Online Harassment: An Overview

The prevalence of the Internet is increasing in our daily lives, especially as society is becoming more and more dependent on it. We use it to connect with others, find out what’s going on in the world, and entertain ourselves. With all the positives the Internet brings with it, there are dark sides to it as well.

Online harassment is something many young people, especially women, experience. From being objectified physically to being attacked for their opinions, the Internet is not the safest place for women.

According to a recent study by Maeve Duggan for Pew Research Center which surveyed 2,849 web users, four in ten Internet users are victims of online harassment to varying degrees of severity. The age group most likely to be harassed online is 18–29 year olds. Additionally, young women between the ages of 18 and 24 “experience certain severe types of harassment at disproportionately high levels: 26% of these young women have been stalked online, and 25% were the target of online sexual harassment.”

“I tend not to think of ‘online harassment’ as a separate category from offline harassment,” says Mary Anne Franks, an Associate Law Professor at the University of Miami School of Law, who has also been a victim of online harassment. “If harassment is a generally identifiable phenomenon, the medium in which it is expressed should not necessarily matter.” Franks defines harassment as “conduct that serves no lawful purpose and causes reasonable people to fear for their safety, severely undermines their right to engage in free expression and association, or substantially deprives them of employment, educational, or civic opportunities.”

Websites such as Ask.fm, which allows people to anonymously submit questions to the site’s registered users, has caused many young teens, both male and female, to take their own lives due to cyber bullying. One example would be of 15-year-old Ciara Pugsley from Ireland, who received messages on Ask.fm saying she was fat, ugly, had no respect for herself, and was an attention seeker. She was found dead in a wooded area near her home in 2012. According to Irish Examiner, the police “have confirmed they are investigating the online messages and the apparent cyberbullying connection to her death.”

“A lot of online harassment exists because people who, pre-Internet, would have been too lazy or too fearful of the consequences of harassing someone can now abuse massive amounts of people with a click of a button and almost no fear of being caught,” Franks says.

This year, many female journalists and gamers have been targeted for pointing out misogyny in video game culture. One of these women is independent game developer Brianna Wu. In October, upon receiving death threats via Twitter from an anonymous account that also posted her address, Wu and her husband fled their home and filed a police report.

Franks notes that these sort of cases could be prosecuted under the federal threat statute which states, “Whoever transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to kidnap any person or any threat to injure the person of another, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”

“We live in a society that’s sexist in ways it doesn’t understand. One of the consequences is that men are extremely sensitive to being criticized by women. I think it threatens them in a very primal way, and male privilege makes them feel free to lash out,” wrote Wu in an article for Polygon in July.

“Women are far more likely to be the targets of sexualized harassment, from catcalling in the street to sexist comments in the workplace to violent online threats of rape,” says Franks. “Women are far more likely to be harassed in a way that focuses on their bodies as opposed to their ideas. The reasons for this are varied, but much of it is, to put it bluntly, misogyny,” she continues.

“Revenge porn,” when someone posts nude photos of an ex online without consent, is another form of online harassment that’s often experienced by women. Hunter Moore from Sacramento, California, the founder of revenge porn site isanyoneup.com, was arrested by the FBI in January 2014. Thesmokinggun.com reports that he has been charged with conspiracy, seven counts of identity theft, and seven counts of unauthorized computer access. He faces up to five years in prison.

“We know that the vast majority of harassers generally (stalkers, street harassers, violators of restraining orders) are men,” says Franks. “Online harassment is more complicated because it’s possible to mask one’s gender, but the majority of people who have been charged with hacking, stalking, and revenge porn have been male. Acknowledging that a great deal of harassment of women is perpetrated by men is essential to understanding the dynamics of that harassment.”

Cases of hackers obtaining and distributing nude photos of celebrities can also tie in to this. In 2012, Christopher Chaney from Florida was sentenced to 10 years in prison after hacking the e-mail accounts of various celebrities, including Scarlett Johansson, whose nudes he found and posted online.

According to Franks, 11 states have recently passed laws prohibiting this behavior. Legislation has been introduced or is pending in an additional 17 states, as well as Washington DC and Puerto Rico. Other forms of harassment, such as stalking, are prohibited by both federal and state law.

“Subjecting women to unsolicited judgments about their bodies, turning women’s private sexual encounters into public entertainment, threatening women with sexual violence — all of these behaviors signify a deep and profound disrespect, fear, and hatred of women,” Franks states.

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