The Trolling Epidemic, Quantified

Catherine Devine, 22, reads instant messages on her laptop screen at her home in Kings Park, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2011. Devine had her first brush with an online bully in seventh grade, before she’d even ventured onto the Internet. (AP caption) CREDIT: AP/KATHLEEN MALONE-VAN DYKE
Catherine Devine, 22, reads instant messages on her laptop screen at her home in Kings Park, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2011. Devine had her first brush with an online bully in seventh grade, before she’d even ventured onto the Internet. (AP caption) CREDIT: AP/KATHLEEN MALONE-VAN DYKE

Online harassment is everywhere, all of the time. At least that is how it feels, if it’s happening to you: turn on your phone, open your laptop, sit down at your desk, and there it is again. It could be offensive names, slurs, vitriol; naked photos stolen and shared; private information leaked to the public; threats that you will be stalked, raped, killed.

Anecdotal evidence and a handful of highly visible cases have been, for the most part, the methods we have to measure the nature, quantity and impact of internet abuse. But yesterday, the Pew Research Center released its first study on online harassment, based on findings from a month-long survey of nearly 3,000 internet users.

I called up Maeve Duggan, research analyst on this report, for insight into the data. This study is something of a first for the organization, she said. “In the past, we’ve done research more generally on kindness and cruelty online. So it built on some of that research but also took into account that, this year, there’s really been a culmination of attention paid to the issue. We thought it was a good time to take a deeper dive and put some figures into the conversation.” The study defined witnessing and experiencing online harassment by six elements, ranging from name-calling to sexual harassment and stalking.

Some basics to get started: 40 percent of internet users have experienced online harassment and 73 percent have witnessed it. Men and women “have slightly different experiences,” said Duggan. “Men are more likely to experience harassment overall, and they are more likely to experience less severe forms of harassment: name calling and embarrassment. Young women were particularly likely to experience stalking and sexual harassment. Among female internet users 18 to 24 years old, 26 percent have been stalked and 25 percent have been sexually harassed online. That is significant not only compared to their same-age male peers, but women who are older.”

How to account for that discrepancy? Some of it is lifestyle — 18 to 24 year olds are more likely to be in high school or college, where social circles are smaller and bullying is more rampant — and some of it is likely due to usage, as younger people spend more time using different online services, like social media, where many respondents cite encountering their most recent incident of online harassment. The study adds that young women “do not escape the heightened rates of physical threats and sustained harassment common to their male peers and young people in general.”


The study tried to account for race, Duggan said: “Overall, we did find that Hispanics and African-Americans were more likely than white internet users to experience harassment overall, 51 percent of Hispanics and 54 percent of African-Americans compared with 34 percent of white internet users.” But much of the survey leaves that information out, dividing respondents only by gender and age. “Many of the subsequent questions that made up the bulk of the survey were then asked of people who had been harassed online. Unfortunately, by then, there wasn’t a big enough sample size to say anything statistically significant.”

I asked if the study considered sexual orientation as a factor; via a follow-up email, Duggan confirmed that “we did not ask about sexual orientation.”

Only five percent of respondents who identified as having been victims of online harassment reported the incidents to the police. When I asked Duggan why she thought that number was so low, she sent me to Danielle Citron, law professor at University of Maryland and author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace. The fact that this number is so small? “It’s not deeply surprising,” she said. “Because law enforcement just often dissuades people. They don’t take it seriously. They say, ‘we don’t get how to figure out how to find these people. Turn the computer off, boys will be boys.’ They often just don’t get the technology, and they don’t get the law… I think law enforcement often just doesn’t have the expertise and training, and they get intimidated by technology, so they discourage victims from reporting.”

The stat reminded me of how few rape victims report their assaults to the police, for many of the same reasons: internalized guilt, discomfort with a mostly older, male police force, a belief that they will be doubted, misunderstood, and dismissed. Citron agreed: “I think it’s the same subset of people who know that, when it comes to gendered harms, that they’re going to be ignored. And that’s been historically true; anytime we have a gendered harm that women experience more often than men, like rape, part of it is blame, part of it is the internal lesson that if ‘I say anything no one will take it seriously.’ And there is something to that: who you are reporting to is not going to feel comfortable, because they’re men who you may feel embarrassed around. And you also have this cultural understanding that if you do report, you’re going to be dismissed.”

Some of the Pew findings feel a little quantifying-the-obvious. For instance, those who have witnessed harassment of others were likely to be the target of harassment themselves: 53 percent of those who witnessed harassment also experienced it. But that structure — of the cause and effect — reads backwards. It’s not that people who witness harassment are more likely to experience it, but that people who are harassed are more likely to be aware of the harassment of others.


