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by Ed Baig

At the risk of belaboring the obvious we live in highly contentious times, and this has been the state of affairs long before the insurrection that (as I write this) will almost certainly result in the second impeachment of President Trump. Social media has had much to do with this reality as anything, and though they’ve been slow to act, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other tech companies are finally cracking down on some of the most extreme and offensive offenders, including the President.

Still, it’s instructive to look back at where our collective minds were just a few months ago. On Wednesday, Pew Research Center released a revealing report on the state of online harassment in September, when the random survey of 10,093 U.S. adults was conducted.

Among the rather disturbing top-line results, roughly four of ten Americans said they personally experienced online harassment with half of these folks believing they were targeted because of their politics. About a fourth reported having experienced at least one among the most severe forms of this abuse.

Indeed, while the overall prevalence of online harassment stayed the same as it was in 2017, the abuse associated with the people targeted has intensified since then.

What is online harassment? Pew defines online harassment as fitting into one of six distinct behaviors: offensive name calling, purposeful embarrassment, stalking, physical threats, harassment over a sustained period of time, and sexual harassment. The latter four behaviors on the list are considered the “more severe” group.

Beyond politics, many people who said they were harassed online believe it was due to their gender or their racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Most the recent abuse—accounting for 75%–takes place on social media, with 79% of respondents claiming the companies tackling the issue are doing only a “fair” or “poor” job on their platforms. Still, only a third of the people who have been harassed or bullied believe victims should be able to sue the platforms on which the harassment occurred.

Other findings: Online harassment is common among adults under 30, with 64% having experienced some form of the behaviors measured in the Pew survey.

Gender also plays a role, with men (43%) more likely than women (38%) to have experienced harassment. But the types of harassment differ. About 35% of men say they’ve been called an “offensive name” compared to 26% of women. But women by a margin of 16% to 5% are more likely to report being sexually harassed online than males.

What’s more, the share of women who reported being sexually harassed in the survey has doubled since 2017. A third of women under 35 are in this group compared with 11% of males in the same age group.

Meanwhile, 54% of Blacks and 47% of Hispanics say they were harassed because of their race or ethnicity. Only 17% of whites said the same.

Pew also points out that “online harassment” is a subjective term. Thus, 43% said they considered their recent experience to indeed be online harassment but 36% said otherwise. Another 21% weren’t sure.

How do you fix it? A lasting question is what policies would help combat online harassment? Just over half of the respondents said permanently suspending users if they bully or harass others would be an effective policy. Forty-eight percent said requiring users to disclose their real identities would be effective, while 43% recommended criminal charges for users who bully or harass. Only a third thought temporarily suspending offenders would be a very effective remedy.

What do you think would lower the temperature and reduce online harassment?

Email: [email protected]; Follow @edbaig on Twitter

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