Online harassment and real harm: How to fix the biggest web bug
PROVIDENCE (RI) — This should have been a celebration. Brittan Heller would soon be graduating from college and heading to one of the country’s most prestigious law schools.
He turned his anger on Heller after a classmate who had unrequited feelings for him was denied admission to the same school. He created a manifesto entitled “A stupid b—h to attend Yale Law School” that he posted on a popular site for anonymous trolls. He urged them to do their worst.
Soon, strangers began to make derogatory and sexually explicit comments about her and posted her photos online. They threatened her. They posted her personal information. Heller was taken to class by FBI agents.
People say “Oh, log off.” It’s not worth reading. Heller said, “Don’t read it.” Heller turned her 15-year-old personal experience into a legal specialty and is a recognized expert in online harassment. “This is the 21st century and everyone has the right to use the internet to do their work, to have fun, or to express themselves. It is not enough to tell people not read comments. This problem is not being discussed enough. Online toxicity can be seen everywhere, from teen cyberbullying to authoritarian governments that silence dissent to teen cyberbullying, and women, teens, and religious and racial minority groups being most at risk.
There is also evidence that the problem is only getting worse.
In 2014, 15% of Americans claimed they had experienced severe or significant online abuse. This included stalking, harassment, and sexual harassment. According to Pew Charitable Trusts studies, the percentage was 25% by 2021.
Journalists, teachers, police, and government workers all reported an increase in harassment online in the last year. This is because of the political polarization and pandemic that has led to many people venting their anger and fear online.
A survey conducted by UNESCO/the International Center for Journalists found that nearly three quarters of female journalists had received threats or other forms online harassment. The survey surveyed more than 700 journalists from more than 100 countries. One fifth of respondents said that harassment escalated to physical abuse and assault.
With the growth of the internet, there are many more ways people can be targeted. This includes email, social media posts, direct messaging, and streaming video. With the advent of smartphones and the ubiquitous internet, harassment is now possible 24-7.
“We’ve made so many strides — there’s more awareness now — but it’s easy to get frustrated and to feel like we’ve gotten nowhere,” said Tina Meier, who started a foundation to teach kids and parents about online harassment after her daughter’s suicide in 2006.Thirteen-year-old Megan Meier had been bullied by someone she met online who she thought was a teenage boy named Josh. They had been having a relationship until the other person turned against Megan. “Everybody hates your,” Josh wrote. “The world would not be the same without you.”
Later, police discovered that Josh was an adult woman and the mother to Megan’s classmate.
Although online harassment is widespread, polls indicate that all people are vulnerable to it. However, extensive research shows that women and people from minority backgrounds are more likely to be targeted. This is true even for those with disabilities, members of religious minorities, and members the LGBTQ community.
Pew found that online harassment is more common in women than it was for men. Pew found that women are more likely than men to report being victims of online harassment, as well as more severe abuses like threats of physical harm.
This is because many men don’t understand the gravity of the sexualized insults, demeaning language and unwanted attention women face online. Gamergate is a coordinated harassment campaign against female game designers that started in 2014. It included threats of rape and torture as well as murder. Some women even hired security or fled to hide.
Online harassment is also used to harass journalists, dissidents, and other public figures around the world.
Maria Cardona, a political consultant, began to receive snide emails and direct messages after she started voicing her views on national news programs. Many of her critics focus on the notion that a Latina woman can be considered an authority in politics.
One message was: “I hope that you are raped, and have your throat cut.”
Cardona said, “They want us to shut up, they want scare us, and they want us to intimidate them.” She now locks her office after someone accosted her.
Anonymity can allow you to be cruel and not fear of any offline consequences. This phenomenon is known as the online disinhibition effects. It’s why trolls are able to say things that they wouldn’t say to someone face-to-face.
She asked for a meeting with her harassers as part of a 2009 settlement in Heller’s case against them. One was a 17 year old boy who posted that he would like to gouge Heller’s eyes out and have sexual relations with her corpse.
Heller recalls that “they all basically said the same thing: they didn’t realize that their actions were affecting a person in such a way, and that they didn’t realize that there was someone on the other end of the screen.” “And they all said, “I am so sorry.”
In 1999, California passed the first national law against cyberbullying. Since then, most other states have followed California’s lead. It can be difficult to enforce because the lines between harassment or free speech can sometimes be blurred. Many times, resources and training are not available to police or prosecutors.
According to tech companies, they are improving their ability to identify and stop harassment. Instagram, owned by Meta, a parent company of Facebook, has made several changes to reduce harassment. These include warning labels for abusive language, making it easier to report and block harassers, as well as making it easier to report them.
These moves aren’t enough. Frances Haugen, a former employee of Facebook, leaked internal documents that show that executives are well aware of the possibility that their products could be used to harass others. According to one internal study, 13.5% of teenage girls said that Instagram makes it more difficult to suicidal thinking and 17% said it makes it worse.
Online harassment is a problem that affects everyone, but it’s particularly problematic for children,” Natalie Bazarova, a Cornell University professor who studies social media, said.
She stated that a multi-faceted approach was required to address the problem. This includes legislation to require minimal safeguards from tech companies, technological innovations, and extensive education efforts such as simulations to teach teens how to spot cyberbullying.
There are technical solutions that include automatic systems that flag posts for signs or harassing language, such as all-capital letters and repetitive phrases. Or instituting a brief delay before users can reply to posts to give them time to cool down.
Heller stated that the internet, despite its “awkward age”, is not the first invention that has changed how people communicate.
She said that similar comments were made about the telegraph, telephone, and television. They all seemed to be saying they would ruin society. “They all were regulated around 25 years into their lives. These regulations didn’t endanger the telephone, television or radio.