Under the safety blanket of the internet, all it takes is a quick click of a button to say something you might not say in person.
A new Pew Research study shows about 4 in 10 Americans have personally experienced some form of online harassment. Of those people, the largest number said they were targeted for their political views.
“The trend that online harassment is not only increasing but increasing in severity is really alarming. I don't think anyone who's been the target of that would be surprised to hear it,” said Dr. Kim Gorgens, a psychology expert and professor at the University of Denver.
Those severe threats include things like offensive name calling, physical threats, and sexual harassment.
“What we’ve seen is a growth in online hate, which is really accelerating faster than the growth of social media itself. Part of that is because the hate has been normalized,” said Dr. Andrew Oboler, CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute. “Traditionally, whenever we’ve seen depressions and other stressors on society, people want someone to blame.”
Dr. Oboler said more people are spending more time online due to the pandemic, and these stressors are making hate more common.
“The growth of online hate, part of it is just natural growth,” he said. “But what we’ve really been seeing is a growth far above that. So, we’ve been seeing hate becoming an increasingly large percentage of all online discussion.”
And all that negative talk isn’t good or any of us.
“It’s not uncommon for people to have really clinically significant syndromes after that harassment, so not only will folks withdraw from social media, but also the kinds of depression and anxiety and fearfulness that accompany this relentless harassment can take a real toll,” Dr. Gorgens said. “If you take people’s faces and names away from the debate, a really hot-spirited debate, it's sure to devolve into ugliness.”
People can hide behind fake names and fake pictures. And in some instances, these social media platforms can only do so much to prevent it.
“Platforms have their rules, they have their terms of service, they have their community standards. The people promoting hate have gotten really good at walking right up to the line, spitting over the line, and leaving it for their followers in their comments and replies to give it that extra push,” Dr. Oboler said. “The platforms are far less effective at weeding out those sorts of comments and that secondary level of discussion.”
The Pew study shows 8 in 10 Americans said social media companies are doing only a fair or poor job of addressing online harassment.
“I don’t think the law is there. I don’t think the law has caught up to the internet,” said Jeffry Dougan, Founder of Marathon Law.
He said he has had an influx of calls from people about potential online harassment cases.
“It’s not going to be government that's going to be the only solution here. I think the government has a role to play, but I think the tech companies have a huge role to play.”
As discussion of responsibility and law continue, especially those surrounding privacy and protection, these experts say there are things you can do now to reduce your risk of being harassed online. A simple way to start is by making your profiles more private, although that may not be an option for everyone.
“Harassment, especially online harassment, isn’t at all about the content, but it's about the intended effect. First recognize when you are being harassed. People may have a false sense of that threshold being somehow much higher,” Dr. Gorgens said.
“Sometimes you need to walk away and take a breath. Just from a mental health perspective, that's the most important immediate thing people can do,” Dr. Oboler said.