Thanks to social media, we can talk about current affairs with people all over the world. Users flock to Facebook and Twitter daily to share stories and engage others in debate. But more discourse also means more opportunity for conversations to spiral out of control.
A recent study from the Pew Research Center showed that approximately 14 percent of adults have experienced harassment or abuse because of their political views. Regardless of political views, most adults see online harassment as a problem: 69 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of Republicans.
No matter what their political affiliation, more women than men view online harassment as a major problem. Sixty-three percent of female Republicans said it’s a problem compared to 45 percent of male Republicans, while 75 percent of female Democrats see it as a problem compared to 62 percent of their male counterparts.
Katie Hawkins-Gaar works for The Poynter Institute and writes The Cohort, a newsletter on women in journalism. For women, online harassment has been a problem ever since the dawn of the online comment section, she said. Real life gender roles have exacerbated an online power struggle.
“In our society, women traditionally are in, or are considered to be in, lower positions of power than men,” Hawkins-Gaar said to Rewire. “They suffer discrimination and a lack of respect as a result. The good news is that the balance is starting to shift. The bad news is that some men act out in other forums, such as online trolling. It seems like online trolling is, for some men, a (horrendous and damaging) way to try and take back that power.”
That has impacted whose voices are being heard in online debates. Hawkins-Gaar said that women are outnumbered 3 to 1 when it comes to commenting on news online. The more harassment is taking place, the less likely people are to interact or respond to comments.
“(It’s) easy for voices who are harassing to drown out other voices,” Hawkins-Gaar said.
Sometimes, this abuse is directed toward female journalists themselves. Some news readers will use the comment section or social media to attack the intelligence and appearance of female reporters rather than engage in a debate with other readers.
Many journalists use Twitter and other platforms to inform and engage their followers on news and other events. It’s difficult to know when to leave the role of the objective informer to defend yourself, Hawkins-Gaar said.
“For female journalists, it’s hard to balance the responsibility of interacting and when to break away,” she said. “That is a constant challenge.”
Harassment is a problem embedded in the culture of social media, she said, and social networks don’t have it all figured out yet.
Obviously we’re all adults responsible for our own actions online. But when do the social networks themselves have a responsibility to step in?
A majority of Republicans and Democrats say platform officials should step in when harassment occurs, according to the Pew study, but Republicans are more likely than Democrats to suggest platforms should not be held responsible for the abuse.
Democrats are more likely than Republicans to suggest online platforms and elected officials have a responsibility for coming up with solutions to harassment.
Republicans and Democrats, however, share nearly similar thinking on fostering a safe environment online. Fifty-two percent of Republicans and 55 percent of Democrats, according to the study, say it is important that people feel safe and welcome online, while 44 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of Republicans say people should be able to freely speak their minds online.
Facebook’s policy says the network allows political debate but do not bullying or harassment based on political views. In a blog post on Twitter’s website, General Manager for Consumer Product and Engineering Ed Ho said Twitter users are experiencing “significantly less abuse” than they were six months ago, based on commitments made by the social network this past January. (A spokesperson for Facebook, reached by email, said the social network had no comment on the Pew study. Twitter didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
Last summer, a high-profile debate about the responsibility of social media companies bloomed after “Ghostbusters” actor Leslie Jones reported a wave of racist and sexist abuse she experienced on Twitter following the release of the remake.
Ho wrote in his post that Twitter took action on 10 times the number of abusive tweeters this year that it did last year, as well as placing suspensions on more abusive accounts every day. The company also set up a Trust and Safety Council to help combat online harassment.
“Online safety is an issue best solved in partnership with others, so we’ll continue to collaborate with our Trust and Safety Council, industry experts, and academics to solicit ongoing feedback,” Ho wrote. “We are committed to making Twitter a safe place for free expression.”
Hawkins-Gaar said more can be done by social networks.
“I want to believe them but it’s a huge problem,” Hawkins-Gaar said. “There is no one easy solution.”
Hawkins-Gaar also offers this simple advice to users when engaging on social media: “Don’t fan the flames.”
Who can be an online troll? The answer is: anyone. What are the best ways to end online harassment?
Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist based in Minnesota and writing for publications in the U.S. and the U.K. He is an active member of the Society of Professional Journalists and serves on its Ethics Committee. When he isn’t writing, he’s either watching Jacques Pepin reruns and British TV shows, listening to public radio or planning his next story. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.