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More Americans are being harassed online because of their race, religion, or sexuality

More Americans are being harassed online because of their race, religion, or sexuality


Facebook has the highest incidents of harassment

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Online harassment remains one of the internet’s hardest problems to fix, and new data suggests the problem is only getting worse for minority groups. According to a representative survey of American citizens conducted by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), some 35 percent of respondents reported being harassed online because of their racial, religious, or sexual identity; a three percent increase compared to last year’s data.

Overall harassment not related to the individual’s identity was also higher for these groups. LGBTQ+ respondents reported the highest levels of harassment, with 65 percent of these respondents saying they’d been harassed online, followed by 42 percent of Muslim respondents, and 37 percent of African-American respondents. The most common perceived reason for harassment, though, was the target’s political views, with 55 percent of respondents who had been harassed citing this as the motivation for their antagonists.

Overall harassment fell compared to 2019

But the survey also found that overall harassment seems to be dropping, with 44 percent reporting being harassed online compared to 53 percent last year. Incidents of “severe harassment,” which includes sexual harassment, doxing, physical threats, and stalking, also fell from 37 percent to 28 percent. And although harassment of LGBTQ+ individuals was the highest of any group, it had still fallen from 76 percent last year.

“So, while it may be ‘safer’ to live online in general this year as compared to last, ultimately, it is harder and less safe to be online as a member of a marginalized group,” write the survey’s authors. “Specifically, LGBTQ+ individuals, Muslims, Hispanics or Latinos, and African-Americans faced especially high rates of identity-based discrimination.”

A chart showing how different demographics reported incidents of harassment and severe harassment, which includes doxing, physical threats, and stalking.
Image: ADL

The survey is based on a representative sample of around 2,000 Americans and is the first annual follow-up to the ADL’s 2019 report Online Hate and Harassment: The American Experience. As the survey’s authors note, data regarding online harassment is particularly relevant at a time when a global pandemic has forced more people to work from home while simultaneously disrupting the jobs of social media moderators. Reports suggest a greater reliance on automated moderation systems leads to more mistakes, though the survey was conducted before the pandemic hit.

“This survey represents a snapshot of a moment in time prior to the coronavirus pandemic and the death of George Floyd, and we believe that if the same survey were conducted today even more people might report negative online experiences,” said ADL CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt in a press statement. “Severe online harassment was a significant problem before, and in our current climate, it’s even more important for platforms and policymakers to take action.”

Facebook was the most common host of online harassment

Of the online platforms covered by the report, Facebook was found to have the highest incidents of harassment, in both absolute terms and as a percentage of daily users. 77 percent of respondents who’d been harassed online said that at least some of the harassment had taken place on Facebook, up from 56 percent last year. The next most common platforms for harassment were Twitter (27 percent), YouTube (21 percent), and Instagram (20 percent).

The survey also found that respondents overwhelmingly (79 percent) wanted social media companies to do more about tackling online harassment. The biggest problem, though, does not seem to be the policies these companies maintain, but their willingness and ability to enforce them. As we’ve seen with reports about the work of moderators at companies like Facebook, the job is an extremely draining one that some of the richest companies in the world seem unwilling to support through proper training and resources.

In addition to proper enforcement, the ADL recommends new tools for users that make it easier to flag multiple incidents of harassment, and “regularly scheduled external, independent audits” of platforms to make it clear how their policies are affecting users. Until companies put in more effort, the hate that grows on their platforms will continue.