The Imminent Death of the Internet Troll

A new Pew study confirms that online harassment is endemic. But human behavior—and the limits placed on it by both law and society—can change.

A new survey on online harassment confirms what many people already know: The Internet can be a mean, hateful, and frightening place—especially for young women.

In a Pew Research Center survey of 2,849 Internet users, one out of every four women between 18 years old and 24 years old reports having been stalked or sexually harassed online. Two out of five people said they'd been victims of some form of online harassment. And nearly three-quarters of responders said they'd witnessed harassment online.

Put simply, online life, from the earliest days of dialing into a BBS to new services like Yik Yak, has been marked by significant hatred and harassment of fellow users. And if you happen to be a female user of these services, it can be much, much worse.

Pew attempted to measure two broad but overlapping types of harassment: less severe harassment like name-calling and attempts to embarrass users, versus more severe forms like physical threats, harassment over a long and sustained period of time, stalking, and sexual harassment.

The findings evoke the axiom, widely attributed to Margaret Atwood: "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them." Men, on the whole, report higher rates of less severe types of harassment (with the exception of physical threats), while women are more likely to be the focus of the two most frightening forms of it: sexual harassment and stalking.

Men and Women Experience Different Varieties of Online Harassment (%)
Among all Internet users, the percent who have experienced each of the above elements of online harassment, by gender (American Trends Panel. Survey conducted May 30-June 30, 2014. n=2,839/Pew Research Center)

Young people in general, and young women in particular, are much more likely to be victims of all forms of online harassment, with over 25 percent of young women reporting being stalked or sexually harassed.

Young Women Experience Particularly Severe Forms of Online Harassment
Among all Internet users, the percent who have personally experienced the above types of online harassment, by gender and age (Pew Research Center)

But 2014 has felt like a watershed moment in how we treat online harassment. Starting with Amanda Hess's widely cited piece in The Pacific Standard, there's been a steady drumbeat of stories about not just the nature of online harassment, but how it drives many users away from participating in online life. The bundle of nightmares that is the GamerGate movement, an amorphous collection of gamers largely focused on harassing feminist game developers and critics, managed to make the front page of The New York Times. And the growing focus on the issue is part of what prompted Pew to conduct its survey on online harassment. “We watched over the past year or so at the rising of attention being paid to the issue," said Lee Rainie, Pew's director of Internet, science, and technology research.

The response to online harassment is often a combination of apathy and "Well, that's Internet for you." Victims are sometimes told they are making things up, that their harassment is an isolated incident, or that they are actively seeking the attention of online harassers.

Like banner ads and spam bots, online harassment is still routinely treated as part of the landscape of being online. Of course, many of the great annoyances of online life have slowly been fixed in the past 20 years. The torrents of spam filling your 1998-era email inbox have been largely eliminated, thanks to advances like Bayesian spam-filtering algorithms. The clutter of Google search results from the mid-'00s were wiped out after Google released a series of updates to its search engine. But ending online harassment isn't an easy tech fix. Tweaking human behavior, especially behavior masked by anonymity, is much, much tougher than adjusting an algorithm.

But human behavior—and the limits placed on it by both law and society—can change. Danielle Citron, law professor at the University of Maryland and author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, draws a parallel between how sexual harassment was treated in the workplace decades ago and our current standard. "Think about in the 1960s and 1970s, what we said to women in the workplace," Citron said. "'This is just flirting.' That a sexually hostile environment was just a perk for men to enjoy, it's just what the environment is like. If you don't like it, leave and get a new job."

It took years of activism, court cases, and Title VII protection to change that. "Here we are today, and sexual harassment in the workplace is not normal," said Citron. "Our norms and how we understand it are different now."

While Title VII is inapplicable to speech platforms like Twitter and Facebook, Citron sees hope in both those services (slowly) taking action against online harassment. Facebook now requires admins of groups deemed to be using hateful or offensive speech to publicly identify themselves. Twitter, especially after Robin Williams's daughter was driven from the service after her father's suicide, has pledged to start taking online harassment seriously. While some of these changes may be due to liability concerns, Citron believes that the two largest social networks are simply responding to market pressure.

We are in the early days of online harassment being taken as a serious problem, and not simply a quirk of online life. The likely solution will be a combination of things. The expansion of laws like the one currently on the books in California, which expands what constitutes online harassment, could help put the pressure on harassers. The upcoming Supreme Court case, Elonis v. The United States, looks to test the limits of free speech versus threatening comments on Facebook.

But there are limits to legal action. "Law can only do so much," says Citron. "It’s a blunt instrument." Which leaves societal pressure. Sexual harassment in the workplace has been greatly reduced not just because employers are suddenly liable—there's also a huge social stigma against those who sexually harass their co-workers.

It's difficult to see, in 2014, how exactly to stop an anonymous person sitting behind a keyboard from making the lives of others miserable if they so choose. Can a combination of legal action, market pressure, and societal taboo work together to curb harassment? Too many people do too much online for things to stay the way they are.