“….but it’s more important to be nice.”
That was just one of the many pearls of motherly wisdom imparted to me in childhood. And to my mother’s great credit, I have found it to be almost universally true. As time went on, however, I learned that the primary exception to the rule was a space that didn’t exist in my childhood: the cybersphere.
A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center has sought to quantify the overall lack of online manners. Pew found that 41% of survey respondents reported that they had at one time been the subject of online harassment. Some of the alleged offensives ranged from relatively minor: offensive name-calling (27%), or purposeful embarrassment (22%). Others were considerably more concerning: physical threats (10%), sustained harassment (7%), stalking (7%), and sexual harassment (6%).
The reasons for harassment vary: 14% of survey respondents reported being harassed because of their politics, 9% for their physical appearance, 8% their race or ethnicity, and 8% their gender.
As a result of being harassed or witnessing the harassment of others, many respondents changed their own behavior. Twenty-seven percent said that they decided not post something as a result, and 13% have stopped using an online service after witnessing the behavior of others.
Is there a bright spot? Perhaps this: 30% of respondents, upon witnessing harassing behavior on the part of other, took steps to intervene in some way. And while 79% believe that online services have a responsibility to take action when harassment occurs on their platform, they have significantly varying opinions about how to balance that responsibility with the public’s right to free and open speech.
The crux of the problem is the anonymity allowed by the online world. Eighty-nine percent of respondents said that the ability to be anonymous online emboldens users to harass others. More than half—54%--of those who reported being harassed indicated that the offending party was a stranger to them.
The Pew survey of 4,428 Americans was conducted between January 9 and 23, 2017, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.