One-Half of Online Harassment Victims Attributed Their Experiences to Political Differences

Pew Research Center found that people were more likely than in 2017 to report more varied types and more severe forms of abuse

Men and whites were particularly likely to attribute their online harassment experiences to their political views kbeis/iStock

Political differences are a driving force behind online harassment, as a new study from Pew Research Center found that 41% of U.S. adults have personally experienced some form of online harassment, and one-half of that group attributed that behavior to politics.

The think tank surveyed 10,093 U.S. adults online from Sept. 8 through 13, 2020, and it found that while the overall prevalence of online harassment is the same as it was in a similar survey it conducted in 2017, abuse of those targeted has intensified since then.

Pew examined six key types of negative behavior and found that 25% of respondents reported experiencing at least one of the more severe forms of online harassment—physical threats, sexual harassment, stalking or sustained harassment—up from 18% in 2017 and 15% in 2014.

Victims today were more likely than in 2017 to report more varied types and more severe forms of online abuse.

Pew found that 20% of respondents, or one-half of those who indicated that they had experienced harassment online, believe it occurred due to their political views, up from 14% in 2017, with other factors cited including gender and racial or ethnic background.

Three-quarters of targets of online abuse, or 31% of respondents overall, said that abuse occurred on social media.

Other key findings included:

  • Younger adults were more likely to experience online harassment, with 64% of respondents under 30 indicating that they had.
  • Men were more likely than women to indicate that they had experienced online harassment, at 42% and 38% of respondents, respectively, but that ratio varied depending on the type of harassment. For example, 35% of men said they were called offensive names, compared with 26% of women, and 16% of men reported being physically threatened, versus 11% of women. But women were more likely to report being sexually harassed online (16%, compared with 5% of men).
  • The share of women being sexually harassed online has doubled since 2017, and younger women are more susceptible, with 33% of women under 35 saying that they were victims, versus 11% of men in that age group.
  • Nearly one-half of women (47%) believe they were harassed online due to their gender, compared with just 18% of men.
  • Black (54%) and Hispanic (47%) respondents were far more likely to cite their race or ethnicity as reasons for experiencing harassment than white respondents (17%).
  • Men and whites were particularly likely to attribute their online harassment experiences to their political views.
  • Pew said online harassment is a subjective term, nothing that 43% of targets considered their most recent experiences to be online harassment, while 36% did not and 21% were unsure.
  • When asked about the most effective ways to combat online harassment, 51% of respondents believe permanent suspensions would be effective, while 48% opted for requiring users of social platforms to disclose their real identities. Other responses included criminal charges (43%), social networks deleting posts (40%) and temporary bans (32%).
david.cohen@adweek.com David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.
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