Citron seconded that idea. “They won’t be able to see it if they’re not attuned to it, and most people are not. And if it’s not your experience… if it’s not your frame of mind to be thinking about these things, you don’t see it.”

The internet is ostensibly a neutral place, a wild west bastion of free speech where you can say and do anything you want. And yet when issues arise regarding those who are victims of online abuse and those who abuse, that freedom seems to fall on the side of people who hurl slurs on Twitter and post revenge porn; the barely-existent laws that govern the internet rarely take into account the chilling effect that offensive and violent speech can have on its victims who are, in turn, silenced. (The most recent law upon which we rely here is the mostly-struck-down Communications Decency Act of 1996, a statute tacked onto the Telecommunications Act of 1934. We are, in essence, using the Oregon Trail Rules of the Road to regulate a rocketship.) These platforms that we use — Facebook, Twitter, Google — were created and engineered by white men, the group least likely to experience the most aggressive forms of online harassment. Is the internet designed, inadvertently or otherwise, to be hostile to everyone who isn’t white and male?

“You’re not making this up,” Citron said. “Amanda Hess’s piece [on online harassment] talks about this, too. You are not out of your mind. I think it’s an important insight that Facebook and Google and Twitter, most of their employees are male. And that’s true of Silicon Valley, generally speaking> So the idea that these tools aren’t built with some of these gendered harms in mind, it’s not an outlandish idea.”

Citron said that she’s noticed “over the past 18 months” a shift in the way we define free speech on the internet: Websites “were very strong, ‘we’re a speech platform, we’re not a monitor, we do not regulate, we only respond when it’s impersonation or spam.’ Now that’s changed. We’re seeing the marginalization of victims. They say they’re a speech platform; they should think about the speech of people being attached. My sense is, it’s a really work in progress for them.”

“On the other hand, sites that are absolutely so hostile to women, they don’t care at all. They are in the business of abuse and are proud to say they’re immune from liability. So there is a spectrum that I think is important to recognize. But I think the insight that, if you really think about who is building these systems, the engineers, they are not largely female. Science and technology, women have been falling like flies in the past ten years… These fields have a serious women problem. It’s not that [women] don’t major in those fields, but when they go into them after they graduate, they don’t stay. They have kids and don’t come back and it’s not because they want to be moms; it’s because there’s so much sexual harassment. They’re hostile environments.”

The Pew study has numbers on how “welcoming” different “online neighborhoods” are to men and women. An (I think) astonishingly high number of people consider the entire internet, basically, to be equally as inviting and tolerant of women as of men. The only place respondents cited as less welcoming to women (the phrasing, too, is quite innocuous: “less welcoming” not “actively hostile”) was online gaming, and even there, 51 percent of internet users responded that the online gaming community is “equally welcoming” to women as to men. Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, Gamergate: apparently not a sign of some great and awful disparity between the way men and women are “welcomed” in the world of online gaming.

While the Pew study tracked victims and witnesses of harassment, participants were not asked if they themselves perpetrated online harassment. Coming just from the victim side, it was tricky to determine anything about the offenders: “Half of the respondents didn’t know the person; it was either a stranger or someone whose identity they didn’t know,” said Duggan.


But why focus on the victims, if victims aren’t the problem? “Why are the harassers understudied? No one cops to being a harasser, because it’s a criminal liability,” said Citron. “If someone said to me, interview harassers, I have no idea who they are… There are some studies speaking to the gender of harassers, and what we do know is that the majority of harassers are male, though I don’t think that’s a for sure statistic. Women harass women in sexually embarrassing ways. We’ve seen numerous cases of that. Stalking lines up, if we were to borrow from just plain stalking law: the majority of the perpetrators are male. And there are studies that say half of the people think they’re being stalked and targeted by groups, not individual harassers.” (Actually, it seems like it’s really easy to spot harassers, even though no one self-identifies as one. When Regina George stands in the gym to say, “We don’t have a clique problem at our school,” Regina is the clique problem.)

Yet in part because of the high-profile horror cases, it feels like we’re reaching something of a tipping point: outrage on behalf of the harassed and the photo-hacked is gaining traction as the “but free speech means I can tell this girl who disagrees with me that I’ll rape her corpse” contingent loses ground. Revenge porn, said Citron, “is a business model. There are over 40 sites, they have advertisers, they charge for the takedown of photos.” In other words, they’re not just some quiet, easily-dismissable fringe faction anymore.

“We are no longer saying everything on the internet is protected speech,” Citron said. “There’s an understanding that we don’t protect defamation of private individuals, that online speech has profound effects on people’s real lives. I think this mantra of ‘all information must be free’ is now tempered with and offset by the notion that some information, when it’s threatening, can shut down speech. And it interferes with your life choices. I think we’re coming to understand that defamation about private individuals can hijack their careers. Of course we don’t protect that speech.”