The darkest side of online harassment: Menacing behavior

The darkest side of online harassment: Menacing behavior

The darkest side of online harassment: Menacing behavior

The FINANCIAL -- Forty percent of adult internet users have personally experienced some kind of online harassment, most of it involving things like name-calling or attempts to embarrass someone. But there are also more menacing forms of harassment such as physical threats, and today, the Supreme Court will hear a case that weighs when threatening speech on social media breaks the law, according to Pew Research Center.

The case involves a Pennsylvania man who had been convicted of making violent threats on Facebook against his estranged wife and others. The argument pits prosecutors against free speech advocates over whether the man’s posts constituted a “true threat” or whether it was “protected speech” under the First Amendment.

The case mirrors similar issues being wrestled with in the online world. Our recent study of online harassment noted, “At a basic level, there is no clear legal definition of what constitutes ‘online harassment.’ Traditional notions of libel, slander, and threatening speech are sometimes hard to apply to the online environment.”

The two most common forms of online harassment for both men and women are being called offensive names or being personally embarrassed, according to a survey we conducted last spring. The more serious forms of harassment are less frequent: 10% of men and 6% of women said they had been physically threatened on online platforms and similar shares said they had been harassed for a sustained period of time, stalked or sexually harassed, according to Pew Research Center.

Another Pew Research study showed there are clearly times when social media activity does spill into the real world with harmful consequences, including physical fights, family feuds, and disputes that caused them trouble at work.

Young women (ages 18 to 24) are particularly vulnerable to some of the more serious forms of online harassment, according to our 2014 survey. They are significantly more likely to say they have been stalked or sexually harassed than men, although roughly equal shares of both men and women say they have been physically threatened or were victims of sustained harassment.

The survey also probed internet users on incidents of harassment that they witnessed online: About a quarter (24%) said they had seen someone being physically threatened, 19% reported seeing sexual harassment and 18% saw incidents of stalking. Another quarter said they had witnessed someone being harassed for sustained periods of time online.

About 5% of those who said they were victims of harassment reported the problem to law enforcement while another 22% reported the person responsible to the website or online service they were using. (The Telecommunications Act of 1996 does not hold website administrators liable for content posted by users.)

Victims have a range of reactions to online harassment: 28% said they found it extremely or very upsetting, while 52% regarded it as just a little or not at all upsetting, with the remainder characterizing it as “somewhat” upsetting, according to Pew Research Center.