied types and more severe forms of online abuse.
In a political environment where Americans are stressed and frustrated and antipathy has grown, 20% of Americans overall – representing half of those who have been harassed online – say they think they have experienced online harassment because of their political views. This is a notable increase from three years ago, when 14% of all Americans said they had been targeted for this reason. Beyond politics, more also cite their gender or their racial and ethnic background as reasons why they believe they were harassed online.
While these kinds of negative encounters may occur anywhere online, social media is by far the most common venue cited for harassment when victims were asked about the most recent episode of abuse. This continues a pattern found in the previous Center survey. This latest survey finds that 75% of targets of online abuse – equalling 31% of Americans overall – say their most recent experience was on social media.
As online harassment permeates social media, the public is highly critical of the way these companies are tackling the issue, but at the same time is hesitant to back the idea of holding these platforms legally responsible for harassment that occurs on their sites. Fully 79% of Americans say social media companies are doing only a fair or poor job at addressing online harassment or bullying on their platforms. Still, just 33% say that people who have experienced harassment or bullying on social media sites should be able to sue the platforms on which it occurred.
Other key findings from the survey include:

• Online harassment is a common feature of online life for younger adults, and they are especially likely to face harassing behaviours that are more serious. Roughly two-thirds of adults under 30 (64%) have experienced any form of the online behaviours measured in this survey – making this the only age group in which a majority has been subjected to these behaviours.

• Gender plays a role in the types of harassment people are likely to encounter online. Men are somewhat more likely than women to say they have experienced any of the six forms of harassment online covered in the survey (43% versus 38%), but there are differences across individual types of negative incidents they have personally encountered online. Some 35% of men say they have been called an offensive name versus 26% of women, and being physically threatened online is more common for men than for women (16% versus 11%). Meanwhile, women are more likely than men to say they have been sexually harassed online (16% versus 5%), and the share of women who report being sexual harassed online has doubled since 2017. Young women are particularly likely to have experienced sexual harassment online, with 33% of women under 35 saying they have been sexually harassed online, compared with 11% of men in the same age range.

• There are several demographic differences regarding who has been harassed online for their gender or their race or ethnicity. Among adults who have been harassed online, roughly half of women (47%) say they think they have encountered harassment online because of their gender, whereas 18% of men who have been harassed online say the same. Similarly, about half or more Black (54%) or Hispanic (47%) online harassment targets say they were harassed due to their race or ethnicity, compared with 17% of White targets. Men and White adults who have been harassed online are particularly likely to say this harassment was a result of their political views.

• Online harassment is a subjective term, and some people do not consider their experiences to be “online harassment.” Some 43% of online harassment targets say they consider their most recent experience to be “online harassment,” while 36% say they do not. Another 21% feel unsure of whether they would consider what happened to them to be “online harassment.”

• Asked their views about the most effective policies to combat online harassment, 51% say permanently suspending users if they bully or harass others would be very effective and 48% say requiring users of these platforms to disclose their real identities would be very effective. Around four-in-10 say criminal charges for users who bully or harass (43%) or social media companies proactively deleting bullying or harassing posts (40%) would be very effective. Temporary bans are deemed the least effective solution respondents were asked. A third (32%) of Americans say users getting temporarily suspended if they bully or harass others would be a very effective measure against harassment.