Nonprofit launches survey to analyze online harassment

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on July 5, 2013

From The News Desk

Online harassment is not a new problem, but how much is it growing? And what kinds of harassment persist in this day and age? Nonprofit organization WithoutMyConsent is trying to answer these questions based on hard data. So this week the group released a short survey asking anyone over 18 who has experienced online harassment in some way to take part.

WithoutMyConsent, founded by California-based lawyers Colette Vogele and Erica Johnstone, works to "combat online invasions of privacy," according to the website, as well as provide resources to both attorneys and survivors. While there is some data looking into cyber stalking and harassment, much of it is out of date. In addition, many polls and surveys focus on the numbers and not necessarily the specifics of the harassment.

Online harassment is a broad category and can include cyberstalking, breaches of privacy  or tarnishing a person's reputation. Studies indicate it is also common while traversing national boundaries and age groups. One study that looked at children in the US, UK, Germany, Australia and Spain, estimated that 90% of minors report having been abused in some way on the internet, with half claiming they were affected by the threats and 19% of parent asking for help for their children who became either angry, apathetic, or violent. Another found that about a quarter of college students polled had been attacked and verbally harassed online or been sent inappropriate material of a sexual nature without their consent. During their time in school these students will, it is believed, run into more sexually harassing speech online than in face-to-face encounters.

This cyberharassment permeates gaming, with one study finding that 63% of women polled have been harassed while playing games online. For example, there's the case of Anita Sarkeesian, who launched a Kickstarter campaign to research the "tropes vs women in videogames." Despite the campaign being completely voluntary, Sarkeesian found her various online pages bombarded with misogynistic and racist comments, a case that garnered some press. Meanwhile, Facebook is rife with this kind of toxic behavior, including one instance of a teenager who sued the social network over cyberbullying while others have been driven to suicide. The volunteer organization Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA) reports that it receives 50 to 75 reports of online harassment per week.

You have to go back some years for any hard data, though. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that 850,000 people in 2006 were victims of stalking, with a large percentage occurring online – email threats, revenge sites, and chat room harassment. The Department of Justice, in a 2009 report, revealed that 26,000 people are stalked via GPS every year.

This dearth of data explains WithoutMyConsent's interest, with a lot, maybe most, of this online assholiness perpetrated by anonymous trolls, which has engendered debate over whether online monikers should be banned on social media platforms. In this regard, Vogele is firmly in the anti-anonymity camp.

Vogele wants to use her organization's survey to debunk myths she's encountered when discussing online harassment. There is, she says, a frequent argument that downplays online harassment. "A concrete example is criticized for being a 'one-off' circumstance," she wrote on her blog. Her fear is that this assumes online harassment to not be a systemic problem.

Of course curbing online anonymity will probably not stop stop online harassment. But WithoutMyConsent hopes this new survey will contextualize anecdotal claims, as well as highlight the necessity to deal with online harassment.

The more data it receives, the more understanding it'll have about this hidden, yet pervasive problem.

[Image from Welcome to the Dollhouse]