Survey: Americans have an extremely high bar for what constitutes online harassment

When it comes to online harassment, Americans have different ideas of where to draw the line.

According to a newly published Pew Research Center survey, Americans broadly agree that explicit personal threats are harassment, but are more divided on behaviors like publicly sharing private information or insulting the recipient with “unkind words.”

Survey: Americans have high bar for what’s online harassment

To test American attitudes of online harassment, the March survey of 4,151 U.S. adults presented respondents with a fictional scenario of escalating online interactions that had the growing potential for violence. Here’s one scenario the participants were shown:

“Julie posts on her social media account, defending one side of a controversial political issue. A few people reply to her, with some supporting and some opposing her. As more people see her post, Julie receives unkind messages. Eventually her post is shared by a popular blogger with thousands of followers, and Julie receives vulgar messages that insult her looks and sexual behavior. She also notices people posting pictures of her that have been edited to include sexual images. Eventually, she receives threatening messages.”

The vast majority — 89% — of those surveyed said that somewhere in this scenario Julie experienced harassment, but they were more divided on where the harassment had occurred. Only one in five respondents thought a blogger making Julie’s post go viral was harassment. The participants were split on whether unkind messages constituted harassment, with 43% answering that it was.

More than two-thirds of participants were willing to concede that “vulgar messages,” photoshopping Julie’s likeness to include sexual content, and explicit threats were harassment.

When the gender of the person in the scenario was changed, it did not significantly change participants’ attitudes of whether an incident of harassment had occurred. Female respondents, however, were three times more likely than male respondents to see harassment in the action of the popular blogger sharing Julie’s post.

Do Americans see personal agreements going public online as harassment? In a separate scenario where someone takes a private disagreement and shares it to a public online platform, respondents were split on whether that constituted harassment.

Americans divided on whether the platform hosting harassment has responsibility

We may broadly agree that fictional Julie experienced harassment, but we are less likely to think that a platform needs to step in to stop it. While 85% of adults surveyed said Julie receiving vulgar sexual messages was harassment, just 66% thought that the platform where the messages were being sent should intervene to address the behavior.

This survey shows us that Americans are still unclear on who should bear the weight of responsibility for stopping online harassment. If we are divided on what online harassment is, then we don’t know where protections for stopping online harassment are needed.

That aligns with journalist Amanda Hess’s research finding that police are less likely to view online harassment as a threat. Hess cites a 2009 paper that found that online harassment is more likely to be minimized and dismissed by the public as “harmless locker-room talk,” while its victims are seen as “overly sensitive complainers.”

When police and social media platforms are not seen as responsible authorities to intervene, victims are left with the burden of deciding what is a threat. As Hess detailed in her research on gendered cyber harassment, “The victim faces a psychological dilemma: How should she understand her own fear?”