Anti-Defamation League survey: 37% of Americans say they have experienced severe online harassment, including stalking and physical threats, in 2018 (Issie Lapowsky/Wired)

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Despite concerted efforts by tech giants to cut back on abhorrent behavior on their platforms, a new survey finds that severe forms of online hate and harassment, including stalking and physical threats, may be on the rise. According to the survey, released Wednesday by the Anti-Defamation League, more than one third of Americans reported experiencing some type of severe online hate or harassment in 2018. A similar Pew Research Center report found that 18 percent of Americans said they were targeted with severe online harassment in 2017. For young people, the numbers are even worse, with about half of 18- to 29-year-olds saying they experienced some kind of severe harassment online in 2018.

The survey, which was conducted in December by the public opinion research firm YouGov, paints a bleak picture of what millions of Americans go through when they log online. At a time when Facebook is touting the use of automation to detect harassment, Twitter has vowed to make conversation on the site “healthier,” and YouTube is cracking down on toxic videos, it suggests that these efforts are no match for an increasingly ugly and tribal digital landscape.

“Online harassment is not a tiny thing that happens to a small number of people, but is actually something that’s happening to a lot of people, and a lot of that harassment is motivated by someone’s group identity,” says Adam Neufeld, vice president of innovation and strategy at ADL. “It has real impacts.”

The researchers intentionally designed the survey as a follow-up to Pew’s 2017 report, which defined “severe harassment” as “physical threats, harassment over a sustained period, sexual harassment or stalking.” The goal was to see how people’s experience of harassment was changing with time and also to compare different tech platforms. The ADL found that in 2018, by far the biggest platform for this hateful behavior in terms of overall volume was Facebook, with 56 percent of respondents saying they experienced harassment there, compared to just 19 percent on Twitter, 17 percent on YouTube, and 16 percent on Instagram. Of course, there are also a lot more people on Facebook than any other platform.

When the researchers ran the numbers again, focusing only on daily users of each platform, they found that the gaming network Twitch topped the list, with 47 percent of its daily users reporting some type of harassment, followed by Reddit, Facebook, and the chat app Discord. Last year, Twitch updated its community guidelines so that any hateful behavior would result in an “immediate, indefinite suspension.” This applied to activity that took place off of Twitch as well, but some users have reported ineffective enforcement of these rules.

“The gaming community is increasingly realizing they need to address harassment and hate on their platforms,” Neufeld says.

The survey included 1,134 respondents, in total, including a nationally representative group of 800 people and additional subsamples of people who identify as Jewish, Muslim, African American, Asian American, or LGBTQ+. To calculate harassment experience nationwide, the researchers weighted each demographic to the national average. But they also looked separately at each subgroup to analyze how they experience this online hate.

Of all of the respondents across the country who reported experiencing extreme harassment and hate, 32 percent said it stemmed from their sexual orientation, religion, race or ethnicity, gender identity, or disability. Faced with this online assault, the survey found that about 38 percent of people change their own behavior, withdrawing from these platforms, either leaving them altogether or posting less. Another 18 percent said they asked the tech companies to intervene, while 6 percent said they went to the police.

The genesis of this online abuse may differ by person, but the respondents were fairly unified in their perspectives on what should be done about it. Roughly 80 percent of them said they supported laws protecting people from online abuse and wanted tech companies to do more to prevent it, including introducing keyword filters that would help weed out hateful content.

Today, Neufeld says even tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube that have owned up to the problem of harassment on their platforms are still taking what amount to “small, incremental steps” compared to the type of controls users are asking for.

“There are a lot of tools and options that are long past due, whether that’s labeling bots, which many people want, or the ability to filter out content, so the user can decide if they want it to be anything goes, or a place where they don’t get slurs directed at them,” Neufeld says. Some platforms have implemented individual controls. Twitter, for instance, allows users to mute certain words. But none, Neufeld says, have taken a comprehensive enough approach.

This is the second survey the ADL has released in recent months, suggesting an increase in hate on the internet. In October, the non-profit published a report noting that the midterm elections in the United States had stirred up a wave of anti-Semitic propaganda. The day after the report came out, a shooter killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Just before the attack, the killer posted a message on the alt-right social network Gab, accusing a Jewish nonprofit of allowing “invaders” to enter the United States. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered,” he wrote. “Screw your optics. I’m going in.”

Understandably, the public tends to pay the most attention to online hate when it boils over to offline tragedies, Neufeld says. But these new results show the sheer scope of damage being done online alone. “We notice the boils—Pittsburghs or Dylann Roof—but the simmer itself is really important,” he says. “It’s affecting millions of people’s lives.”


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