Pew Survey Finds Disagreement Over Online Harassment

Gender gap emerges in perceptions, but some actions clearly cross line with respondents

With the discussion around what qualifies as sexual harassment intensifying as the #MeToo movement expands, what qualifies as online harassment appears less clear, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

The Pew Research Center survey found that while respondents agreed that direct personal threats are clearly harassment, they disagree over whether unkind messages or sharing private conversations also qualify as harassment.

Pew presented the following scenario: “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.”

It then asked respondents where in that scenario the harassment began. Only 3% said the initial disagreement was harassment. A strong minority (43%) said the unkind messages were harassment; while 17% said harassment began with sharing her post with the blogger followers. The vulgar messages were clearly harassment, per 85% of the respondents, and 84% said including sexual images was harassment, while 85% said threatening messages were as well.

While there was agreement on some online behaviors that cross the line, there is less agreement on whether it is the role of the online platform to step in.

A gender divide over the issue was clear in the survey results. While 24% of women considered the blogger sharing the info as harassment, only 9% of men agreed. Half of the women surveyed viewed the unkind messages as harassment, while only 35% of the men did.

Only 20% said the social media site should address unkind messages, while two-thirds said platforms should intervene when users are targeted by vulgar messages about sexual behavior and looks.

Social media's role in policing their sites has become a big issue in Washington as legislators try to figure out how to address sexual trafficking or terrorist recruiting on the internet without censoring content or requiring social media sites to become content police themselves, liable for every post, which those sites say threatens the social media business model, as well as speech.

The report was based on data from March 13-27, 2017, among 4,151 respondents. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.7 percentage points. 

Pew had released data from the survey on online harassment in July, but had not included this portion. Asked if the timing of the release was tied to the spotlight on at the issue of sexual harassment in recent weeks, a spokesperson said no, that this was an ancillary part of the survey, and the release had to do with its "research schedule."