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Harassment Now a ‘Feature’ of Online Life, Report Finds

Those dealing with online harassment can, perhaps, find some comfort in the fact that they aren't alone.

A new survey from the Pew Research Center found that around four in 10 Americans (41 percent) have personally experienced online harassment, up from 35 percent in 2014. What's more, the survey of 4,248 US adults also found that 66 percent of Americans have witnessed these behaviors directed at others.

"To borrow an expression from the technology industry, harassment is now a 'feature' of life online for many Americans," Maeve Duggan, a research associate at the Pew Research Center's Internet Project, wrote in a Tuesday blog post. "In some cases, these experiences are limited to behaviors that can be ignored or shrugged off as a nuisance of online life, such as offensive name-calling or efforts to embarrass someone."

Pew attitudes toward online harassment vary by genderHowever, nearly one in five Americans (18 percent) have experienced more severe forms of online harassment, such as physical threats, continuous attacks over an extended period, sexual harassment, or stalking.

The survey also found that harassers often focus on a victim's political views, physical appearance, gender, and/or race. Some 14 percent of US adults said they have been harassed online because of their political views.

Sixty-two percent of Americas consider online harassment to be a major problem, Pew found. Just 5 percent don't consider it to be a problem at all.

"When asked who should be responsible for policing or preventing abuse online, Americans assign responsibility to a variety of actors—most prominently, online companies and platforms," Duggan wrote.

Around eight out of 10 Americans (79 percent) say online services like Facebook and Twitter "have a responsibility to step in when harassing behavior occurs on their platforms," the survey found. Thirty-one percent believe stronger laws are needed to address the problem.

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Twitter has been criticized for not adequately responding to online harrassment. "We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years," former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said plainly in 2015. Twitter has since made a number of changes, from a "quality filter" and the ability to only see messages from those you follow to, more recently, the option to disable notifications from people who don't follow you and/or those with a new account.

But abuse exists on all internet platforms, from the comments on news stories to those on YouTube, Reddit, Instagram, and more; all three platforms have put in place restrictions to cut down on inappropriate commentary.

Duggan pointed out that online harassment "can have profound real-world consequences, ranging from mental or emotional stress to reputational damage or even fear for one's personal safety." She added that people don't even need to be harassed directly to experience an impact. Twenty-seven percent of Americans said witnessing the online harassment of others has caused them to refrain from posting something while 13 percent have stopped using an online service altogether. Eight percent said they have been "very anxious" after observing these negative behaviors online.

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